New Owners, New Life for Jake’s
From Ryan Road Elementary to Martha’s Vineyard, and from “fine dining” to “no frills,” two old friends move up the food chain.
NORTHAMPTON – Two professional chefs – longtime co-workers and best friends since kindergarten – have purchased Jake’s, the “no frills” breakfast-and-lunch joint at 17 King St. downtown, and plan to re-open it in two months, Northampton Media has learned.
Alex Washut, 27, a 2008 graduate of the Culinary Arts Institute, and Chris Ware, 28, executive chef at the Northampton Brewery Bar & Grille for the past several years, have bought the business and signed a five-year lease with landlords Gary and Carol Perman of Westhampton. The new owners live in Florence, where they grew up.
While they declined to reveal the financial aspects of the deal, Ware and Washut said the terms were reasonable and that Perman – who with his wife Carol purchased the building and business a year ago from longtime owner-restaurateur Daniel Workman of Northampton – was very accommodating.
“It was a good reasonable number,” said Washut. “We thought it was very fair, and it’s within our budget. We’re very confident in what we can do with it and make it work. We’re really excited about it.”
In an extended interview Sunday, the two entrepreneurs spoke about their long-standing friendship, their extended careers in the restaurant business and their plans to revive and reinvigorate Jake’s, the iconic downtown eatery.
From a June Closing to a July Deal
Jake’s has played a special role in the city. Even before Workman’s tenure began in 1986, it had become the city’s melting pot. Among the regular customers were lawyers and defendants, storekeepers and shoppers, singles at the bar and families on the weekends, townies and tourists, the city’s elite and those with only spare change in their pockets.
Regulars at Jake’s were disappointed when interim owner Melissa Flynn Brunt of Easthampton, who began managing the restaurant in July 2010 after signing a deal with the Permans, threw in the towel and closed Jake’s doors in mid-June, seemingly for good. (To see Northampton Media’s story on the 2010 sale, and a brief history of that building, click here.)
In June, a Springfield man who had expressed interest in operating a restaurant there, centrally located next to the Calvin Theater in the heart of downtown, approached the city License Commission, but never completed the paperwork.
For weeks, a sign in the window advertised the space was for lease. That sign disappeared a little over a week ago, apparently when Ware and Washut signed their agreement.
The deal-making was taking place behind the scenes. The restaurant’s regular customers were jones-ing for a Jake’s break.
Word of a sale began circulating among the downtown business community last week, and Northampton Media tracked it down to the two chefs working at the Brewery.
The two friends said they plan to reopen Jake’s about Oct. 1, after doing a lot of planning and some minor changes to the inside.
While they plan to keep the menu pretty much as is – as well as the hometown ambience of Jake’s from the Workman era – they promised to try out a few new wrinkles.
“We’re going to keep the core,” said Washut, who did most of the talking. “But we’re going to play around and have a little fun. We’re not going to lose our heads about it.”
After all, he said, “It”s a perfect location.”
One idea the two chefs concocted is to offer dinners on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, staying open until 11 p.m. Although Workman had tried late-night meals for a few years, he ended the practice and Jake’s has recently operated as strictly a breakfast and lunch venue, closing its doors at 3 p.m.
Washut and Ware say they’ll do all the cooking, and will have an active presence on the restaurant floor – like Workman did, chatting with the customers, asking about their kids, talking about local politics, effusing that Southern charm.
“You’ve got to work your business. You have to be there and be involved,” said Washut.
“I think that’s what makes a great restaurant stand out from a good restaurant,” he said. “It’s about identifying your return customers and making them feel special just by remembering their name, how they like their eggs.”
Washut recalled how waitresses at Jake’s always refilled his coffee, kept his water glass full, and served up solid, simple meals of eggs and wheat toast and homefries.
“Everybody knows what Jake’s was, and is, and what we went there for. So it’s important to keep that identity.”
Plenty of Offers and a Former Owner’s High Hopes
In the end, Perman said, he was glad to be leasing the space to folks who wanted to operate the business as Jake’s, which has a huge base of support. He said the lease that Ware and Washut signed was a five-year deal.
“I think these guys will take it to the next level and do very well,” said Perman.
Perman told us he had numerous inquiries about the spot. Some, he said, had unworkable ideas about how to re-use the former restaurant; others, he said, couldn’t obtain financing for their plans.
Workman, who was in the restaurant business for 15 years before buying Jake’s from John Smith in the mid-1980s, said he was glad to hear about Ware and Washut’s plans to retain the charm and feel of his old restaurant while merging some new ideas.
“That’s really good news,” Workman told Northampton Media last weekend. He said it would make him happy if the two guys succeed in restoring vitality to the Jake’s brand he cultivated.
And having two young men with energy and restaurant experience working the kitchen and the floor themselves, taking some risks to expand the restaurant’s menu and physical layout, and bringing back that friendly hometown touch to the place – it all sounds good, said Workman.
“I think that’s a recipe for success,” he said. “I’m really hoping they’re going to prosper.”
And as for offering dinner to the late night downtown crowd – something Workman did for years, with some success – he said, “I still think it’s a big market for that.. . .I’m really excited for them.”
A Mother’s Meddling Pays Off
Ware said he was busy working long hours at the Northampton Brewery, but did notice that Jake’s had closed.
“I saw the for lease sign,” he said.
Washut, who had been working a restaurant job in New York City, said his mother called him in June, saying, “Guess what’s for sale? Jakes.”
Washut said he didn’t think about it much, but soon found himself doing a little research, and spotted the Northampton Media story about the 2010 sale.
Behind the scenes, though, Washut’s mother, Kathleen, was at work, contacting Perman from the phone number in the window and convincing him her son was a serious contender.
“Then a day later, I get this phone call from Mr. Gary Perman,” Washut recalled. “This is Gary. I hear you’re interested in buying (Jakes).”
“Sure, I’ll think about it,” Washut remembers saying, in so many words.
As he has over the years, Alex called his best friend back in Northampton, Chris Ware.
Ware said he was sort of paying attention to Jake’s, seeing it sold, open under new management and then close. But he hadn’t given it much thought. “I was so busy with work,” he said. “But once that seed was planted, (we) were in constant contact.”
In all, the negotiations took about 10 days. The guys said their lawyer and accountant checked out the proposal, and then it was done. They formed their own limited liability corporation, Washut & Ware LLC, a 50-50 partnership, and signed on the dotted line.
From Fine Dining to No-Frills
We asked them whether two fine-dining chefs who between them have worked some high-profile restaurants would be satisfied cooking up eggs and homefries, BLTs and tuna club sandwiches.
“I think it’s every fine-dining chef’s desire is to get out of fine dining (and) get back to reality. . .with dreams of opening up a breakfast and lunch place, and not work 100 plus hours a week,” said Washut.
“Even though we will,” Ware added. “Yeah, we will,” said Washut.
“You get so intense sometimes, it consumes your life. Sometimes you put a little too much time into things that just don’t need it,” said Washut.
On the other hand, cooking dinners will let the two experienced chefs produce some special dishes they’ve developed over the years, food that wouldn’t appear on the ”traditional” Jake’s menu.
Ware and Washut said they have been close friends since kindergarten at the Ryan Road School in Florence, a bond they have maintained over the past twenty-something years. “We went from play dates to double dates,” Washut joked.
Ware, who began as a line cook at the Brewery at age 17, called his friend Alex to take a dishwashing job. Both moved up the food chain. When Chris got a job on Martha’s Vineyard, he called Alex and the two worked summers there.
Washut kept moving, ending up in New York City this spring, living in a hostel and working at fancy Upper East Side supper clubs. Five years ago, Ware returned to Northampton and to the Brewery.
At Skidmore College, Ware had studied biochemistry; but after working great restaurant jobs he knew he’d make a mistake by not working as a chef. “I decided I’d rather wear a chef’s coat than a lab coat,” he said.
During his 20-month training through the Culinary Arts Institute, Washut said, he interned at the Brigtsen’s Restaurant in New Orleans. Later stints included an executive chef’s position at Oyster Bar and Grill in Oak Bluffs and work at the State Road Restaurant in West Tisbury, both on the Vineyard.
As for a theme in their new version of Jake’s, Ware said they haven’t figured that out yet.
But Washut said he was always fascinated at Workman’s collection of antique food and coffee containers on an upper ledge, especially an old Quaker Oats box.
“We want to keep that image, it has to do with the feeling of it,” said Washut. “Keep it fun. We’re not going to take ourselves too seriously. I mean we are.”
© 2011 Northampton Media
David Reid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org