When a new restaurant opens, especially if it does so to the acclaim of critics and the adoration of the public, it can feel as though some inexplicable forces (or alchemy) were responsible. But that rustic-chic lacquered oak bar at which you love to sit and the elegant cocktails you sip there never appear from the void: Most likely, they were literal years in the making.
“The public doesn’t see a lot of what goes into the making of a restaurant, so they may just think that some hip young chef starts a Kickstarter and six months later they’re opening the doors,” said Matt Sargent, co-owner and chef of the forthcoming Country Mile in Watertown. “But if you’re not willing to wait for a year, or maybe two years, then don’t bother.”
Like any independent restaurateurs opening a new space, husband-and-wife duo Matt and Nancy Sargent — who moved to Massachusetts from Vermont to help open Brewer’s Tap and Table in late 2016 and departed the restaurant in early 2017 — have hit their fair share of potholes along the way. For starters, trying to find a retail space in Greater Boston that could accommodate a restaurant on the smaller size — and that isn’t wildly expensive — was a challenge.
“I spent a lot of my earlier days in the area, so it was natural to want to be back here,” said Matt Sargent, who had been working in restaurants in Vermont — and before that as a timber frame homebuilder — before moving back to Massachusetts. “Boston felt a little intimidating because I don’t know the city particularly well. We wanted to be in Cambridge, Somerville, or Watertown. There are tons of little retail spaces available, but very few allow for food or are able to be built out to accommodate a restaurant space.”
The Sargents looked at several spaces in and around Cambridge but kept being met with disappointment. Then Watertown happened.
“We wound up at a really great space, and I’m glad we lost the others,” said Sargent. “We wound up where we’re supposed to be.”
After finding their ideal space, the Sargents were faced with every business owner’s biggest question: What about the cash?
“After the buildout and licensing and all else is said and done, we’ll be into the place for $300,000 to $400,000,” said Sargent. “That’s a lot of cash for a business that’s notoriously tricky. There aren’t a ton of investors out there who are like, ‘Yeah, here, have $300,000 — we have total faith in you.’”
So the Sargents put together what they could on their own and found a private investor who was also interested in a partnership stake.
“It’s better to find a private backer than to go through a bank,” said Sargent. “Banks don’t want to lend to you unless you have a proven track record. We were lucky because we found a backer that came together in the form of a partnership. He’s also an accountant, so he can keep me in check — having a CPA on board will keep my ass in line.”
(Sargent noted that he did his books and taxes while he was working as a builder, but that it was never his preferred task. “It was always a nightmare, I hated it,” he said. “I like creating, inventing, building, cooking, but keeping up with the money I was spending was a nightmare.”)
Finding a space and finding the money meant the Sargents were well on their way to opening Country Mile. But they still had to build that space out and transform it into a restaurant before they could feed the public. This piece can also get difficult — and expensive. Lucky for the Sargents, Matt spent the first half of his career as a “creative, artsy builder.”
“I’ve always possessed a good design sense and a hands-on ability,” said Sargent. “The whole place is me. I’ve done every bit of woodwork in the place — I built the bar, I did the framing, I did the finish work. These things add up, and we’re lucky we didn’t have to pay a general contractor to do it all because they would have been far more expensive than I was.”
“We wouldn’t have been able to do this if we had to pay someone else,” Sargent continued. “Half a million dollars for a 34-seat restaurant? We couldn’t have justified it.”
Despite it being hard, operators have some degree of control over their space and their funding, but they have very little control over licensing, zoning, and permitting. Sargent’s advice to aspiring restaurateurs: Go to the meetings.
“This part is always going to take forever,” said Sargent. “Learn to endure the speed of the bureaucracy — which is super slow, because there are so many people trying to get similar things done. It took us so long to find a space that by the time the licensing process rolled around, we were like, ‘Great, we’re under way and moving forward toward an actual place where we can cook some actual food.’”
Though they’re still a ways off from opening — late August or early September is conceivable — the Sargents ultimately hope to become an integral part of their little community.
“What makes our spine tingle is being a neighborhood place,” said Sargent. “We want to feed folks like us, living paycheck to paycheck or some step just to the left of that. We hope folks from all over the place come and eat our food, but we’re aiming to captivate the one-mile radius around us.”
Say what you will about Boston’s dining scene, but if there’s one thing it could improve upon — to be sure, it could improve upon much more — it’s that its restaurants could do a better job considering how they relate to and nourish the people (all of the people) who live in the neighborhoods in which they operate. Sargent seems to get that.
“If we’re hopping in two years, we’d love to open another place like this,” he said. “I’m hoping that’s my schtick. Not ‘Mr. 7,000-Square-Foot Restaurant Owner,’ but the guy who has several 1,500-to-2,000-square-foot restaurants that are designed to be embellishments to cool neighborhoods. But maybe I should finish hanging the doors at this place first.”