The Y Factor
Monica Velgos - March 2008
"Entitled" generation? Think again. Two twenty-somethings bring creative dash, fiscal resourcefulness, and a steadfast work ethic to a Boston neighborhood in social flux. Dazzling drinks and star-quality cuisine served on the side.
Old beer barrels for tables, broken woodwork, walls and floors generously seasoned from years of projectile beer bottles—it was just another old-school Irish pub in Boston, declining in tandem with the city's number of illegal Irish immigrants. To Brian Piccini, however, the 100 year old building with its huge mahogany bar would be the nightclub he dreamed of for his neighborhood: an exciting oasis in working-class Dorchester that would cater to hip urbanites like himself priced out of the city's trendy South End.
Bolstered by the culinary passion of executive chef Christopher Coombs, Piccini fulfilled his ambition, creating the 65 seat dbar in 2005, whose remarkable recent growth is a steady 10 to 20 percent each month. More noteworthy, however, is that Piccini founded his bar/restaurant when just 24 years old, handing Coombs the kitchen last year when Coombs was only 22.
A killer "app"—and entrées, too
In a town boasting a high-tech "incubator" firm that funds biz kids still in their teens, it's tempting to benchmark Piccini and Coombs' aspirations to those of their young peers. The difference, though, is that they're filling a void in a neighborhood on an upswing rather than creating, say, just another social networking site for a glutted online market.
Likewise, using other people's money to make quick millions wasn't the plan--or fantasy--either, says Piccini. "I wanted a place for people to hang out, have cocktails, do nightclub stuff," he says. He financed dbar with his own hard-earned cash from years running the lighting system at Avalon and bartending at Aquitaine. For his part, Coombs brought a decade of culinary experience, starting from age 12 at a neighbor's seafood restaurant on Boston's North Shore and culminating in an 18 month stint at The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia.
Today, the combination of their diligence and creativity delights customers with espresso Martinis on tap and drinks such as the Honeysuckle Caipirinha and Wokka Sake Green TeaTini made with Zen green tea liqueur. It surprises them with appetizers like seared foie gras over toasted brioche with fig, pineapple, grapes, house-brandied cherries, homemade "nutella" sauce, and frozen vanilla crème of foie gras. It nourishes them with entrées like goat cheese/pistachio–encrusted lamb steak with parsley risotto, root vegetables en cocotte, and natural jus. Not since the Roaring Twenties has this grimy end of Dorchester Avenue seemed so grand.
With little advertising, dbar has gained a diverse group of fans--local and otherwise, singles and families, gay and straight. "When we first opened, rumors spread that we were a gay bar because it's gay owned," says Piccini. "We do have a lot of mixed gay and lesbian clientele, but it's not our mission statement."
Real estate agent friends also created buzz by pointing out dbar to prospective home buyers, a form of "influencer marketing." It even helped to use eye-catching drink names such as French Manicure and Oatmeal Cookie as well as mismatched Martini glasses. "Every glass is unique. It's a little piece of information about dbar people remember and pass along," Piccini explains.
Crash course 101
When Coombs became executive chef in February 2007, the kitchen regenerated. Three day jus-making, precision knife cuts, and thank you calls to farmers became the new standard. His efforts in "using the freshest possible seasonable ingredients to their fullest potential" helped increase total sales 40 percent over 2006 and resulted in phone offers of "$150,000 and a Corvette" or, in one case, $250,000 to open a spot in Boston's South End.
Coombs explains that adapting fine cuisine to dbar's modest kitchen and price point requires "working" each dish meticulously. Only one-third of a crispy seared duck breast fronts an orange/tarragon risotto topped with duck confit and a 1 1/2 ounce nugget of goose foie gras. Surrounded by a gingered Port gastrique, seasonal vegetables, and blood orange suprêmes, the plate isn't spare but spectacular. Some dishes he can't work. "I wanted our ‘pub' burger to be Kobe or Wagyu, but Brian said no," says Coombs. "We're both young, it's still trial and error here."
Trial by fire too, since Coombs had to crack open old Culinary Institute of America textbooks on cost control. "There was absolutely no inventory system here whatsoever, and no monthly breakdowns." The fresh start motivated him to train dishwasher Bruno Maia for the garde-manger position, with results Coombs still finds amazing. Other team members include Jose Alvarado as sous chef and Coombs' former CIA buddy Vincent Burns as pastry chef.
The space constraints and $19 entrée ceiling put a limit on dbar's food profits. Private bookings help, and during warmer months there's 45 percent additional seating in a seductively lit back patio and lowered food costs courtesy of Coombs' Virginia-inspired rooftop garden.
To boost beverage profits, Piccini doubled the wine list to 200 labels and asked his servers to "know everything about" a range of 10 each, a strategy that succeeds for part-time student waitstaffers. To turn tables faster on busy weekends, servers recite dessert items instead of giving patrons time with the menu. They also promote dbar's dessert drinks, such as the Pistachio Ponche, made with Piccini's own homemade pistachio liqueur, vanilla vodka, and Amaretto.
Then, there's the nightclub. Flexibly, around 10 p.m., DJs set up--cranking out tunes only after the last diners leave. On weekends, patrons are four deep at the bar. Tables disappear, banquettes fill up, and dancing begins. "We have theme parties," says Piccini. "We've had an '80s night, and every Tuesday it's show tunes night with videos."
Though the nightclub yields the highest profit margin per hour, Piccini says the restaurant provides the one-stop shop that keeps his revelers in Dorchester--and dbar in the news. So much so that a second operation is planned this year with both men as equal partners.
In the meantime, as dbar's clientele broadens, both slowly test the limits. Coombs recasts his menu frequently and highlights premium products in specials and party bookings. Piccini revises the cocktail menu every three months and ponders more savory concoctions, such as a poblano/blackberry Margarita and a Hot ‘n' Dirty Bloody Mary with celery, carrots, olive juice, and garlic-infused vodka.
"It creates havoc on staff training and customer collateral damage, but change is the spice of life," says Piccini. For dining, for dbar, for Dorchester--now there's a mission statement.