If the situation had been a little different, if Tom Kershaw hadn’t decided the deal was too much of a stretch, he might be the owner of the Parker House in Boston and that whole “Cheers” thing would have never happened.
But the young Kershaw — a few years out of Harvard Business School and frustrated after a series of corporate jobs that bored him — instead pursued a more modest investment: a tired Georgian revival town house on Beacon Street that rented guest rooms and private function space and featured a genteel “cocktail room” and a small dining room in the basement.
On June 10, Kershaw will mark the 50th anniversary of his purchase of the Hampshire House, which through a combination of business savvy and hard work remains a lucrative events venue and a popular tourist attraction long after the TV show that made it famous ended its prime time run.
Six months after he and his business partner, HBS friend Jack Veasy, closed on the property, they christened the Bull & Finch, a replica of an English pub that they had designed and built to upgrade the basement. The Bull & Finch, we all know, was the inspiration for the bar in “Cheers,” the NBC sitcom that ran from 1982 through 1993, and the producers used the exterior of the Hampshire House for interstitial shots.
That lucky break brought wave after wave of tourists to what had been a successful but small neighborhood joint, and the windfall — sales of “Cheers” T-shirts and beer mugs went through the roof — gave Kershaw the financial wherewithal to open other restaurants, take important leadership roles at local and national hospitality trade groups, and become a benefactor to Boston Common, the Freedom Trail, the Beacon Hill neighborhood, and nonprofits throughout the city.
“It’s been a good run,” Kershaw said in an interview in his fourth-floor office at the Hampshire House.
But the celebrations planned around the anniversary — invitation-only events for friends, family, employees both past and present — aren’t a last hurrah. Kershaw, 80, has turned over day-to-day operations to Markus Ripperger, his former executive chef who is now CEO of Hampshire House Corp.
Besides the Beacon Street location, where the Bull & Finch has been renamed Cheers Beacon Hill, the company has three other restaurants: 75 on Chestnut, 75 on Liberty Wharf, and Cheers Faneuil Hall.
But Kershaw still works every day and has no plans to stop.
“You’ll never get me to retire,” he said. “I get bored any time I take off from work.”
As he shows off the Hampshire House’s private function rooms and kitchen, Kershaw shuts closet doors and picks up stray pieces of paper from the floor, still the fussy and diligent proprietor after five decades in the business.
He hadn’t intended to be a restaurateur.
After graduating with a degree in engineering from Swarthmore College in 1960, Kershaw went directly to Harvard Business School. It was an unusual move; in those days, almost everyone worked for at least a few years before going for their MBA.
What was the rush?
“I knew when I was 16 what I wanted to do: study engineering, go to business school, and then go into business.”
His first job out of HBS was at chemicals giant DuPont, where he was slated to work on new product development for Tyvek, which the company had recently begun selling as a protective covering for homes and buildings under construction. But after traveling for the summer, he showed up for work in the fall of 1962 to learn that he had been given a different assignment — a DuPont material used in women’s robes and blankets. He so disliked the job that he still doesn’t like to talk about it.
Kershaw tried several other jobs without much luck. Then he met an industrial psychologist who did private consulting on the side. The psychologist gave Kershaw a lengthy test to determine the best career choice. The results showed — unambiguously — that he should go into the hospitality industry. That’s what he did.
One of the first opportunities to arise was the Parker House Hotel on School Street. After some initial analysis, Kershaw realized that it would next-to-impossible to raise enough money to bid on the property.
Not long afterward, Kershaw heard that the owner of the Hampshire House was looking to sell. He and Veasy dropped by on a Sunday. The owner was behind the bar; the place was empty. They could tell the building — built in 1910 — needed a lot of work, and business wasn’t good. Still, they saw an opportunity. The town house had good bones and a great location, so the downside seemed limited. It could always be renovated and resold at a profit, he figured.
After the offer was accepted Kershaw and Veasy took a trip to Bermuda, where they visited the Hog Penny, a traditional English pub. “That piqued our interest.”
The Hog Penny is still in business and bills itself as the “original inspiration for the Cheers pub in Boston.”
The partners decided their first strategic move would be to overhaul the basement and open a Hog Penny-style establishment. Veasy went to London, but he couldn’t find any appropriate used pub furnishings or equipment for sale. But he did hook up with a company that could build them a new pub.
They found an architect in Montreal who had designed pubs for Whitbread, a major pub owner in the UK. Their pub was built in Britain, shipped to Boston in pieces, and installed by two English craftsmen flown in for the job. The Bull & Finch opened on Dec. 1, 1969.
When “Cheers” became a hit for NBC, it was a boon not only for the Bull & Finch (Kershaw at the last minute negotiated a licensing deal), but for the city’s tourism business. The show expanded Boston’s appeal beyond Colonial history buffs and museum- and symphony-goers.
“It was a game-changer,” said Pat Moscaritolo, former president of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It gave a different perspective on Boston. It made the city fun.”
Moscaritolo, who has known Kershaw for more than 30 years, said that while the Bull & Finch’s TV fame was a stroke of luck, the key to his friend’s success has been smart planning and dedication.
“He has this passion and commitment,” Moscaritolo said. “He is always all in. He never does anything halfway, whether it’s business or philanthropy.”
Despite the success of Hampshire House, Kershaw didn’t expand rapidly. It wasn’t until 1997 when he bought the Charles restaurant on Beacon Hill and turned it into an American bistro called 75 on Chestnut. Four years later, he opened a replica of the “Cheers” bar in Faneuil Hall at the suggestion of its general manager.
Kershaw was one of the earlier restaurateurs to see the promise of the Seaport, opening 75 on Liberty Wharf in 2012. A rare failure was 75 at Courthouse Square, which closed in August 2018 after just eight months in business.
Hampshire House Corp. is 100 percent owned by Kershaw, who bought out Veasy and his investors long ago. He won’t discuss financials, except to say annual revenue is about $17 million. There are nearly 320 employees.
Ripperger, the CEO, recalls being interviewed by Kershaw 27 years ago to become the chef of what was called the library grill on the second floor.
“He told me, ‘Go downstairs and operate it as your own,’ ” Ripperger said. “I walked out thinking to myself, ‘I guess I got the job.’ That is the culture of the place.”
He and Kershaw talk every day. “I can pull from his knowledge and wisdom . . . on all different levels” — whether it’s marketing ideas or mechanical issues at the 109-year-old town house, Ripperger said. “Even after 50 years, he is looking at getting better at what we do.”
One key issue, according to Ripperger: how to keep the Cheers brand alive 26 years after the show’s final episode.
He and Kershaw will likely work that out together. Kershaw admits that he has made the Hampshire House the focus of his life, and he isn’t about to give it up.
During the interview he was reluctant to discuss his personal life. He was married and divorced twice, and doesn’t have children. Has a “very nice” girlfriend.
“The business has been my family, and the people who work here have been my family,” he said.
He pauses for a moment.
“I could have bought the Brimmer Street Garage for $400,000 in 1978,” he said, a businessman first and foremost. “Now a single space costs $400,000.”
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