FULL PLATE: Rob Tomasso, left, and Noah Donnelly, co-owners of The Roi, are looking to create an environment that caters to both dinner and live-entertainment crowds. PBN PHOTO/TRACY JENKINS
By Victor Paul Alvarez
The old mantra “location, location, location” suggests that where one opens a business is crucial to success. It does not, however, define a good location. That definition is up for interpretation by the developers who roll the dice – and their capital – on a location for their business.
The new owners of The Roi, which held an official reopening on Sept. 12 on Providence’s Chestnut Street, are among those who believe in the potential of a location with a history of turnover – a place that “used to be” another successful business. Rhode Islanders, after all, are fond of giving directions using landmarks that “used to be” something else.
The Chestnut Street location once was home to The Century Lounge, which shuttered its doors a few years ago. Originally opened in 2012, The Roi’s new owners saw a turnkey bar, restaurant and nightclub in a busy part of the city that is poised to get busier as the Knowledge District grows.
“With only a few other restaurants in our immediate area we knew that our lunch crowd would be a good part of our business and be able to grow as the area builds up,” said Rob Tomasso, co-owner of The Roi.
Tomasso is the broker-owner of Shea Realty in Providence. He is also a licensed contractor with experience in property renovations and new construction. Earlier this year, he took over The Roi with co-owner Noah Donnelly, who brings 25 years of hospitality-industry experience to the venture. Both men believe a good location is important to success, but their definition of “good” is flexible.
“We saw the need for local business lunching and event catering, which is now becoming a growing part of our business,” Tomasso said. “We also plan on offering delivery in the near future to reach other parts of the city.”
Tomasso hired Providence chef Travis W. Lawton to take over The Roi’s kitchen. Lawton has worked for popular restaurants such as Down- City and the beloved Providence Bookstore Café, formerly in Wayland Manor.
“The big change I see in Providence is people returning to local, seasonal products,” Lawton said. “I hate to call it a movement, because it’s not new. People just forgot about it. My grandparents always had a big garden so I’ve always eaten locally and seasonally.”
He believes The Roi stands out because it is just as suited to a business lunch as it is to an anniversary dinner or a night out for cocktails with upscale bar food and live music. Call it modern comfort food that’s refined, but not stuffy.
He also believes a good location can be made, not found.
“Look at the change from The Decatur Lounge to The Avery. People loved the Decatur because they let dogs in and they had cheap ’Gansetts and The Stooges on the jukebox. People love The Avery because you can get a good Manhattan and it’s chill and refined. It’s like reincarnation backwards – new soul, same body.”
That was exactly the idea behind The Decatur Lounge’s transformation into The Avery. Sometimes a location becomes a “good location” by the sheer will of its owner. The Avery, for example, thrives in the West End without so much as a sign one can see from the street. It’s hard to find at 18 Luongo Square, seats less than 50 and has no kitchen.
“I think the big take away is the scale at which you work,” said owner/manager John “J.R.” Richard.
“We’ve become somewhat of a destination in spite of our location because of what we’ve created,” Richard said. “If you’re a chain or larger establishment, location can be the deciding factor in your success.”
Richard is the man who made The Avery work, but he goes out of his way to credit Mike Sears – business partner, friend and longtime colleague – for the conceptualization. Sears is the owner of popular city establishments such as Lili Marlene’s and Justine’s – both of which, while not hidden, could be easily missed.
Richard is known in the city for his time behind a dozen bars, including Lupo’s, J.G. Goff’s, Amsterdam’s, and Maverick’s. Despite his view on the importance of location, his decision to open The Avery was simple.
“It was available,” he said.
“I worked at The Decatur when it first opened and was a frequent customer,” Richard said. “So I knew the location well. Also, there’s been a bar in that location since the end of Prohibition.”
Richard and Sears create spaces that are nondescript from the outside, relying on word of mouth and good will. Location is not the driving factor. Not yet.
“I don’t know how many times people have come in and commented on how hard The Avery is to find,” Richard said. “As I’m fond of telling people, if there’s ever a time when business starts going south, then that’s when the advertising begins and the huge sign will spring up outside.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Fat Belly’s Pub owner and President Scott Parker has signs up all over the state. He traveled to Europe after graduating Johnson & Wales University in 1992.
When he came home, Parker did time at Capriccio and Cafe Nouvo before reopening The Canfield House in Newport as executive chef. He started the Fat Belly’s family of pubs with his childhood friend Brian Murphy when a small space became available in Warwick in 2006.
“We knew that there was something special with this store and with the name Fat Belly’s. Serving upscale pub food, we became a neighborhood favorite,” he said.
Now he has seven locations around the state, including a new Fat Belly’s on Metacom Avenue in Warren where the Tuscan Tavern once was located.
“Growing up I would go to the old Tuscan Tavern. I knew the area well and loved the people from that area. When I first looked at the area I saw how busy the traffic count was on Metacom Avenue.”
The Fat Belly’s in Warren is Parker’s biggest eatery.
“Location is the most important thing when opening a restaurant.” Parker said. “I have been lucky to have very good locations when opening a Fat Belly’s.”
One benefit of his success is that potential locations for new eateries now often come looking for him.
“I have gotten hundreds of calls but you have to pick and choose without growing too fast,” he said. “I am currently working with my architect, my managers and developers to make up an ideal Fat Belly’s that we find to be the best fit and then, hopefully, can market it to spread throughout New England and, hopefully, the country.” •