Thursday July 5, 2012

LENOX -- The restaurant entrepreneur who transformed the local dining scene by opening a series of four diverse establishments catering to a wide variety of culinary tastes is making it clear: He’s not going anywhere.

Jason Gordon Macioge has just sold his 51 percent stake in Frankie’s Ristorante Italiano to the Lenox Restaurant Group, Inc., which also owns Alta’s and the Church Street Cafe. He also sold his Fin Japanese eatery operated in partnership with his brother Nick, but plans to hold on to what he calls home bases -- Bistro Zinc and Betty’s Pizza Shack.

In his first public comments since unfounded speculation surfaced several months ago that he was planning to pull out of town entirely, Macioge told The Eagle that, as an intensely hands-on owner, "I come to work seven days a week, I love coming, nothing is actively for sale."

"I’m not going anywhere," he declared, "though a lot of people tell me I am. My family’s here, I live in Tyringham, the Berkshires are my home base, but I will not open another business in the county."

He said he was approached by others who were interested in purchasing Fin and Frankie’s. "It turned out to be good for me," he said. "Everything is for sale for the right price. If someone walked in and offered me a boatload of money for either of the two places, I’d seriously consider it."

Macioge, a Washington, D.C., native, acknowledged that his pending deal for a restaurant operation in the nation’s capital fell through last year because of the recession -- "a blessing in disguise that it didn’t work out." He also turned aside a potential project in New York City after realizing that to continue operating Bistro Zinc and Betty’s, he could not be more than two hours away from Lenox.

But, restless and eager for new challenges, he’s considering the Boston area, where he has three concepts under consideration, close enough to retain his local eateries.

"It’s a matter of picking which one to do and where to do it," he explained, adding that he could not describe them now, but hopes to have one operating within a year, either in Boston, Cambridge, Needham, Somerville or Amherst.

The project would involve a casual approach, likely a small chain, Macioge said. He also has a potential TV series in development. He was a contestant on the NBC reality series "America’s Next Great Restaurant" in spring 2011, and his novel, "Only the Names Have Changed," was published by Gadd Books in July 2011.

In his view, opportunities for expansion in the Berkshires are limited by declining year-round population and obstacles facing young people seeking employment.

"The Berkshires have been good and bad to me," he continued. "Lenox is a beautiful place, but in the past it’s been difficult to do business in this town. I hope things are going to change. I see some positive things on the horizon."

Macioge, 39, cited a continuing problem -- some downtown businesses close for the winter, reducing the incentive for people to visit Lenox. His policy of remaining open every day, except on Thanks giving and Christmas, will continue for the sake of local customers as well as retaining long-term staffers, he stressed. His restaurants employ 45 people in high season, fewer during the winter.

Unlike some other restaurateurs, Macioge has not seen an upward bump in business from new shoulder-season events such as the Berkshire Cycling Classic and the Berk shire Bri tish Motorcar Festival.

While Macioge attributed the sale of his interests in Frankie’s and Fin to "mental stress, not physical stress of actually being there," he conceded: "I like the anxiety, the pressure. I’m bored right now, totally."

He opened his first business, Buddy Boys’ Specialty Foods in 1993 (six sweet-and-spicy BBQ sauces and a Bloody Mary mix), and served as a bartender, bar manager and waiter at the Shaker Mill Tavern in West Stockbridge, a dishwasher at Church Street Cafe in Lenox and a bartender at the Union Bar & Grill in Great Barrington.

In 1999, he created Bistro Zinc on Church Street in Lenox, a classic French bistro, in partnership with Charles Schulze, who owns the building and half the business. He was also an original co-owner of the former Pearl’s Steakhouse in Great Barrington.

Betty’s opened in 2002, followed by Fin in 2004 and Frankie’s in 2007.

Macioge sees much more restaurant competition in Lenox and Pittsfield, but not more people in the area.

"It’s tough, especially staying open all year, to make a living," he said. "We’ve had a good, long run here and we’ll continue to do so." He contended that restaurants are cyclical -- "today’s top dog can be tomorrow’s scalded dog."

Any regrets? "I would have been best off if I had sold all my places in my fourth or fifth year in business," said Ma cioge. "That’s when you’re hot, you’re peaking, everything’s running really well, you’re still new, you’re not old. I wish I had done that. I should have sold these joints and headed out to a place where there are more people."

To reach Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6247
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto