For restaurateurs, there’s strength in clusters
On Friday night, the twentysomethings in South Boston begin a familiar migratory pattern.
Head to Loco on West Broadway with the post-work crush and scan the room for a spot to snag tacos. If there’s a wait (and there typically is), the hostess will send you across the street to Lincoln, where you can grab a beer at the bar and keep an eye out for the text alert that your table is ready. Back at Loco, sip margaritas and snack on ceviche. Done early? Pinball back across the street and make the switch to wine at Capo, just a few doors down from Lincoln.
The exact triangulation might shift from week to week, but one thing is certain: No matter who covers the check, the same people are profiting, because the three hot spots all share an owner.
In fact, several restaurant groups in Boston have found their destiny in density, opening eateries in clusters along one block or square. And they’ll argue that they’re not cannibalizing their business, but building on it.
The three restaurants along West Broadway — Loco, Lincoln, and Capo — are owned by the same duo, Michael Conlon and Eric Aulenback. Together with their Loco co-owner Michael Shaw, they have helped transform a strip of Southie that only a few years ago was awash in Irish pubs, cheap pizza, and dollar stores.
Come December, they’ll expand their offerings further and open a swanky, subterranean lounge beneath Capo. An adjacent takeaway counter, featuring Italian meatball platters and lasagna trays, is scheduled to open early next year.
Clusters aren’t always intentional, said Todd Smith, the president of the Corbett Restaurant Group, a commercial real estate firm in Boston, but when they happen it can be fortuitous for all involved. Customers’ status as a “regular” is transferrable from one space to the next. Owners and chefs can share resources and staff, which can be a boon in an industry that’s facing a labor shortage. And if done well, such groupings can help shape a neighborhood.
“We see a lot of them, particularly in emerging neighborhoods, with someone seizing the opportunity to create a dining destination,” Smith said. And it can help shape careers (see: Barbara Lynch setting up shop in the South End and Fort Point, Garrett Harker reinvigorating Kenmore Square, or the Grafton Group expanding through Harvard Square).
In Davis Square, chef Joe Cassinelli saw promise in the neighborhood’s high density of students, young professionals, and families when he opened his Neapolitan pizzeria, Posto, in 2009. He began serving upscale Mexican fare at The Painted Burro down the street in 2012, and in 2015, he opened Rosebud American Kitchen & Bar, which is situated halfway between the two.
The entire cluster spans one-tenth of a mile.
Having three different landlords, leases, and concepts isn’t simple, no matter how close by they are, Cassinelli said. And things have gotten far more complicated as he’s expanded outward, with new restaurants in Waltham and Brookline.
But running a trio of restaurants alongside one another does have its perks: The Painted Burro smokes its meats in Rosebud’s kitchen. Rosebud’s pastry chef bakes her pies in Posto’s ovens. And the Rosebud’s patio is actually owned by the Painted Burro’s landlord. The sister restaurants have one reservationist, who often fields back-to-back calls as people search for a table on a Saturday night. When the manager at Posto noticed one customer had hit her 100th reservation within the group, they threw her an around-the world-dinner, ushering her among the three locations for appetizers, dinner, and dessert.
Chef Joshua Smith’s takeover of Moody Street in Waltham was a response, in part, to the fact that Boston’s public health inspectors have cracked down on chefs making their own sausages and pates. So he headed west to make, cure, and sell his own aged meats, opening Moody’s Delicatessen & Provisions in 2013 with fewer restrictions in the suburbs.
Smith’s concept quickly took off, enabling him to acquire the storefront next door and open The Backroom wine bar in 2015. This year, he opened his 10,000-square-foot New England Charcuterie meat processing operations in a warehouse just a few miles from Moody Street. And early next year, he’ll begin selling smoked meats and baked goods just a few doors down from the original deli, using the deli’s ovens for all his baking.
“We get to use the infrastructure that we already built,” Smith said. “It’s house made — it’s just house made two doors down.”
While clusters like Smith’s literally feed off each other, chef Tiffani Faison says her Fenway restaurants operate as islands, rarely interacting. She has two spots in the neighborhood, Sweet Cheeks and Tiger Mama, and will open her third, Fool’s Errand, in January.
Doubling down on one location hasn’t been without some fears and consequences. In light of events like the Marathon bombing, she said she sometimes worries about the risk of having several restaurants in close proximity.
“We have moments talking about what if something really bad happened in our neighborhood?” Faison admitted. “I would lose everything at this point in my career.”
There’s also the challenge of becoming too associated with one part of the city, as if it’s your turf.
“There is a little sort of negative connotation, like ‘She wants to own the Fenway, she wants to be the queen of the Fenway,’ ’’ she said.
It’s a reality that every restaurateur faces when they go deep in a neighborhood, said Harker, who, after setting up a cluster with Lynch in the South End, established his own a few blocks down in Kenmore Square. That’s where he now manages operations for three of his seven restaurants, Eastern Standard, Island Creek Oyster Bar, and The Hawthorne.
He said he’s always eyeing new sites, but “I would think twice about going in on the Fenway neighborhood because right now it’s got someone at the forefront in Tiffani [Faison].”
Harker said that building the original triad gave him enough visibility and a hospitality team big enough to begin expanding elsewhere. Row 34 opened in Fort Point in 2013, and in the last 18 months, he’s launched three new restaurants outside Boston, in Watertown, Burlington, and Portsmouth, N.H. (there are also plans to open one in Harvard Square next year).
And while most of the city’s cluster owners cite Harker as the best exemplar of the trend, he said he purposely chose not to leverage Eastern Standard’s success when he opened Island Creek Oyster Bar on the same block in 2010, hiring a separate public relations team and architect for the project.
But after Island Creek’s debut, sales spiked at both locations, he said, as it cemented Kenmore Square as a destination for a night out. Overflow crowds from both restaurants now spill into The Hawthorne for cocktails. Between the Kenmore cluster and the expanding portfolio of properties, there’s been lots of talk about a Harker empire.
Not that he’s ever going to call it that.
“Boston does not like empire building,” he said. To deflect the spotlight, he promotes the chefs involved with each new endeavor, and has still not named his restaurant group.
“I like to say that I’m a fear-based person. I have a fear of failure. I also have fear that I’m going to lose good people. . . . It’s balancing those two fears that have steered the course of the growth of yet-to-be-named empire,” he said.
But, he added, having a hub keeps him centered.
“Home base for me will never be my car. It will always be Kenmore Square.”