BELLOWS FALLS -- Gary Smith said running a restaurant is not much different from managing musical artists like Natalie Merchant.
The former record producer, who has also worked with The Pixies, hopes to put to use the same skills he acquired from decades spent in the music industry in the operation of Popolo Restaurant, which he opened with two partners last week in The Square.
"It wasn't that much of a leap, oddly. When I would go on tour with some people, I was managing the artists and there was a band and there was the crew and there was me," he said. "In this case, the band is the kitchen staff, they're making the music, and the crew is the wait staff, they're making sure it all goes out to the customers properly. It's a similar dynamic."
Smith runs the joint with partners Kristen Fehrenbach and John-Michael Maciejewski.
Popolo served its first patrons on Tuesday, May 22; all three partners agreed everything went remarkably smoothly. Smith said every table was reserved three times over throughout the night.
"We had about 125 people at tables and like a trillion people at the bar," he said on Wednesday, May 30. "We opened with a bang ... It's a very affordable menu. You could come here and have dinner and a beer for $12 if you wanted to."
Smith used to run Fort Apache Studios in the Boston area before moving to Bellows Falls to open a music listening room called The Windham and a recording studio on part of
The Windham Development Group purchased the property in 2005. There was a separate attempt by another party to open a restaurant in the spot but it never came to fruition. So Smith took his love of the building -- which is on the National Register of Historic Places -- and got in contact with Tony Elliot at WDG to create a plan to make it come alive again.
Most of the space has been unoccupied since it was a coffee shop for Hotel Windham, which closed in 1983.
Smith, the president of the WOOL radio station, approached board members Fehrenbach and Maciejewski, who have culinary experience, with the idea to start a restaurant.
"They're both really good friends of mine and I said, ‘Let's do this together,'" he recalled. That was in February 2011.
Smith said they spent the next eight months devising an accurate business plan before seeking investors. Everything was under consideration -- from the cost of staffing, equipment and rent to taxes and projected revenues in a variety of scenarios.
The investment opportunity was advertised to friends and family and word spread like wildfire. Investments as low as $5,000 and as high as $40,000 came in and now Popolo has between 25 and 30 shareholders. After their goal of opening on Tuesday, May 1, fell through, the partners opened the restaurant's doors on May 22.
Fehrenbach, who has worked in restaurants for most of her adult life, said she has worked in established eateries that haven't run as well as Popolo is so far.
"It's been really fun. It's been great," she said while scooping ice into a glass for a customer. "The community is really happy that we're here. ... It feels very different from other restaurant experiences that I've had."
Maciejewski, the head chef, received his culinary training at the Monadnock School for Natural Cooking and Philosophy before managing Walpole Grocery for several years. He said the staff of 18 has really gelled together in the first week of operation.
"We've exceeded my expectations," he said while working in the kitchen.
Smith said Maciejewski came from a job where he had become an expert in finding local agricultural products, making him particularly capable of running a simple farm-to-table business.
Popolo will be tested by the sour economy and battle the fact that the restaurant industry is prone to failure, as Smith said 95 percent of restaurants close down within their first three years.
But he hopes the Popolo's Italian-inspired food and atmosphere brings people together. That is, after all, what Popolo means in Italian -- people. He would like the business to an everyman's eatery, though he admits it is a tall order.
"It's something that our area is lacking," he said.
The need is not overlooked by the Bellows Falls Village Board of Trustees.
"I think it's great. It's really going to bring people to the downtown area. ," said Trustee Colin James. "It's a great atmosphere. It's classy and affordable and there's great food."
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.