PITTSFIELD — In just seven years, Ryan Salame has gone from working in restaurants to owning them.
The 28-year-old Berkshire County native, who is also the CEO of a bitcoin company based in the Bahamas, where he lives, began purchasing eateries in Lenox starting with Firefly Gastropub in July 2020, as his career in cryptocurrency took off.
Salame (pronounced Salem), who has also lived in Hong Kong, owns four current or former Lenox restaurants, and two other downtown commercial properties. He's invested over $5 million in Lenox and owns almost half of the town's full service dining establishments. It's hard to imagine now, but 14 years ago he was washing dishes at Martin's, an eatery in Great Barrington.
We spoke to Salame recently about his meteoric rise in cryptocurrency, why he's decided to invest so much in Lenox, and why politics may be part of his future.
Q: You've come a long way in seven years. What would you attribute that to?
A: The crypto market moves very quickly, so for those who are active and active in a good way it shortens the timeline of growth. With the internet it went from 60 years to building something that large maybe down to 10 or 20 years. The crypto industry is a faster iteration than that. It shortened the timeline from 10 to 20 years to maybe three or five.
Q: When you got out of college (UMass Amherst) seven years ago, did you think you would be where you are now?
A: No. When I got out of college [bitcoin] didn't exist. The crypto industry was in its infancy so there was no way to sort of predict this.
Q: Where did you think you would be back then?
A: I was a CPA tax accountant but I was looking to get out of it at the time. I was looking to get a master's degree from Georgetown in finance online (he obtained that degree in 2019) so I was planning to move more into finance. ... So I may have been more of an analyst or I may have gotten lucky and gotten into an investment banking group. But it would have been more of that traditional route.
Q: How did you find out about cryptocurrency?
A: I don't know the exact moment that I stumbled on it, but it was gaining popularity in some online marketplaces. I did [know] some people who had come across it and that made me more inspirational to look into it.
Q: What led you to purchase so many restaurants in Lenox?
A: I had actually loved the restaurant industry when I was [in the Berkshires] and I had done some catering in high school that I loved, and made a ton of friends and a huge network. There's something about providing a sort of experience for people to come in, eat and forget a stressful day. The food and beverage and entertainment world was quite interesting to me because I had done it and loved it and I was happy to get back and involved in it
Laura [Shack], who was the owner of Firefly, indicated to me that she was interested in selling. ... I looked at the financials and everything that Lenox had to offer and I noticed that there were some other investments in Lenox and that was very appealing. A number of things were sort of consolidated there and there seemed to be a lot forming in Lenox. All of this came together to make it reasonable for me to attempt to build on what Laura had. I also had Jane Blanchard who had worked for Laura for a long time so I knew she would manage it and run it.
Q: So how did buying the other restaurants come about?
A: Obviously, Firefly's happening and it's working but what was apparent to me ... actually living in Hong Kong factored into this as well. There was a group there which is essentially buying up restaurants. ... Restaurants at scale have a much stronger likelihood of succeeding. ... It became clear to me that to really make this successful and last for a long time we would sort of have to scale up our purchasing power. So then I started looking at other venues that were available.
Q: Is your goal to buy up the entire town?
A: No, it's not. We'd be interested in doing more on the restaurant side, but there's pros and cons to this, right? ... I plan to launch a foundation called the Lenox Foundation that will take any profits out of this and invest them in the community. ... My objective is to take whatever's sort of available, compete as little as possible, and just add on to what's in Lenox.
When people think about where they want to eat I want them to think that Lenox will be the first place that they'll come. They'll go to our restaurants, but they'll also go to other restaurants owned by other people. I'm not looking to be competitive between places.
Q: You live pretty far away, so do you see your restaurants in the Berkshires more as investments or as properties that you plan to improve and make better?
A: They're certainly investments. We're not trying to lose any money on them. We're trying to get them to the point where they generate positive [income] and we can do things with that in the town. I'm a bit more focused than some others are may be on ensuring that this is beneficial to the community and not opposing anyone or pushing anyone out. ... I do anticipate spending a lot more time in Lenox than I currently have.
Q: Are you planning to buy a second home here?
A: My parents live in Sandisfield, so I can commute to Lenox. I'll go see them when I'm home and spend time there. I don't have any foreseeable plans to purchase a full-time home there. I do stay at one of the inns nearby and have a good relationship with them. ... I've been here [in the Bahamas] for six months and lived in Hong Kong for four years before that, so it's nice to be closer to home now in the U.S. than when I was out there.
Q: Are you interested in purchasing any more restaurants in Lenox or in any of the surrounding areas?
A: Right now if I did it would be in Lenox. I'm not particularly targeting any although I believe that if an owner wanted to sell I would be early on their contact list. We are building out the old [Cafe] Lucia's, which will be named Campfire when that opens. (It was originally going to be called Cookout, but the name has changed.) And I do own that corner building [on Franklin Street] that's next to Prime that used to be a house. We're still [figuring] out what to do with it.
Q: What do you like better, working in bitcoin or owning restaurants?
A: I'm more heavily involved in building out the crypto business that I'm a part of. I'm the CEO of FX Bahamas, which is a regulated entity in the Bahamas (Salame became CEO in September). We're planning on building out the office here and hiring. So in that sense I'm more involved in that. Jane Blanchard really manages what's going on in Lenox and we speak every day. She's the eyes and the ears and the voice of that. I don't know if there's one that I enjoy more. I think long term certainly on the restaurant side once the bitcoin world wears me out a bit, but I enjoy both, and I'm lucky to have the opportunity to do both.
Q: We started off talking about how far you've come in seven years. Where do you think you'll be seven years from now?
A: That's a hard question. Over the past few months I've been getting more involved in the political side of things, and that's basically to help advance crypto education within politics. I'm on the board of a few [political action committees]. We've been looking more at the ways we can educate and support candidates that are excited about crypto, so I've been taking a bit more of a focus on that as of late. I think it would be foolish for me to predict longer than a few years because historically that prediction has never come true. But I would say I'm enjoying what I do now.
Q: Do you see yourself running for office someday?
A: No, I don't. I will say that I really like being involved as the second or third person instead of being the front face. I would love to get more involved with candidates that are excited about crypto. But I think where I shine is behind the scenes and in sort of the build out aspect of things.