Bill Middleton has three restaurants in Mystic and by the end of the year will be opening a fourth and he anticipates a very busy year ahead.
“Tourism is coming back. We are already seeing it. There is so much pent-up demand and people come out like caged animals, ”he said.
How does he know this?
“You can tell by the hotel rates, they’re going up,” he says. “And if you just drive around and look at the license plates, you can see where people are coming from.”
The area is also emerging as a wedding destination, Middleton said, helping to attract visitors from across the country who will come for the nuptials and eat in restaurants, shop in stores and visit attractions.
Middleton’s restaurants are busy and have been for several months, he said. It operates the Jealous Monk in Olde Mistick Village, Rio Salado off Coogan Boulevard and the newly opened Taquerio in the old MBar at 30 Broadway in downtown Mystic.
And he’s planning an Italian restaurant – Andiamo’s – in the old Friendly’s ice cream restaurant at Exit 90 of Interstate 95.
This exchange, dubbed the Golden Triangle, has long drawn visitors, but Middleton believes it has been underestimated.
“It has kind of been overlooked,” he said. “Everyone wants to be downtown, that was the thought. But they are sleeping on exit 90 and there seems to be a lot of opportunity there. It is much more accessible and accessible at the regional level. “
The area where Route 27 connects to Coogan Boulevard was first developed in the early 1970s with Olde Mistick Village, the Steak Loft and the Mystic Aquarium, and it has always been busy and complements the Mystic Seaport Museum in proximity to and downtown Mystic. This is where most of the local hotels are located.
And that’s where Middleton, who has spent more than 25 years in the investment industry, opened his first restaurant in what he describes as “kind of my retirement gig.”
The Jealous Monk, “a vaguely European brewery,” opened in 2016 in what locals still remember as the site of a Newport dairy. Middleton bought out Jon Kodama, who operated a seafood restaurant there at the time.
“The crisis creates options”
A native of Pittsburgh and a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, Middleton worked for the Rockefeller family resorts in his youth, including stays in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Arizona and St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands.
He compares Mystic today to Jackson Hole in the early 1990s, before it exploded as a tourist mecca.
“You’re starting to see a lot of the same activity here that you saw early on there before Jackson Hole was la-la-land,” he said.
Middleton moved to Mystic in 1995, while working for a New York investment firm. In the early 2000s, he left 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 on Coogan Boulevard in the former Mystic Boathouse, almost directly across from Jealous Monk. The Mexican restaurant was open exactly 90 days before it was forced to close by the state closure of some businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was incredibly unpleasant,” Middleton said.
But he had managed the money during the credit crunch and that experience was useful.
“The rotation of the earth has not changed,” he said. “I knew we had to get through this and there would be opportunities on the other end of the line. I didn’t know what they would look like but if you could get through there are always opportunities. The crisis creates options.
Without the support of government pandemic programs, Middleton believes more restaurants – “the overwhelming majority of restaurants” – would have failed, so he’s grateful.
“This alphabet soup of programs, they’ve been extremely helpful,” he said. “I think we would have survived without them, but it would have been very unpleasant and others would not have survived.”
But things are improving and the two projects he had started working on before the pandemic are moving forward.
Taquerio, a laid-back spot in an old gas station that advertises “hot tacos and cold margaritas,” opened on May 18 and customers were waiting to enter a day later. With plenty of outdoor space, he called this place a “CDC dream restaurant”.
And he’s optimistic his Italian restaurant will open later this year.
“I think there’s a pent-up demand for that big, family-style Italian red sauce joint,” he said, when asked why the Italian. “It will be Brooklyn Italian, without any aspirations for authentic Italian, anyway.”
He rents the space for all of his restaurants and takes the time to develop his concepts before moving forward.
“These two projects had been under discussion for a few years,” he said. “… These were two very long cycle projects that came together at the same time,” and yes, he adds, “just as we come out of COVID.”
From his point of view, the future is bright. “People feel like they’ve done their part. The fatigue from COVID was real and people definitely started to come out of it again, ”he said. “You can read the headlines and the articles, but we have a front row seat to how people behave.”
The pie grows bigger
Mystic, he says, is an attractive destination.
“We’re halfway between New York and Boston and everyone is getting closer every day,” Middleton said. “In addition, we are a great regional destination. Draw a one hour circle here and it’s a lot of people. This is Providence and Hartford and New Haven and Mystic is a great place to meet.
Finding the help needed and quality employees is always a challenge, but Middleton, who estimates he will employ around 120 people in all of his restaurants, said he was lucky.
“It’s really my only job,” he said. “Create an environment where people want to work, create this culture where people want to work. If you do this you end up with great people and more clients, it’s a cycle of self-reinforcement. “
And the more restaurants, the better, he says.
“Over the years you see restaurants open and other restaurateurs say, ‘Oh, how many restaurants can we have? It will kill us. But it doesn’t work that way. I don’t see it as competitive at all. What actually happens is you keep growing the pie, so everyone can have a narrower slice, but what you get is more pie. “
“So options breed options and people like to go places where there are a lot of options.”