Mystic: 'A great place to meet'
Bill Middleton has three restaurants in Mystic and by the end of the year will open a fourth and he’s predicting a very busy year ahead.
“Tourism is coming back. We are seeing it already. There’s just so much pent-up demand and people are coming out like caged animals,” he said.
How does he know that?
“You can tell by the hotel rates, they are up,” he said. “And if you just drive around and look at license plates, you can see where people are coming from.”
The region also is becoming a wedding destination, Middleton said, and that is helping to attract visitors from all across the country who will come for the nuptials and eat at the restaurants, buy at shops and visit attractions.
Middleton’s restaurants are busy and they have been for several months, he said. He operates the Jealous Monk in Olde Mistick Village, Rio Salado off Coogan Boulevard and the newly opened Taquerio in the former MBar at 30 Broadway in downtown Mystic.
And, he’s planning an Italian eatery — Andiamo’s — in the former Friendly’s ice cream restaurant at Exit 90 off of Interstate 95.
That interchange, nicknamed the Golden Triangle, has long been a magnet for visitors, but Middleton believes it’s been underappreciated.
“It has sort of been overlooked,” he said. “Everybody wants to be downtown, that was the thinking. But they sleep at Exit 90 and there seems to be a lot of opportunity out there. It’s lots more accessible and regionally accessible.”
The area where Route 27 connects with Coogan Boulevard was first developed in the early 1970s with Olde Mistick Village, the Steak Loft and Mystic Aquarium, and it has always been busy and a complement to the nearby Mystic Seaport Museum and downtown Mystic. It is where most of the local hotels are located.
And it is where Middleton, who spent 25-plus years in the investment business, opened his first restaurant in what he describes as “sort of my retirement gig.”
The Jealous Monk, “a vaguely European beer hall,” opened in 2016 in what locals still remember as the site of a Newport Creamery. Middleton bought out Jon Kodama, who was operating a seafood restaurant there at the time.
'Crisis creates options'
A native of Pittsburgh and graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, Middleton worked for the Rockefeller family resorts in his younger years, including stints at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in Arizona, and St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
He likens Mystic today to Jackson Hole in the early 1990s, before it exploded as a tourist mecca.
“You are starting to see a lot of that same activity here that you saw early on there before Jackson Hole was la-la-land,” he said.
Middleton settled in Mystic in 1995, when he was working for a New York investment firm. In the early 2000s he went off on his own, opening Sound Portfolio Advisors, which he sold in 2018, two years after opening the Jealous Monk.
In December 2019, he opened Rio Salado off Coogan Boulevard in the former Mystic Boathouse, almost directly across the street from Jealous Monk. The Mexican restaurant was open exactly 90 days before it was forced to close by the state’s shuttering of some businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That was amazingly unpleasant,” Middleton said.
But he had managed money through the credit crisis and that experience was helpful.
"The rotation of the earth didn’t change,” he said. “I knew we had to get through this and there would be opportunities at the other end of this. I didn’t know what they would look like but if you could get through it, there’s always opportunities. Crisis creates options.”
Without the support of government pandemic programs, Middleton believes even more restaurants — “the overwhelming majority of restaurants” — would have failed, so he is grateful.
“That alphabet soup of programs, they were extremely helpful,” he said. “I think we would have survived without them, but it would have been very unpleasant and others would not have made it.”
But things are looking up and the two projects he had started work on before the pandemic are moving ahead.
Taquerio, a casual place in a former gas station that advertises “hot tacos & cold margaritas,” opened May 18 and there were customers waiting to get in a day later. With a great deal of outdoor space, he called the place “a CDC dream restaurant.”
And, he is optimistic his Italian eatery will open later this year.
“I think there’s a pent-up demand for that big, family-style, Italian red sauce kind of joint,” he said, when asked why Italian. “It will be Brooklyn Italian, with no aspiration to authentic Italian, whatever that is.”
He leases the space for all of his restaurants and takes time to develop his concepts before moving ahead.
“Both of those projects were in discussions for a couple of years,” he said. “... These were both very long-cycle projects that just happened to come together at the same time,” and yes, he adds, “just as we come out of COVID.”
From his vantage point, the future is bright. “People feel like they have done their part. COVID fatigue was real and people have definitely started to come out again,” he said. “You can read the headlines and the articles, but we have a front-row seat to people’s behavior.”
The pie gets bigger
Mystic, he said, is an appealing destination.
“We are halfway between New York and Boston and each one gets a little closer every day,” Middleton said. “Also, we are a great regional destination. Draw a one-hour circle around here and that’s a lot of people. That’s Providence and Hartford and New Haven and Mystic is a great place to meet.”
Finding the necessary help and quality employees is always a challenge but Middleton, who estimates he will employ about 120 people over all his restaurants, said he has been fortunate.
“That’s really my one job,” he said. “To create an environment where people want to work, to create that culture where people want to work. If you do that, you end up with great people and more customers, it’s a self-reinforcing cycle.”
And the more restaurants, the better, he said.
“Over the years you see restaurants open and other restaurant owners say, ‘Oh, how many restaurants can we have? That’s gonna kill us.’ But it actually doesn’t work that way. I don’t see it as competitive at all. What actually happens is you keep growing the pie, so every one might get a narrower slice but what you end up with is more pie."
"So, options beget options and people like to go places where there are a lot of options.”