I’ve spent the last week or so on an assignment that should have left me feeling refreshed and satisfied as only a good meal—or, in my case, many good meals—can. Yet, though I’ve enjoyed some really wonderful cuisine, I’ve come come away from my culinary tour of the Pioneer Valley more agitated and more concerned about the future than I was at the outset.
My journey to several of the region’s best-loved eateries started merely as a quick, easy and obviously pleasant way to collect material for a feature in one of our sister publications: Preview Massachusetts’ dining and entertainment special issue, which hits the streets later this month. One of the reasons I knew it would be quick and easy is the dependable fact that you can almost always find the independent owners of the local restaurants we write about at their restaurants; they arrive well before they open to the public and stay until well after they’ve closed for the day.
Sure enough, on a recent Tuesday afternoon, I found Casey Douglass, the chef/owner of Galaxy, a new addition to the fine-dining scene in Easthampton, working away in the kitchen with his staff as they prepped for that evening’s dinner hour. Douglass, who is also the owner of longtime Valley favorite Apollo Grill, spent many years working in other great restaurants before he was in a position to open his own place back in 2002. Douglass’ resume includes stints at some beloved restuarants, including Icarus in Boston, Del Raye in Northampton, and Squires in Haydenville, all of which have since closed.
“It really is a brutal business. The mortality rate is amazing,” Douglass told me as he posed uncomfortably for a few pictures. “The overhead is considerable and it’s easy to get into trouble if you don’t stay on top of things.” Artistry in the kitchen may allow an owner to get off to a great start, he said, but it takes hard work, attention to detail and a good head for business to keep going. To manage costs in a business where most of the inventory is perishable and staff have to be paid whether business is slow or brisk is “more than a full-time job,” he said.
As I traveled from place to place, I heard nearly every restaurateur echo Douglass. It astonished me that, rather than sounding disenchanted by the difficulties they faced, all of them seemed invigorated by the challenges, delighted to be out on their own despite the knowledge that even the greatest institutions can fail—Hilltop Steakhouse in Saugus and Anthony’s Pier 4 in Boston are only two of the biggest names among thousands of restaurants to close in Massachusetts in the last year. For every one closed, four or five have opened.
Bill Collins worked for years for Claudio Guerra—the Valley icon behind Northampton’s Spoleto and other great restaurants in the region—before he and another Guerra veteran, Michael Sakey, bought their mentor’s resturant in East Longmeadow and opened the Center Square Grill. When I dropped in the other day, I found Collins hopping from table to table, making sure his patrons felt welcome and well served.
“I really thought I had an owners’ mentality when I worked for Claudio,” he told me. “But I always took Sundays off. That was my thing. Sundays off, with a rare exception. Now? Ha! I haven’t taken a day off in three months. I wouldn’t dream of being away for even a day.”
The grin on Collins’ face assured me that he sought no pity: “I want to be here. I’ve worked my whole life for this opportunity. I’ll be damned if I’m going to screw it up.”
The atmosphere at Center Square Grill was convivial; the aroma from the kitchen was mouth-watering. When Chef JD Fairman presented a perfectly prepared dry-aged New York strip steak for me to sample, I wondered if my media credential played a role in the special treatment I’m getting, but I soon saw it didn’t matter. Collins and his colleagues, in constant movement, keeping up with the demands of a big restaurant still hopping past what most us consider the lunch hour, were incurable in their need to play host. Every table was getting special treatment.
As I got back in my car to head off to another great Valley resturant, I felt the rush of magic one is supposed to feel after going out to eat. But as I drove across the Memorial Bridge toward Agawam and West Springfield, I felt myself getting annoyed. I saw a landscape dotted with chain restaurants, most as overpriced as they are crappy. I am no stranger to such places. I’ve eaten my fair share of fast food, even sought it out for its perceived convenience and predictable if mediocre quality. But what an idiot I must be ever to have given such places my money. In what possible way have I served my interests or the interests of my community by buying a microwaved hamburger or a slice of rubbery pizza from a giant corporation with the buying power to crush all but the biggest or most nimble of competitors?
I am no economist, but I understand and generally accept the idea that buying locally is good for the local economy. I am also aware of the statistics that show that small businesses are the backbone of our economy, providing more jobs than big corporations do. But as I come away from my recent culinary adventures, it isn’t an economic abstraction that has me up on my soapbox. It’s something much more basic than that.
Independent restaurant owners are heroes, fighting against staggering odds, seeking professional freedom while trying to provide something essential to every living person’s quality of life—a good meal. We should support them not only because it’s good for us and our economy, not only because we in the 99 percent need to stick together, but because they bloody well deserve it.•