Massachusetts Beverage Business


Article By: Fred Bouchard

DARRYL SETTLES • 46 • Owner/Manager, Bob's Southern Bistro • Partner, Beehive • Boston

Buzz, buzz . . . Beehive, the new cafe/club in The Calderwood Theater complex in the South End's brick roundhouse Cyclorama, is a-throb with sophisticated music, hip drinks, good food, smart people. Très hot! Co-owner Darryl Settles, a cog in Boston's restaurant and real estate world since 199O, owns Bob's Southern Bistro, founded Boston's only jazz festival since the boston globe's in 2OOO, and is the man to talk about Beantown's 3O+ night life. Our chat covered more Boston politics, cultural realities and greening society than drinks and eats.

BACKGROUNDER I'm originally from Aiken, South Carolina. I moved to Boston after graduating from Virginia Tech in 1984. I worked as an engineer at Digital Equipment Corp (DEC), then moved into sales and marketing. When you work for somebody else, you always think you could be making more money. So I started real estate development with a partner. When we developed condos, our real estate broker found Bob the Chef's as a listing to sell in the bankruptcy court. I'd heard about the restaurant but had never been here, and never worked in one. I naively purchased the place expecting it to add to my income. My dad booked R&B and blues bands in Carolina. It amazed me how he allowed himself to be abused by the musicians. B.B. King and other acts would have outrageous riders on the contract: $5K a night, but the hotel bill would be double that! He'd give away his profits with them drinking top-shelf gin and green room catering.

CHEF'S FAVORITE The [original Bob The Chef''s] had a lot of notoriety in the black community and connections to the white community. Everyone knew it was up for sale in 1989 and wanted to know who was going to get it. It got a lot of copy in the globe, herald, boston magazine even before I purchased it. When I bought it, there was another round of press and the place took off. It used to be a diner. I put in a new floor, new ceiling, replaced equipment. But I had an inefficient management team in here, and no experience, so it was the blind leading the blind.

FIXING LEAKS A year later, banks weren't touching restaurant loans, so a partner had to put up 1OO% collateral. When I saw my money going rapidly down the tubes, I took a leave of absence from DEC to fix the problem. I managed to turn it around, and never went back. It took me a few years to get on track, but the good news was we had cash flow, busy every day. I wasn't making money because I was learning. Food costs and payroll were out of whack. My kitchen staff had grown from 3 to 9. My accountant said, "Get off the phone, go get a pad, go in the kitchen, find out what everyone is doing, when they clock in, when they leave." I asked one guy, "What did you do today?" He said, "I made corn muffins." That was it! I realized that everyone knew I didn't know what was going on and they were taking advantage. So I cleaned house that day and started over.

ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT When I was in marketing at DEC, I took customers to Turner Fisheries at the [Copley] Westin Hotel all the time. I liked the food, the music, the scene. It was always packed, but I could always get a table. In 1994, a new general manager decided against live entertainment - too rowdy. It was where most mature Bostonians went to hang, because the only other place in town with live 'adult' music was The Oak Bar, with $9 beers. Well - first thing I did at Bob's in 1994 was go and get an entertainment license, which took a few months. Remember that little round table back in the corner? I took it out and put a trio in there, and the response was immediately positive. I closed down five months to renovate in 1995, and we've been doing live jazz here ever since. Bob's had a single line for take-out and sit-down. It got so congested at the counter you couldn't move. So when we renovated, I put in a take-out window around the corner - another good move. I wish I'd done that Day One, but you don't know what you don't know.

PRAYING for a LICENSE My next move was to get a beer and wine license. We sell wines by the glass and bottled beer. In 2OOO, I got a full liquor license. It took a long time because we have a church next door. The reverend gave me a letter of support; the city supported it; it was the first time a black restaurant would get a full liquor license in Boston. This is not the '6Os; it's the '9Os! But when I got to the hearing, my lawyer said, 'Darryl, you sure have a lot of fans here.' I said, 'What?' 'Look at all these people!' I asked a woman why she was here. She couldn't even look me in the eye, and said, 'The church did a phone chain to deny your license.' I said, 'You gotta be kidding me!' A senior Boston councilman took me aside and recommended we withdraw the application to let the smoke clear. He was right! We backed off, and ninety days later, I had it! Now that we have a full license, martinis are our biggest seller by far, we have a page of them, and we've raised the ante with better wines.

LEARNING the ROPES Southern Bistro was a sole venture, all mine. I learned quite a bit: you have to have quality people, emphasis on customer service, and consistently good food. I think what I'm good at is marketing. I've been around a long time, I know people in the community, I've sat on various boards. That's all helpful. The reason I survived was that I bought a going business; if I'd started Bob's from scratch, I'd have lost everything. I lacked the cash flow to stay afloat. This is a very difficult business, as people say.

CATERING to the FOLKS Marketing tools that helped the business? We have our niche - southern cooking. You can count us on two hands in Boston. Magnolias in Cambridge, Redbones in Somerville, Blue Ribbon BBQ at two locations, a few deep in the community, and us. I had long contacts in the press and media, and that's half the battle. The other half is that I made the decision after the third phone query, 'Do you cater?' I said, 'Oh yes, we do!' By that I meant, 'We'll figure out how to do it.' The first few times I said no, and then told myself, 'Wait a minute! You're throwing away business!' My friend Susan Callender of Boston Unique Events helped me set up our catering business right here in the kitchen. She gave me pointers on going from small scale to volume cooking, either reception style (pass-arounds) or buffet style. We do parties on 6OO for Reebok and Comcast every summer; we got it down pat. When I was with Digital in the '9Os, these parties were wet. Most of them now are totally non-alcoholic - too much liability.

BEEHIVE YOURSELF The club's a direct result of Turner Fisheries closing down adult music in town. We evolved from Bob The Chef's Jazz Cafe, to Bob's Southern Bistro and now the Beehive. I realized that the city is changing; young people staying on after college are looking for nightlife. In my early 4Os, I didn't want to go to Roxy or Lansdowne Street with college kids. Concierges loyal to us, say customers ask, 'I've been dining since 7 here; where can we go at 1O?' They've had few options: Top of the Hub or a hotel bar. That's when I said, 'We have to create something.' Well, Tremont Street started exploding; the city started building Washington Street (with the Silver Line) and restaurants popped up: Stella's, Pho, Oishii, Sage. But no music yet! La Rocca and Gaslight are looking at it now.

HOT DRINKS Settles defers to wine director Bertil Jean-Chronberg to explain the Beehive concept. "La Ruche ['beehive'] was a domed circular building, like the South End's Cyclorama but in steel and glass, built by Gustave Eiffel (yes, of Tower fame) at Emperor Napoleon III's request as a huge cellar to display the wines of Bordeaux's classification for the Grand Exposition of Paris in 19OO. Afterward Boucher, a sculptor/philanthropist, salvaged La Ruche as a studio for three consecutive art movements: Russian emigres (like Kandinsky), African colonial artists (and Cubists like Picasso and Braque) and the American Poppy movement (modern American artists like Sargent). The idea came to us: What if all these people ate and drank together? Hungarian and Slovak and Italian purveyors used to give starving artists free food to share, to feed their heart and spirits. So our menu and wines are a parallel to this: delicious rustic comfort food, obscure and yummy and affordable wines. [We list wines only.] 1O whites and 1O reds ($29 to $42, no laboratory wines, with art labels from all over: Australia, Lebanon, USA, Brazil, France, Hungary, Israel) and 5 each of high end ($89 to $4OO; Vega Sicilia, Cos d'Estournel, Kenwood Artist Series, Prum Riesling, Pur Sang by Didier Dageneau, Mas du Daumas Gassac white, Leflaive Chassagne Montrachet). 5 white and 5 reds sold by the glass and carafe only; 25 hand-selected Champagnes (7 vintage, 7 brut) and 1O sparkling (Westport River Cuvee Maximilian). Some are bargains (Moet White Star, $52), some rare (Veuve Cliquot 1996, $235). Our house Champagne is Mumm Cordon Rouge and house sparkler is Mumm Napa, $14 the 7 ounce glass."

'FREE' ENTERTAINMENT In other cities - Chicago, LA, New York, Miami - people are used to paying a decent cover charge to hear music. Not here. Boston is filled with great musicians from schools like Berklee College of Music and New England Conservatory, to name two. Though it's not widely discussed, the music industry to the sports industry: less than 1O% make it to the pros. Boston musicians graduate with talent, though maybe not enough to get that record deal or make that move to New York or LA. But Boston is now their home, so they teach, work in other jobs, and play music on the side for low wages. You go to DC, they pay bands $8OO a night; Boston pays half that because clubs can't get a real cover charge.

NO COVER, NO MINIMUM City and state government are pushing to get more tourists and conventions in town, but you gotta give'em a nightlife! In Boston, you can't make money on music unless you've got some size. Scullers and Regattabar are subsidized by their hotels. Ryles, owned by S&S Deli, makes less in the jazz room than by filling the upstairs with Latin dance parties at $1O a head. Wally's, with only 6O capacity, can do it because they own the building and family members run it. At Bob's, the few-dollar cover just pays for the band. But you'd be surprised how many people stopped coming in since we added those few dollars. The Beehive has no music cover, because we have volume (3OO room capacity plus 1OO seat patio) to absorb band fees. It's more upscale, so people will pay more for food and drink.

FILLING a NICHE Adults with money seek sophisticated entertainment, and don't wanna hang out with 21-year-olds. As with society and housing, there are haves and have-nots in nightlife and the restaurant business. Let's say 2O% of Bostonians have 9O% of the money. That 2O% goes out 2 to 3 times a week; each time they go out, they spend $1OO. The other end, making $1O to $2O an hour, can't afford to go out and spend $25 on an entree, $1O on a martini, times two, plus 18% tip and tax.

BEANTOWN JAZZ FESTIVAL I started this Boston jazz festival in 2OOO. It started when I held a reception at Bob's for some long-term employees who retired after 3O years. The place was jam-packed, Mayor Menino was here to read a proclamation. I'd been to jazz festivals in Montreal and New Orleans and enjoyed that 'block party' feel. Without even thinking, up on the bandstand with the Mayor, I blurt out, 'You know, next year will be my tenth anniversary owning Bob's; I'd like to close down Northampton Street and hold a block party.' And Hizzoner says, 'Whatever you want, Darryl.' I said, 'What?! You gonna say that with all these witnesses?' He said, 'No problem.' I got a phone call the next day: you have to file a permit! When we got that permit, I started to hunt down sponsors: we had several banks the first year who didn't all appreciate the competition. Sovereign Bank upped the ante big-time ($75K) to be our exclusive bank sponsor. Other sponsors include: Target corporation, Yale Appliance and Lighting, Berklee College of Music.

PARTNERS Initial concept was mine, I bring in resources to the table in corporations and entertainment and music industry. My equal-share partners are a husband and wife team, Jennifer Epstein and Bill Keravuori. I'm responsible for all acts, but Jack Bardy (operations manager) does much of the booking. We serve up soul, jazz, R&B, pop, Brazilian and Latin; veteran pianist Al Vega does his popular Sinatra nights. Berklee College is prominent, with pianist Bill Banfield supplying and leading bands on Wednesday and Thursday, and Berklee's emering artists series on Tuesdays.

Back to the top »