J.B. Blau, owner of the Year-Round Restaurant Group, has been an avid supporter of the Vineyard since 1997. His restaurants include Sharky’s, M.V. Chowder Co., Copper Wok, and Loft & Pizza di Napoli, and he is also an operating partner at Sea Smoke BBQ. His Island journey has been somewhat unique, and informed by his strong business ethic.
As a young man, Blau moved to the Island in a self-described “midlife crisis” while still in his 20s. After casting about for work, he opened a gallery named Jabas on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs, and later a second store in Vineyard Haven. Because he had seen how a restaurant could transform a neighborhood back in his college days in Maine, Blau began to collaborate with friends on restaurants, including Sharky’s, M.V. Chowder Co., Copper Wok, and others. He says, “After being here for years, I started to realize what I personally was missing, and tried to create businesses that I enjoyed.” He hoped others would too, and indeed they have.
Being so young also made him relatively fearless — Blau says that starting a business was easy, particularly without the responsibilities of a family. Plus, “everything cost less back then — lower rents, lower cost of living, lower everything.” After buying out his partners and personally taking on the risks involved, he sees more clearly what those risks are. Now that he has a young family, he has intentionally not opened any new businesses in recent years. His decision to remain open year-round has been important to him and his staff, though that has its challenges, particularly housing.
Notoriously, the restaurant business is challenging, no matter where the location, and very few survive and flourish for any significant amount of time. Adding to that is the Island dynamic, which imposes seasonal flux on the number of both customers and workers. Blau says he has set high standards for the people he employs, and is grateful that those “best people in the industry” have attracted more of their kind. He says that “a good culture, fueled 100 percent by the staff, really does create an ecosystem of competence and good ethics, and it attracts other great people.” He hopes he can maintain that balance for the long term, but says he is willing to close restaurant doors if he cannot.
Blau says he is very attuned to the aggregated input from his guests, and he does not try to impose trendy concepts or take money from customers without making sure he is committed to them, even printing his cell phone number on most receipts. He also uses social media like Facebook and Instagram to make himself more available than most business owners, and really listens to his customers so he can improve his businesses. “I put myself out there because I want people to complain to me, to vent, to share their real opinions, and to help us get better.”
Blau, having slashed much of his advertising budget years ago, makes heavy use of social media, including Facebook, Google, text messaging, email, and Instagram. Facebook in particular enables him to reach a large audience, including a more mature audience who may have disposable income. He also hopes for word of mouth from service people like taxi drivers and hotel staff, who recommend his restaurants partly because they are his year-round clients, and he caters to them with discounts and specials. One such loyal customer, Bren Grandizio, “appreciate[s] the amazing deals J.B. provides for year-round residents. I also have seen J.B. do amazing things for people in need in our community.”
Blau’s plans for the future do not include opening more restaurants; he will instead focus on making his existing businesses stronger so they can continue to flourish year-round. For example, he plans to “stay current with certain nutritional and culinary trends, and of course upgrade and redesign some of the locations as needed.” While enjoying the demands of a young family, Blau continues to be in close touch with his customers, who advise him if something is a problem, or prompt him to send kudos to his staff. He appreciates the community effort by the many people who he believes “know what is best for our business … it is what makes [the Vineyard] such a special place to live, [and] I don’t think I would get that kind of support anywhere else in the country.”
Despite fierce competition and the high costs of running a business here, Blau’s advice has proven successful for a very long time. “Listen to your guests, do what you believe is right, and run a high moral business that attracts good people. So simple, but so complicated.”