Stephen Silverstein '77
If there’s such a thing as a traditional path to becoming a successful restaurateur, Stephen Silverstein ’77 did not take it. He started his career as a CPA at a public accounting firm before moving home to New Bedford, MA to join the family business. Silverstein’s Clothing, which his great-grandfather opened in 1900, was a community landmark. Silverstein enjoyed his homecoming, but he noticed something was missing from the neighborhood.
“Quite simply, there was no place to eat,” he says. “So despite the fact I had never been in the restaurant business, I decided to open a restaurant.”
Even though he was new to the industry, Silverstein had four generations of customer service experience in his blood. Not Your Average Joe’s, Silverstein’s first restaurant, opened in Dartmouth in 1994. It had a casual and festive atmosphere.
The menu featured fresh and sumptuous fare served without pretension. Before long, it took off. Over the next 24 years, Joe’s expanded to almost 30 locations across six states.
When asked about the key to this success, Silverstein has a simple answer. “Make people happy. What we say is ‘make friends today, make money tomorrow.’ Our secret sauce is to be operationally-oriented and not financially-oriented.”
Prioritizing customer satisfaction, of course, is a good recipe for financial success. In 2018, Silverstein retired as the CEO of Not Your Average Joe’s after growing it into a $100 million company. “Retired” might be misleading, though, because he’s been very busy since. He bought back his original Joe’s location in Dartmouth, which he renamed Joe’s Original, and he has thrown himself into opening new restaurants in and around New Bedford.
A recent partnership with Cisco Brewing has been quite successful. Not Your Average Joe’s was consistently one of Cisco’s biggest buyers, and Silverstein became close with the owners over the years. “They kept asking me to do a project where I’d do the food and they’d do the beer,” Silverstein says, but his plate was always full running his restaurants.
After retiring, he learned that Davy’s Locker, an iconic seafood restaurant in the South End of New Bedford, was for sale. “I went and looked at it, and I made the guy an offer,” Silverstein says. “I immediately called the Cisco people and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this great location. You’ve always wanted to do something. This is the spot.’ And right away they said, ‘We’re in.’”
The venture, Cisco Brewers Kitchen & Bar, is a sprawling waterfront entertainment complex. It features indoor and outdoor dining, seven different bars, and sundry spaces for live music and family fun. Much like the other restaurants Silverstein has opened, the complex has contributed to New Bedford’s ongoing resurgence as a cultural destination.
By the end of the year, he will have seven restaurants in the area, including The Black Whale and Cultivator Shoals. With plans already in place for two forthcoming restaurants, Silverstein shows no signs of slowing down. But he is getting help. His son William, who worked as a manager at New York’s prestigious Eleven Madison Park restaurant, moved home two years ago to join the team.
“Will went to Cornell’s hospitality school and is passionate about this industry,” Silverstein says. He enjoys working with his son and is proud of the fact that five generations of Silversteins have operated successful and beloved businesses in New Bedford.
Peter Boniface '87 & David Pepin '87
“I ended up here by accident,” says Peter Boniface ’87. After college, Boniface moved to Steamboat Springs, CO to live the ski bum dream with his good Tabor friend, the late Sean Horton ’87. “That was a fun time,” Boniface says. “Getting out of college and pouring drinks in a ski town.”
David Pepin ’87 was working in Boston for the Back Bay Restaurant Group. He visited often, flying west for skiing and backpacking adventures. “The Yampa Valley is beautiful,” he says. “There are three hundred days of sunshine and it seemed like Pete was onto something.”
Boniface may have arrived accidentally, but he was intentional about finding a way to stay. “After a couple years of messing around, I started thinking about how we could make this sustainable. What are some opportunities we could capitalize on?” One of the things he and Pepin talked about was that nobody in Colorado knew how to make a good sandwich.
When they were at Tabor, they would go to Cape Cod to surf with their friends. On the way back to school, they’d stop at Boniface’s home in, of all places, Sandwich. “My mom is Italian and she’d bring out this whole spread,” he says. “We would jam some wild sandwiches. So that’s where it all got started for us.”
In 1999, they took out a small bank loan and opened the Yampa Sandwich Company in the heart of Steamboat Springs. “I had never opened my own business before, but I understood the fundamentals of showing up and working hard,” Pepin says. Today, they have six locations across Colorado and have earned a reputation for crafting fresh sandwiches with unique flavors.
Pepin laughs when asked if there was much of a learning curve en route to their success. “Every day is a learning curve,” he says. “We’ve been in business twenty-two years. Pete always jokes, right now we’re in chapter twenty-two of the book. And there are some dark days in there.”
After their first two shops took off, they set their sights on expanding to Fort Collins. “It’s a college town,” Pepin says. “There are 140,000 people and we were coming from a community of just over 10,000. We thought it would be a piece of cake. It wasn’t. It was a kick in the drawers.”
They struggled to attract customers. “We were marketing in the wrong directions and we had the wrong team in place,” Pepin explains. “It took a lot of readjustment. We were going down there all the time, leaving our families, and sleeping in our cars. We knew we had to figure it out.” After three hard years, they did.
“That experience drove us to invest in technology and systems and really advance the sophistication of the business to where we could operate from great distances,” Boniface says. Through these efforts, they’ve been able to franchise the Yampa Sandwich Company.
There appear to be two broad drivers of their success. The first is the product. Pepin and Boniface consider themselves “flavor pioneers” and spend a lot of time discussing and experimenting with different ingredients. “It’s all about finding the right flavors and figuring out how to incorporate them in a sandwich,” Boniface says. “Maybe as a sauce or a spread.”
“Out of the eighteen sandwiches we have on the menu,” Pepin says, “every flavor is completely different.” His personal favorite is the Dolomite, a European-styled sandwich accented with red wine vinaigrette. In addition to the regular menu, they also have a seasonal selection that allows them to experiment with new tastes.
“Right now we’re doing this roast pork sandwich with caper aioli and arugula on a toasted sourdough baguette,” Pepin says.
“I actually had that for lunch today,” Boniface interjects.
Pepin looks jealous. “I could eat that one for breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week,” he says.
The second key to their success is that they’re clearly having a blast living in the Rockies and running a business with one of their best friends from Tabor. “That’s what it’s all about,” Pepin says. “The very last line of our mission statement is ‘make sure you have fun.’ After all, we’re just selling sandwiches.”
Barry Lee '08
“To be a good cook,” says Barry Lee ’08, “you need to know how everything tastes.” Over the course of his life and career, he has done a lot of tasting.
“I like to eat,” he says. It’s not just about the immediate gratification of a good meal. Ever since he was a little boy, Lee has been curious about food. “My mom’s my inspiration,” he says. “She’s a really good cook. Growing up, whatever she was making, I was on the side observing.”
Before starting his own restaurant and retail businesses in China, Lee worked at the Michelin-rated Jean-Georges in New York City. He started as a dishwasher and climbed his way up the ladder. “I was running a line in the kitchen and I learned so much,” he says. “In every good kitchen, the food is important, but the execution side and the details of how chefs execute every day with precision is pretty hard.”
After New York, Lee moved to Shanghai to start his own restaurant company. “I was running seven brands at the same time, so that was fun but it was pretty difficult,” he says. “We would open in different areas and then expand slowly.” Lost Heaven, one of his restaurants, is one of the most popular expat eateries in Shanghai.
In 2015, seizing an opportunity to refocus his business efforts, Lee sold the majority of his restaurant brands and launched Jing Republic, a successful retail company that specializes in home goods. He continues to invest in restaurants throughout China, however. Does he miss cooking and the day-to-day life of being a restaurateur? “Of course,” he says. “But I was very hands on. Having a family now, it’s not easy. Being more on the management side and finding the right people has been good.”
Lee credits his time at Tabor with nurturing his culinary curiosity. “One of the reasons I chose Tabor was actually because of the food,” he says. “I visited five schools, ate at all of them, and Tabor was the best.”
As a student, he spent a lot of time in the dining hall. “I got to know one of the chefs because we would talk every morning,” Lee says. “He would make me eggs benedict and I would ask him questions about the kitchen and his management style. That gave me a lot of inspiration, seeing how to make food commercially. It’s different from what we cook at home. And how we cook at home.”
The first meal Lee ever prepared in a commercial kitchen was at Tabor. “Cooking for the Asian Dinner (page 28) was a lot of fun,” he says. “I remember we’d have to make twelve dishes and we’d end up with eight because a few would get burned or messed up.” He pauses and then laughs. “That’s a great memory.”