Navigating the seaside restaurant biz
It seems only fitting that Charlestown restaurateur John Moore chose yet another historic seaport to establish his second restaurant and head upwind into the choppy waters of New England’s restaurant scene.
For despite the rising tide of his flagship restaurant Navy Yard Bistro in Charlestown, Mass., and the promising start of his newest eatery, Fifty Water in Newburyport Mass.’s historic tannery district, Moore will be the first to tell you it hasn’t always been smooth sailing.
Beginning with that first winter in 2004, when he carved out a niche for the Navy Yard bistro in Charlestown, amid high-end established restaurants and bustling pubs, Moore has spent the last decade honing his menu and adjusting to unexpected storms, including a severe health issue, only to emerge a decade later with two fine restaurants, and blue skies and calm waters ahead.
In this Q&A with Boxerbrand Blog Recipe for Success, Moore describes the odyssey that began in college, where he was more apt to be hosting parties for his friends, than hitting the books.
Q: You were cooking for friends and family long before you broke ground on your first restaurant.
I always loved cooking and hosting parties at my house. Even in college I cooked a lot off campus. I went to Saint Leo College in Florida and cooked on my grill year round. After I graduated I pursued a sales career, and worked in the cellular technology field.
Eventually I got involved in a food venture with a golf course and was prepared to handle both the marketing and restaurant side of things. Although it didn’t work out, I realized my heart was set on getting into restaurants.
So I went to Bunker Hill Community College in Charlestown, where Goodwill Hunting was filmed, and took culinary classes.
Q: After cooking for a year at upscale Greek restaurant Meze, you struck out on your own in 2004 and opened Navy Yard Bistro. Please tell me about that.
I’d lived in Charlestown for seven years and knew there was a strong need for a medium-priced restaurant. We had three high-end restaurants and several pubs, but this was a huge market that was being missed. I looked around and realized a Bistro wine bar would be perfect for the demographic of Charlestown.
We opened in August 2004, and that first winter was brutally slow. But the next year, when new condos in the neighborhood were opened, business really started to pick up.
Q: After that first “brutal” winter, how did you turn it around at the Navy Yard Bistro?
The main part: I did everything myself. I bartended; I didn’t give myself salary; I did all the cleaning. I filled in the kitchen and did prep work.
In April, in the spring, went to San Francisco, and I visited some good restaurants. It was at that time I started thinking that the dining room of the restaurant wasn’t nice enough for a Saturday night date because we had no artwork. I had no money at the time, but I put some paintings by the artist Fabian Perez on my Amex card, and hung them on the wall, and after that, business really started to take off.
Q: What did you learn at the Navy Yard Bistro gave you confidence to open up another restaurant?
I learned that there’s a strong niche for restaurants that fall between fine dining and pub food. There’s a strong clientele that appreciates a concept I call casual fine dining in a real neighborhood setting.
Q: Are you a different operator today than you were then?
I’m a better delegator now. I’m not afraid to ask people to do things. In the beginning, I was never a manager before. I’d never had anybody work for me before I opened the Bistro. Also, I’m not afraid to spend more money to make more money. For example, I’ve really increased my inventory of good wines.
Q: What’s essential in having a successful restaurant?
To me, it’s keeping the food and the labor costs at the right percentage and keeping the food consistent. That means keeping a consistency in the kitchen. This is especially important in a neighborhood restaurant, as opposed to a restaurant in a tourist area. We cater to repeat customers who want the salmon cooked the same way every time.
If you’re on Newbury Street, Boylston Street or in the Seaport District, which relies heavily on tourist traffic, consistency isn’t as important. It doesn’t matter as much: they’re still packed every night.
Consistency is also important at the front of the house, where it’s good to have the same people serving our customers. I’ve been lucky to have a staff that has been with me from the beginning.
Q: What’s a one-liner advise you’d offer to another startup restaurant?
Your lease and your landlord is the key. You can always change your concept, and the menu. But the physical space needs to be right. And the rent price needs to be right. A lot of places overpay on the rent. And the kitchen and the bar. You need a bar to bring in single diners.
Q: You recently broke ground about an hour north of Boston, and opened Fifty Water. How’s it going?
When we first opened it was almost too busy and we had a bit of a struggle to find the right chefs and managers. But now we seem to be on target. We have a great manager and landlord, and I think it’s going to be a great long-term venture.
The menu is similar to Navy Yard, which is New American cuisine with French influences. It’s a beautiful atmosphere, with a fireplace on each floor and indoor and outdoor dining. We’ve introduced a couple of features, including Neighborhood Nights, which offers comfort foods like meatloaf and chicken Parmesan for $12 and $14 (respectively) and $7 wine specials. We also have Football Sundays, and open at noon for game day fare that changes weekly. And this month we started offering half-priced appetizers from 4-6 p.m., Monday through Thursdays.
Both Navy Yard Bistro and Fifty Water use Boxerbrand’s Linen Naturals menu covers.