In June, Merrill & Co. closed after a little more than a year in the South End, a short timespan that saw some key staff turnovers and major menu changes. But that closure was only one small blip in Merrill's continuing life. (The restaurant is part of the BiNA Family Hospitality Group, which also includes jm Curley and its tiny steakhouse, Bogie's Place; Lala Rokh; and Bin 26 Enoteca.)
When the restaurant suddenly announced its closure a few days ahead of time in June, it also announced a mysterious competition, "Who Wants to Be a Restaurant Owner?" There were few details released, but the premise seemed to be that five finalists would compete in a series of pop-ups, and ultimately one chef would be able to open his or her concept in the Merrill & Co. space.
All was quiet on the Merrill front with no further word on the contest until a new restaurant called Ipswich Custom appeared in the space in October — and quickly disappeared.
This past weekend, something new showed up in the space. Stock Pot Malden, a commercial kitchen and incubator that is home to numerous local food trucks and food products, brought the teams behind two trucks, Sheherazad and Heritage, into Merrill & Co. for a pop-up. The shuttered restaurant itself also promoted the event on social media and lent its old branding to a virtual flyer.
Merrill & Co. now exists again, under its old name and largely the same in terms of interior design. But in its new life, it will continue collaborating with Stock Pot to play host to a rotating array of food truck operators — and in the long term, BiNA Family Hospitality Group owner Babak Bina wants it to be a "shark tank" or incubator of sorts, helping to further develop projects by talented food truck operators.
"This is something that we had envisioned a few years ago and we had negotiated for a space, but ultimately we were just too busy to get off the ground," said Bina. "Our objective originally — and now — is to create essentially an incubator to be able to assist successful truck operators who want to better themselves and expand."
The contest, which ultimately didn't take place, grew out of that idea. "Unfortunately we could not do the contest due to legal reasons," said Bina. He was advised that it was set up like a sweepstakes, which is tightly regulated by law, and to move forward would open him up to potential lawsuits. Ipswich Custom, which Bina described as a pop-up that won't be making another appearance, was another step in the current direction — all these pieces stemmed from that idea a few years back, and now the ongoing collaboration with Stock Pot Malden is the embodiment of it.
Bina describes Merrill & Co's revival in short-term and long-term goals. In the short term, it's meant to be "a fun place to come and enjoy eclectic, ethnic, diverse food. We're trying to bring street life into the restaurant by way of the truck food, as well as art." (The only real difference in the space, he says, is the new art.)
Beginning tonight, Merrill will have a regular Tuesday through Saturday schedule, open from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. each night, although in the future the team might add more days and hours, brunch, etc. and host private events while the restaurant is closed. The bar will be open until 10 p.m. for the time being as well, but Merrill's license allows for a 1 a.m. closing, so the hours might expand at some point. Each night will feature the operators of one, two, or more food trucks, overseen by Stock Pot Malden; Sheherazad and Heritage will both be on the scene frequently, functioning as "anchors" of the program. (Another possible addition at a later date is retail — jarred foods and the like.)
Meanwhile, the beverage program will be run by the Merrill team (a couple hires are in the works) and will reflect what the trucks are making. When Heritage is serving, for example, there would be beverages that reflect that "farm to truck" philosophy involving seasonal, local produce.
Affectionately hashtagged #TruckAndMortar on social media, the project is "sort of an in-between for truck operators," bringing their food truck concept inside a brick-and-mortar space, explained Bina. "They are not taking the plunge by ownership in a brick-and-mortar, and many of them do want to move in that direction, while others simply want to experiment and fill the evening hours, which are a dead time for the trucks."
The long-term goal of the program, according to Bina, is to dig into that incubator idea. "We would invite those who have an idea to potentially expand into a second truck or get a brick-and-mortar or go out and so something new that is food-related," he said. Food truck operators would be given the opportunity to present in front of investors — including the BiNA Family Hospitality Group as well as outside investors — who would evaluate the idea and possibly invest. Bina also wants to provide an outlet for the public to provide feedback and have a dialogue with the operators, "an open mic sort of scenario with foodies" so that customers have the chance to help the truck operators explore what they're doing well and what improvements they could make.
The bottom line: Merrill & Co. is open again, it looks mostly the same as before, and its current schedule is 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Each night will involve the operators of one or more food trucks from Stock Pot Malden. There is booze. In the future, some of the food trucks may be launched into bigger projects.
"There's the altruistic long-term goal of helping these operators grow and ultimately create something different and unique in the city and in the country," said Bina, "assisting those who have a passion for food to ultimately realize their dreams."
To stay up-to-date about which truck is appearing at Merrill & Co. on which night, follow the restaurant on Twitter.