A group of Boston area Restaurants are fighting back in a Big Way and working…
The Well Done Man – Joe Kane
Only from WDB, The Well Done Man is a biographical interview with a Bostonian who is doing exceptional things. It is meant to give our readers insight and knowledge regarding each interviewee’s vision of success and how, beyond their obvious talents, they have reached this point in their lives and careers.
This week we sat down to talk with life-long Bostonian Joe Kane about how he got his start, managing the daily grind and what it takes to build an empire. Joe with his brother Ed, as well as partner Randy Greenstein, are co-owners of Big Night Entertainment Group and the creators of some of Boston’s best restaurants and nightspots; Empire, Red Lantern, and GEM to name a few.
How and when did you get your start in the restaurant and nightlife business?
I grew up in Dorchester and Quincy. My mother’s side of the family was from Ireland and they were Carlins. Most of them settled in New York while my grandmother met my Dad and ended up in Boston. Her brother had a bunch of super successful saloons in New York City and my Dad really learned a lot about the business when we’d go down there to visit. In 1979, my Dad bought a neighborhood barroom in Quincy. That’s how we got started. Later on I worked as a bar back at a place in North Quincy called The Carlton House. When I was 18, I started tending bar there and that’s when I really caught the bug. I loved it, but its gotta be the worst golden handcuffs of all time. Once you’re in it, what else are you gonna do. I knew I could never work a 9-5 though. My brother and I eventually went on to open our own full service bar and restaurant called Stars in Hingham.
Back then did you have a vision of what you wanted to create? Was BNEG even a concept?
No way. I think very few people have that kind of vision. It’s more of a natural evolution. You do one thing for a certain amount time, you build it and then you do the next thing. After Stars we moved to Quincy where we owned Waterworks. That was our big introduction into the nightclub part of it. We were there for 14 years and it was insane. We’d pack 3,000 people in there. I had 85 employees working on a Sunday night and if you went there you definitely saw me because I worked the door every night.
We came into the city in 2005 when we partnered with the Lyons Group and took over Estate. They had been asking us to do it for a while and we finally agreed on a deal. At the time it was the Big Easy and we completely redid it for about $200k. Originally we were only supposed to be there for 2 years, but it was so profitable, so we kept getting extensions and 8 years later we’re still there. But Emerson bought the building and they’re knocking it down to build dorms, so unfortunately we’re closing that one at the end of the month. We’ve got more big exciting projects on the way and we’ll be revealing those soon.
Success is relative and often very personal. When did you feel like you’d reached that point?
I really do think its more of an evolution but probably when we went down to Connecticut and built Shrine. It was a $12 million dollar, 24,000 square foot, Vegas-style nightclub and restaurant. When we inherited that project we had met with the President of Foxwoods, who had also interviewed every big player in the country like the guys who own TAO in NYC, Stephen Starr in Philly and Vegas guys…but he was a relationships guy and he liked us. We were the last ones considered but we had gotten in through Michael Schlow who was a good friend and had already been working on the deal for two years. We had to be open by May 16th and it was already late October when we signed the deal. That’s a $12 million dollar build out which was unheard of in that amount of time. The first contractor actually backed out of the deal on New Years Eve. We hired another company second week in January and opened on May 17th. That was probably the moment we knew we had something. All of our hard work, everything we talked about, listened it, watched. Getting it done in that amount if time – was just insane. We had told the president of Foxwoods that you might find someone who’s a better operator or who’s smarter than us but you will never find anyone who will work harder. Cause that’s how we grew up, we learned that from our Dad.
So did you have a mentor or anyone that you’ve worked with that has helped you along the way?
Yeah a few people. Ed Sparks who started the Lyons Group with Patrick. He was a really successful stock broker and we used to talk to him all the time. He’s just super smart. Also, Mark Wahlgren who was the general manager of the Budweiser distributor in Medford. As smart a guy as you’re ever gonna meet. Bud Light is the number one beer in the world and he knew the business inside and out just from selling into all these places. He had dealt with everything, restaurants, clubs, bars and he was like a chess player who was 3 moves ahead of everyone else. He helped us a lot when we took over Waterworks because our business was restaurants and then all of a sudden we’re in this crazy night club thing. It had been The Tent for 13 years before us and gave us such great advice and taught us so much, especially about that property.
Lastly, my Dad…total self made guy, went into the Marines when he was 16 and became a Sergeant. Got out in his mid-twenties. He was always very entrepreneurial, he would scrape enough money together to buy a house and fix it up and sell it for a little more. He really taught me and my brother how to get a lot out of a nickel. He was always pushing through. He loved the bar business and he was a real people person. He was a grinder and he really taught us how to be grinders and that’s why we’re successful today. This business is a grind. You have to grind.
Can you talk about the grind? With all of your different businesses here in Boston and down at Foxwoods, it must get a little nuts sometimes.
It’s funny about our business, a lot of people will say I’d love to be you for a night, it must be so glamorous…let me tell you something, you wouldn’t want to be me for a night. Most people think you turn the key in the morning and everybody shows up and everybody’s in a good mood, it’s stocked and everything works but in reality it’s the exact opposite. You’re only as good as the people you hire and we have over 700 employees in the company. We have 60 something managers among all the properties. Everyday you’re like a fireman. Everyday somebody wants to quit or they’re not doing the job or they’re not making enough money…everyday I wake up and wonder what’s gonna come today. Our job as owners is to hire the upper management and all of our upper management people are great. Our managers are very important people in the company because those are the people that we deal with most. That’s who I grind and they grind down. Like Christine Roane who runs HR and payroll, she was our first employee at Big Night and in a way really runs the company. Like I said its a grind and you have to push and push and push. It’s a lot of work. At the end of the day, let me tell you, I just want to go home. I eat pizza on my couch and I’m happy.
Let’s talk about Boston…as a restaurant and nightclub owner do you feel like this city is business friendly?
Yes…and it’s getting more so under Mayor Walsh. Would we like to be open a little later? Maybe. We never wanted to be big fish in a little pond but it’s a really small city. On the outside people don’t realize that there’s only about 650k people that live in Boston proper, in the city. Although you have this large influx of students it’s fits and starts. One thing I have noticed in the city is that every summer it clears out more and more. But definitely under Mayor Walsh it’s moving in the right direction. He’s surrounded himself with a lot of smart young people. His chief of staff Daniel Koh really gets it. He looks more like he should be in Silicon Valley. Really smart and forward thinking. Mayor Walsh understands that the future of the economy in Boston doesn’t just depend on the Innovation District over where Empire is but that what he needs to do is keep the talent that is innately here, the college graduates, to stay in Boston. He needs to make this a cooler, hipper more exciting place to live and he understands that, he’s not just saying it. For us the business in Boston is really dynamic right now. You look at Empire, when we moved into that building there was only 2 floors occupied and the Vertex building wasn’t even in the ground. Now it’s completely full, new buildings opening up every couple months. So yes, we’re really happy to be in Boston.
If you could go back in time and give your past-self one piece of advice, what would you say?
Just go for it. Seriously, me and my brother were always confident in our abilities but we always kind of thought we had to wait our turn. If we had pushed a little harder in our early thirties I think we would have catapulted a little faster. Right now people have a huge advantage and access to information. You have to work hard and you gotta listen but you gotta go for it. When you’re confident, and you know what you know, go ahead and take that next leap. Even if you fail you learn something.