By Bo Peabody
In the restaurant business, longevity is a rare commodity. It’s not only ingredients that are seasonal. Staff come and go; menus change; leases can be difficult to renew; and over time, guests tire of any particular dish or vibe. It’s unlikely that any given restaurant you went to ten years ago is still there. And if it is they’ve surely made some changes. Restaurants are less a brand than they are a product of the people who inhabit them—the chefs who whip up the curiosity, the waitstaff that serve the aura, and the guests who attend to the enthusiasm.
Restaurants that do last are an anomaly, carried forward by a random assortment of good luck, great staff, creative offerings, and an ability to adapt and change.
Restaurants, such as Le Bernardin, Daniel, and Gramercy Tavern have all been around for more than twenty years, and are classics because of their tenure. These restaurants are just three of the fifty-three restaurants we rate at Renzell, a company I founded last year. Renzell is dedicated to changing the way restaurants are rated by using a data-driven methodology. We create a unique rating system by using data from a comprehensive survey taken by Renzell Members each time they dine out. Our first annual ratings will be released this September.
But I’ve also seen the longevity as a restaurant owner. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Mezze Bistro and Bar, a restaurant in Williamstown, Massachusetts I co-own with Nancy Thomas. We operate two restaurants up in The Berkshires, an area not immune to the difficulties of maintaining a steady business. The area has a number of challenges: seasonal tourist traffic, a shrinking base population, and demand that is very event-driven (Tanglewood, skiing, etc.). It also has one huge asset: local farmers and producers. Understanding the rhythms of these challenges and assets is at the core of our success. We don’t take it lightly that we’ve managed to last this long, and we celebrate everything that brought us to this remarkable milestone.
Running a restaurant for twenty years means twenty years of memories—of chefs who moved us forward, dishes that delighted and dared, servers that became cult of personalities, cocktails that soothed, and a whole lot of crazy shit that happened night after night.
Since 1996, we’ve had three locations and a fire (the entire place burned down!); seven head chefs, fourteen front-of-house managers, more than 350 waitstaff; two lost liquor licenses for unauthorized after-hours staff parties (totally worth it, by the way); seven guests removed for drunkenness, one dream table: Gwyneth, Blythe, Spielberg, Capshaw; one dream order: Bradley Cooper eating salad, soup, followed by another salad; eight hospital trips for burns and cuts; too many rummaging bears to count; several broken walk-in freezers; 250 dance parties; 300+ weddings; nine proposals (that we know of); two drag queen cabarets; two fringe floats in the Williamstown 4th of July Parade; 2 Heimlich's (both, thankfully, successful); screening party for the premier of The Restaurateur with both Danny Meyer and Tom Colicchio in the house; an accounting scandal that almost ended everything; two restroom sex scandals; one employee fired for drug dealing; many, many rock and roll shows; dropping off ONE sandwich at a private jet in North Adams (you know who you are); one court appearance for a donut caper; several coming out parties; 8 Halloween parties (takes two years to recover from each one); and over 1,000,000 dining experiences delivered.
All of these things brought us to the brink of ruin but are the underpinning of our longevity. It takes a family (and yes, a few scandals) to get you through the years. In 1996, just a few months after we opened, a weary traveler came in one late night after we had closed. She was hungry and eager for someone to talk to. Nancy made her a salad with some cheese and bread, her own choice for a late-night nourishment. That woman has returned to Mezze for the entire 20 years. It really is the small things!