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Breakfast place of capitalists

Homey Wellesley diner serves eggs and business deals over easy

By Michael Fitzgerald
Globe Correspondent / August 6, 2009

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Eric Giler’s Blackberry buzzed one July day last summer. “maugus 7:30 or 7:45?’’ read the message, from executive recruiter Charley Polachi.

Giler wasn’t looking for a job. He’d been active on company boards and investing in startups ever since selling his Needham-based firm, Brooktrout Technologies, in 2005.

But at the Maugus restaurant in Wellesley the next morning, scrambled eggs and dry wheat toast before him, sipping coffee, he listened as Polachi described a startup in search of a CEO.

Giler found himself excited.

The cozy storefront on Washington Street gets its name from Colonial-era wheeler-dealer John Maugus, a Ponkapoag who sold nearby land to English settlers. It sits not far from the junction of routes 128 and 9, not to mention the homes of scores of venture capitalists and executives.

Most weekday mornings around 7:30, its snug green vinyl booths fill up with entrepreneurs like Giler and the venture capitalists who fund them, all sussing out their next big hit. Thirty-eight threads with “Maugus’’ in them show up in Giler’s three-year-old Gmail account.

Breakfast is an optimistic meal, more relaxed than lunch, less complicated than dinner, providing just enough time to spark business relationships.

Consummation takes longer, especially for venture capitalists, who are part banker, part mechanic, part matchmaker, and part gambler. They fund entrepreneurs starting companies too risky for banks. They bet on information, some from buddies they meet over meals. The whole process “is a kind of courtship,’’ says Bill Wiberg, a general partner at Advanced Technology Ventures, over a plate of eggs and sausage at the Maugus, with breakfast often serving as a “morning before’’ event.

The same phenomenon takes place at Buck’s Diner in California’s Silicon Valley, but the West Coast’s preferred dining hall looks nothing like the Maugus.

At Buck’s, circuit boards, NASA memorabilia, and a 700-piece collection of Crackerjack prizes cover the walls and hang from the ceiling. The menu offers French toast topped with granola. The owner blogs about his trips to invitation-only TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) brainfests.

At the Maugus, “there’s no pretension at all,’’ says Giler. Plastic flowers in dry vases sit on Formica tables, hotel-auction art hangs on the walls. The Maugus has a barebones website: www.themaugus.com.

But it also has Vaso Papakonstantinou, a Greek immigrant who with her husband, Peter, bought the Maugus in 1980. Vaso, 65, is a slight woman with Nancy Reagan hair, hands made powerful by decades of peeling, chopping, and scrubbing, and a natural warmth. She’s always wiping up some spot nobody else can see (the place gleams), or nudging a sugar dispenser back into its place. Or smiling at a customer.

The Papakonstantinous lived with her brother and his six children for years. She sometimes worked four jobs to get $25 a week. Today she drives a Jaguar S-Type with leather seats. The car embarrasses her. It was a gift from their son, Charlie, who intends to take over the Maugus from his parents after they retire.

Vaso works every day, save the two weeks in August when the Maugus closes for a family vacation. She starts at 5 a.m., 4:30 if she cannot sleep. By 5:30, she is leaning over a deep stainless-steel sink, mixing muffins by hand. Home fries cover the griddle.

Just before 6, she sets out a glass of ice water and a cup of fresh coffee on the granite counter at the seat closest to the back door. At 6, the lights go on. Moments later, Edward “Ned’’ Fitzpatrick comes in the back door, sits down, and picks up his coffee. Fitzpatrick has been a Maugus customer since the 1930s, when he went to the junior high up the street and the restaurant had a soda fountain.

The regulars trickle in.

“You have bran muffins?’’ one asks Markos Kofitsas, Vaso’s brother-in-law and the restaurant’s main waiter.

“No. Corn and blueberry. That’s all I have.’’

“You wonder why this place is empty now - the way they treat people,’’ chimes in Fitzpatrick.

“I could’ve gone to Dunkin’ Donuts,’’ says the man.

“Nobody treats you like they do here,’’ Markos says, appearing with the bran muffin.

“I could have stayed at home to be insulted!’’

Ripostes reign unless Vaso walks in from the kitchen. Then smiles come and talk turns to families.

This vibe of familiarity pervades the Maugus.

Wiberg says that on his first visit, “I felt welcome.’’ He prefers the Maugus to the DoubleTree in Waltham or Henrietta’s Table in Cambridge, two other hotspots for venture capitalists.

Giler calls it Cheers for the business breakfast crowd. “Do they know my name there? No, but they know my face,’’ he says.

“They should have a Maugus monitor’’ to track the deals that happen there, says John Pomerance, a lawyer at a big Boston firm, Mintz Levin. Pomerance catches up with Steve Rubin on a recent Friday morning.

Rubin runs a software firm, Longwatch; Pomerance was the lawyer for the Needham resident’s first software company. Rubin says he uses the Maugus for many of his working breakfasts. It made a handy meeting place to hammer out details for a new investor network, Boynton Angels, which he celebrated with a plate of scrambled eggs and corned beef hash.

“You’re not going to take anybody to the Maugus to impress them,’’ says Rubin. “But it shows you’re smart about how you spend your money and how you spend your time. If you’ve got a really good idea, you don’t need a fancy place to get it across.’’

Polachi, who gets a big smile from Markos when he gives his order, dines at the Maugus twice a week when things get busy. It’s friendly, but it’s also discreet, he says. “Meals put people at ease,’’ he notes. “Things come out that never would in a meeting room.’’

He had taken Giler to the Maugus twice before, first to recruit him for a venture fund, then to run a company. Neither clicked. But that day last summer was different. Polachi told Giler about Witricity, a hot Watertown startup developing wireless power. Giler loved the idea, and seemed to have all the skills and savvy Witricity needed. It did look at other candidates, but in the end picked Giler.

One of the first things Giler did after taking the job was call a banker friend about arranging a line of credit. They hashed out terms over breakfast at the Maugus. In March, he met Polachi there for a follow-up breakfast.

Polachi says he just pinged Giler on behalf of some venture capitalists who want to chat about Witricity. They’ll find their table waiting at the Maugus.

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