On the block

A look into the window of one of the US’s most notable wine bars reveals a new business model. Scott Saunders pays The Butcher Shop a visit.

The Butcher Shop, Boston
The Butcher Shop, Boston

In the heart of Boston’s trendy South End neighbourhood, in one of America’s most quintessentially American cities, is a delectable slice of Europe. A peek through the window reveals Jamón Serrano and Jamón Ibérico hanging from hooks alongside salamis and other encased meats, cleavers, butchers’ saws, and weapon-like meat tenderisers. In the centre of the room is a large chopping block on which a butcher might break down a carcass, or patrons might assemble for food and wine, or, common on Saturdays, families with young ones might gather to take in the spectacle of sights and sounds (and meat and cheese). 

Welcome to The Butcher Shop: a butchery, a trendy restaurant, and one of America’s most talked about wine bars. 

It’s one of Barbara Lynch’s seven unique dining venues, which sounds like a culinary oxymoron, except that each venue is truly different. No. 9 Park is a showcase for French and Italian country cuisine; Menton is European-inspired fine dining; B&G Oysters, a raw oyster bar and New England seafood specialist; Sportello is a trattoria-inspired Italian diner; Drink, a semi-submerged warehouse-like cocktail bar; Stir is part book store part demonstration kitchen; and The Butcher Shop, an Old World wine bar and butchery. The two most significant shared commonalities are that they’re all part of the Barbara Lynch Gruppo — currently enjoying annual revenues north of $20m — and they’re all in Boston.

It’s in the vanguard of a new style of food and wine business, where one company creates a diverse set of stand-alone businesses, rather than one business that’s turned into a chain. And with its focus on ‘hospitalitarians’ and storytelling, The Butcher Shop is also showcasing a new approach to connecting customers with wine.

A new food and beverage model

As unique as the individual spaces may be, the chef-led-restaurant-group business model has become quite popular. Owners are focusing on depth, not breadth, so instead of replicating the same idea in markets from coast to coast they instead will choose one location and open a unique venue with a specific context and highly specialised theme; and then open another, different, venue; and then another.

It’s proven to be a winning formula.

“Consumers want craft everything,” says Miami wine writer Lyn Farmer, explaining one reason why such a model is so successful.  “What they eat, what they drink, it has to be unique. A chain can’t stroke that need.” Farmer relays a statement by Tim Petrillo, president and co-founder of The Restaurant People (TRP) hospitality group, which operates a number of Fort Lauderdale dining and entertainment establishments: “Why would I want to open the same restaurant in six cities when I can open six restaurants in one city?” Such a structure enables the specialised dining experiences that have become essential in the US while still leveraging economies of scale for basic purchasing requirements. It also improves training capabilities and offers more opportunities for community involvement.

Bumping elbows with TRP in South Florida are John Kunkel’s 50 Eggs restaurant group — for which sommelier sensation Daniel Toral is beverage director — and James Beard-award winning Michael Schwartz’s The Genuine Hospitality Group (where Eric Larkee is beverage director). From the Union Square Hospitality Group in New York City to Chicago’s Boka Restaurant Group to the Lucques Group in Los Angeles, you don’t have to look too hard to find similar hospitality management structures, some of which operate in multiple markets but still employ independent themes.

Lynch’s competition includes the Aquitaine Group, the Columbus Hospitality Group, The Varano Group, The Briar Group, the Glynn Hospitality Group, and DePasquale Ventures, among others. All run multiple unique venues within Boston.

The business reasons for such restaurant group structures are myriad, but sometimes it’s as simple as wanting to pour all of your culinary creativity into the city you love. 

A dazzling career

Such is the marriage between celebrated chef and restaurateur Barbara Lynch and Boston. Lynch’s culinary career started early, at 13, cooking for the priests at the rectory across the street from the housing project in which she grew up in South Boston. Over time and with a lot of hard work, she parlayed one cooking job into the next, and eventually found herself working alongside celebrity chef Todd English.

Lynch has since been named one of Food & Wine’s “Ten Best New Chefs in America”, is a James Beard Award-winner, and the only female Relais & Châteaux Grand Chef in North America. And by her side, since 1998’s opening of the acclaimed No. 9 Park, has been beverage director Cat Silirie.

Though she’s quick to say she loves all her children (read, beverage programmes) equally, Silirie admits there’s something special about The Butcher Shop. “Right away when you walk in, it’s immediate that it’s an homage to Old World Europe,” says Silirie. “There’s salami hanging everywhere, and all of these artisanal pâtés and terrines. There’s Old World tradition and high culinary execution, but the waiters are all in T-shirts and jeans.” T-shirts and jeans are not what many of the older generation would expect from one of Boston’s more esteemed wine bars, but generations are changing, and the staff at The Butcher Shop was never good at acting pretentious anyway, considering themselves storytellers and ‘hospitalitarians’ rather than wine experts. This is all the work of Silirie, considered by many within the group as their cultural ambassador, creating a wine service programme that focuses on stories, not statistics.

“I’ve been bludgeoned almost to death by certain wine services where their style is to stand tableside and repeat facts,” says Silirie. “Honestly, anyone can get that off the internet. We focus on stories. No one cares about how many hectolitres per hectare or the yield. Tell us a story about the landscape there, how incredible the Danube is, or how a sister and a brother have inherited the land from their father, and this is only their third vintage. Our guests respond so much more to stories than facts.

“The Butcher Shop is a perfect microcosm to see this at work,” she goes on. “It’s a wine bar, but it’s also a full restaurant, and then there’s a meat case full of items on display to take away. The servers have an incredible facility for thinking on their feet for all types of dining. They’re very good at context, and they’re very good at channelling these beautiful, sacred centres of charcuterie history.

“We call it armchair travel. Let’s pretend we’re in Paris, and if you’re having some Lyonnaise and a cheese board of all French cheeses, they would likely take you to French wines to complete that armchair travel picture. Or if you sat down and said I really feel like drinking something Tuscan, they would choose the salumi and a beautiful pecorino, and continue with the food of that specific place.”

Silirie may source wine for the entire group, but each restaurant’s programme is created for their specific context. There may be patterns in that producers will appear on more than one wine list, she explains, but that has more to do with Silirie’s and Lynch’s relationships with producers that sometimes spans decades (as with Bob Lindquist of Qupé in Santa Barbara, California). “We do consider many of these wineries to be family friends at this point,” she says. Interestingly, the combination of unique themes and close proximity of the restaurants has allowed Silirie to create lists with exacting precision, where she doesn’t have to be all things to all people. “Most people drink red wine at The Butcher Shop,” she says. “We’ve got reclaimed wood floors and slate countertops, chickens hanging from the rafters, and salamis everywhere. At B&G Oysters bar it’s mostly white wine. I don’t know if I would have been able to do that to such an extreme editorial point of view if I did not have The Butcher Shop right next door. If B&G were on its own I couldn’t just say, ‘No, you can’t drink red wine’, but I can tell them, ‘If you want a great red wine, just walk across the street [to The Butcher Shop]’.”

So just how are these independent themes conceived? “Chef Barbara is the visionary,” says Silirie, who first befriended Lynch when Silirie was sommelier at the esteemed Boston steakhouse Grill 23 & Bar (back when it was one level) and Lynch was a line cook at Todd English’s Olives. “I really love that she has not just simply rolled out concepts. She loves Boston so much that all of the restaurants that she’s built have been because she felt that Boston needed one. We needed a place to eat charcuterie, so the answer was The Butcher Shop. That’s how she looks at it.”

Similarly, esteemed chefs across the country are leading transformations of the culinary scenes in their own markets. The replication model is out, and localised unique concepts are in, with specific culinary contexts and strictly curated wine programmes. 

It’s something that wine producers looking to enter the US on-trade market should bear in mind: What looks like a standalone venue may in fact be the entry point to multiple venues — venues with diverse themes and customer bases. Boston’s trendiest butcher shop, after all, has the appearance of a niche slice of the Old World, but behind the scenes there’s a crafty management group that understands the varied desires of the city’s inhabitants, and they’re creating themes and wine lists to satisfy them all.  

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