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Rumor Mill: Was Spice the Emperor’s New Clothes?

Rural Intelligence: Community: Passages Image

I confess I never had faith in Spice. And I always felt guilty, because it seemed that not believing in Spice was akin to questioning whether Pittsfield itself could rebound, and who does not want that? Still, I was sad but not surprised to read in the Berkshire Eagle that the restaurant was closing due to a financial crisis and an untenable $7.8 million mortgage.

I was introduced to Spice on its opening day in June 2006, by Julianne Boyd, the artistic director of Barrington Stage Company, whose office is around the corner. I was awed by the restaurant’s size and ambitions. It looked like an expense account restaurant in Chicago or Atlanta, and I was pretty certain that downtown Pittsfield was not filled with free-spending executives who can charge three rounds of Grey Goose martinis to the boss on a Tuesday night.

I kept these thoughts to myself when I was introduced to co-owner Joyce Bernstein, who seemed suspiciously calm for someone opening such an enormous venture. I asked her if she’d ever run a restaurant, and she blithely answered “no.”  That explained why she was not frazzled, I thought; she simply had no idea of what she was getting herself into. She showed me the beautiful restrooms with the old elevator cage from when the building was a department store and the meticulous kitchen that looked like an operating theater. She was rightly proud of the renovation of the old Besse-Clarke building on North Street. It was as
impressive as it was improbable. Where was she going to find the clientele to fill this restaurant night after night so she could make her money back?

Though I ate at Spice only five or six times (I live an hour away or I might have gone more often), I never ate in the dining room, which I thought felt like a fancy banquet hall. I liked the lounge for dinner. If you got there early enough, you could get a proper table in the bar area and have a really wonderful meal of the small plates; everyone I know raved about the mini Kobe burgers. (And if you had leftovers, the doggie bags were awesome.)  It was the perfect spot to have a light meal before walking down the street to a performance at Barrington Stage.

Yet, there was always something unsettling about dining at Spice, a sense that it was on the verge of spinning out of control.  More than once I saw the owner upbraiding one of the young, well-meaning servers.  Didn’t she know she should take them into the kitchen for a dressing down?  The last time I was there on a busy Saturday night, I saw empty tables with dirty dishes, which is inexcusable in an upscale restaurant. I saw people cancel orders that hadn’t yet arrived because they were going to be late for a play. They were angry and no one came to soothe them and pay for their drinks.

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Nevertheless, many people loved Spice. I always assumed that it was not so much for the food and drink as for the restaurant’s symbolic role in the community and the fact that the owners were so generous to local causes. Fortunately, its sister restaurant, the very affordable Burger, which has an adorable staff [photo right], remains open for now.

Spice owners Joyce Bernstein and Larry Rosenthal misread the market. They had pie-in-the-sky dreams. They are not alone.  We live in an era of grandiose expectations, followed by bursting bubbles.  I happened to check the blog today of the Boulderwood Group, a real estate company based in Stockbridge, MA, which cautioned: “We all need to wake up and review some general truisms and principles by which to live!! Firstly, if something seems too good to be true (like repackaging crappy mortgages into A or better-rated mortgage-backed securities), it usually is too good to be true!!”

Was Spice too good to be true or just not good enough? 


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Posted by Dan Shaw on 03/20/08 at 04:44 AM • Permalink