A stream of support nurtures eatery's rebirth
After Shelburne Falls fire, customers trail new owners downriver
Evelyn Whitbeck-Poorbaugh puts up orders at Hope & Olive, including fish and chowder. (Jonathan Wiggs/ Globe Staff)
"This used to be the polka hall," says Evelyn Whitbeck-Poorbaugh, sweeping an arm toward the center of a cavernous room with hardwood floors. "We're thinking banquets for this space."
The dance hall, sunlit on this bright autumn morning and empty except for a few dusty cardboard boxes, occupies about two-thirds of the 3,500-square-foot second floor of the former Polish-American Citizens Club, at the corner of Hope and Olive streets.
Whitbeck-Poorbaugh, 35, and her two partners, brother and sister Jim and Maggie Zaccara, have already turned the first floor into a dining room that flows around a long rectangular bar. Now painted in earthy browns, yellows, and reds that impart an intimate scale and warm atmosphere, the room once sported a karaoke stage with a floor of black and white tiles, where the three used to make occasional appearances, little dreaming they would later own the place.
"Oh, yes, we participated," recalls Maggie Zaccara, who reveled in belting out Cher's "Believe." "By the way," she adds, "the club's bartender works for us now."
The dilemma of what to do with 7,000 square feet is something most restaurant owners wish for - and a far cry from the nightmare of losing a popular restaurant to fire, which is how the partners landed in this building.
In December 2005, a middle-of-the-night fire destroyed A Bottle of Bread, a restaurant overlooking the Deerfield River in Shelburne Falls, a scenic village about 7 miles from Greenfield. Maggie Zaccara owned the business with two other people, but not the building. Besides sending one firefighter to a local hospital with minor injuries, the fire caused some economic hardship and a lot of personal woe.
"No one was inside because of the late hour," says Maggie, 40. "But it was the week before Christmas, and it put all the employees out of work." That included Jim, 37, a waiter, and Evelyn, a cook.
As it turned out, the heartbreak over losing A Bottle of Bread wasn't confined to the owners and employees. Over its five years of existence, the restaurant had built a solid fan base. Its simple, tasty cuisine was part of the draw, with many ingredients bought from local farmers. But it also had a certain hard-to-define comfort factor - the 19th-century building created cozy digs that offered expansive views of the Deerfield River. Other reasons for its popularity, however, were less aesthetic.
"It was one of few places you could get draft beer," says Terry Seymour of Shelburne Falls.
"We liked the food, too," says Lynn Cantell, who is married to Seymour. "Another thing was the atmosphere, which was really warm, and it was in a beautiful spot. And the staff was always consistent. When you see the same people working there all the time, that's a good sign. They always seemed to be having fun."
"Because we went there all the time, we got to be friends with the staff, and they gave us excellent service," adds Seymour.
After the fire, the restaurant's customers returned the love, flocking to a series of benefits to help employees through the holidays. "There was the most amazing community support," says Jim Zaccara.
Fellow restaurant owners hosted many of the benefits. One neighboring eatery, the Tusk 'N' Rattle, held one almost immediately. "They put out food, ran a cash bar, and set out jars on the bar for donations," says Whitbeck-Poorbaugh. "The turnout was massive."
Margaret Fitzpatrick owned the Tusk 'N' Rattle then. Though it may strike others as unusual, the idea that fellow restaurant owners would support each other strikes her as natural. "The smallness of the neighborhood creates a much more friendly environment," Fitzpatrick says. "We all understood that the health of one restaurant would affect all of us. I hope somebody would look after us the same way."
That event raised $10,000, which was divvied up among employees before Christmas. Other businesses, musicians, and artists also hosted events, netting additional money that helped the owners pay off purveyors. "Some of our suppliers said, 'Just pay us when you can,' " says Maggie Zaccara. "We're very grateful." She adds, "What came back to us was partly a reflection of our strong ties to the community, " noting that A Bottle of Bread had raised money for various causes, including a local farm damaged in a flood and a nurse's charitable trip to Ecuador.
The outpouring of support moved everyone involved with the restaurant and enabled a new enterprise to rise from the ashes of the old. "It made it possible for us to get a fresh start," says Whitbeck-Poorbaugh. The new partners decided to buy a building instead of renting or leasing one, as converting a space into a restaurant would cost almost as much. But the real estate market in Shelburne Falls was soaring when they started scouting locations for a new place. They eventually settled on the recently closed club in Greenfield. "The club really worked with us to make the deal come together," says Whitbeck-Poorbaugh.
Since opening day on Sept. 22, "we've been completely packed every night," says Jim Zaccara, who works as host and a waiter. "We didn't do a grand opening or anything - people just showed up."
A month later, on two consecutive Friday nights, the tables in both parts of the dining room filled by 6:30, and people mobbed the bar. The menu reflects the spacious new kitchen's capacity to turn out more varied dishes. "We're featuring more specials," says Whitbeck-Poorbaugh. "But we're also running the greatest hits from A Bottle of Bread, like our peanut-ginger sirloin tips, and all of our sandwiches."
The menu will change seasonally, tapping the best of the local food in this agricultural region. Still moderately priced, the dinner entrees run between $12 (acorn squash stuffed with cranberries, raisins, lentils, tempeh, chard, leeks, and almonds) and $21 (grilled skirt steak with mushrooms, red wine, french fries, spinach, and aioli). For lunch, diners can choose from soups ($3.50-$5), pizzas ($9.50-$10.50), meal salads ($7.50-$12.50), entrees ($8-$15), and sandwiches ($9.50-$10.50) that feed many customers twice. A chalkboard features bar food priced between $2 and $5: rutabaga fries, hummus and stuffed grape leaves, chicken wings, and sloppy joes, to name a few offerings. The modestly priced wine list ($17-$38 per bottle, $4.50-$10 a glass) focuses on labels chosen for quality rather than name brand, Jim Zaccara says.
The investment Hope & Olive's owners have made in this former industrial section of Greenfield, one of many struggling former mill cities in Western Massachusetts, coincides with a revitalization effort. Meanwhile, the restaurant is a bright spot in the block for people who work nearby and a destination for out-of-towners.
The county courthouse a block away is starting to fuel a steady lunch business, and people who visit the YMCA across the street sometimes stop in for a post-workout sandwich.
"There are a lot of folks from Shelburne Falls driving up for dinner, and lots of new folks in town looking for somewhere different to go to," says Fitzpatrick, who now tends bar at Hope & Olive. "This could be a turnaround agent for this part of town. There's already been a great outpouring from the community."
A few weeks ago, another fire in Shelburne Falls claimed a building downtown, destroying several businesses and apartments. Within days, the owners of Hope & Olive had organized a benefit.
Jane Roy Brown, a freelance writer in Western Massachusetts, can be reached at regan-brown.com.