Executive Spotlight: Luke Marion, owner and operator of Otto's Uncorked and Red Apple Butchers
PITTSFIELD — Luke Marion once studied computational biology at Rochester Institute of Technology. But his career in higher education was interrupted when he received an offer that he couldn't refuse in the food service industry, which he had worked in since the age of 14. The Pittsfield native has made the most of that choice. In addition to owning and running Otto's Kitchen & Comfort Restaurant in downtown Pittsfield, a business that he expanded last year, he's also involved in running two other food service-related downtown businesses: Uncorked Wine & Beer Lounge and Red Apple Butchers, both located in the Crawford Square building. Marion is helping to revive Red Apple, which reopened in October in the same location where it closed two years ago.
We met with Marion recently to talk about his various business ventures, his previous experiences in higher education, his thoughts on the future of downtown Pittsfield, and the best way to create a funky cheeseburger.
Q: What do you like about being in the food service business?
A: It's a feeling and a flow that you don't get anywhere else, and I guess that's really the draw. Yeah, sure, there's always going to be slow time when you're just putzing around. But it's always go, go, go; there's always something new to try. I think it really kind of grabs my flighty attention span. I always want to be doing new things, and I think it plays to that.
Q: How was your college experience?
A: I dropped out of three different colleges. But at pretty much each college I worked (in food service) at a different spot. I was going full-time to [Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts] while also working for Paul Face at the original Otto's in Lee, and at the Salmon Run. And that's really where the story begins ... I left MCLA because Paul offered me a job.
Q: How did that come about?
A: [Face] always joked, "when are you going to drop out of college and work for me full-time?" And one day I said, "I want to be a college professor one day, so if you offer me x amount of dollars, then you've got me, I'll drop out of school for you." He made me a counter offer and it was more lucrative than what I would have gotten with a bachelor's degree.
Q: How did you end up taking over Otto's?
A: In 2014, [Face] opened up a second shop (in Pittsfield) where we are now. That was less than four years after the original Otto's opened. A year or two later, I had a flight booked to Seattle because I was getting kind of angsty here. I was going to be a big-time chef on the West Coast. But I met my wife. She convinced me to stay in town a few months longer then convinced me to change my tickets to go to Florida instead. ... In the summer, Paul was always joking, "want to buy a restaurant, want to buy a restaurant," and I'd always be saying ''where am I going to get the money?" Then, one day, he was joking with a friend about it, and I said, "If you're actually interested in selling Otto's in Pittsfield, I don't care who I have to kill, I'll find a way."... Maybe about a month later we were in his office talking about it and we came up with a plan. He sold it to me.
Q: So you really took a flier on this?
A: I've been flying by the seat of my pants since 2015. As soon as I got it locked in, got the workflow at Otto's down good, and knew what was going on, the expansion happened and we started planning for that. That was a whole new set of obstacles to get over. I'm still doing that everyday.
Q: Why did you decide to expand Otto's ?
A: When my landlord (Steve Oakes) came and said I have this space available (in the same building), ... my wife said, "hey, let's just knock a hole in the wall and make it bigger." So we started examining it. It was probably the hardest thing for me to do in owning a restaurant. I'd only had Otto's for 2 1/2 years. ... I'm just now starting to level off and getting on a path where I feel comfortable with it.
Q: So you take on this big expansion project then get involved in two other businesses. Why?
A: Steve is such a great guy. He comes to me and says, "so and so's leaving" or, "we've got this space available, what do you think?" This has probably happened six or seven times now. We try to come up with a concept and see if it will work. Uncorked was the first one we tried, and Uncorked is working. It would have worked better if we went the way we planned. We found out my wife was pregnant the day after we signed the lease. ... Red Apple was just sort of a long time coming.
Q: How do you find the time to be involved in three businesses at the same time?
A: I need 36-hour days. I need a day between Sunday and Monday to get things done. I'm bad at asking for help.
Q: Is there a merchant's perspective on the future of downtown Pittsfield.
A: I think Pittsfield is going to turn into something analogous with Northampton. ... I use Northampton as an analogy. ... They're a small city but have a thriving downtown. I think that's what we're headed toward.
Q: How has downtown Pittsfield changed since you grew up here?
A: When I was a kid growing up in the '90s. there wasn't a lot going on. Downtown was dead. There weren't the shops and restaurants you have now. I think every year we get a little more downtown. ...There's 20-somethings and 30-somethings hanging out downtown at night. There's a scene that's coming up and that scene is only going to get better.
Q: How did you come up with some of the colorfully named hamburgers that you sell at Otto's?
A: People love burgers with fruit and brie, or honey on a burger, They also love onion rings on a burger. One of our bigger sellers is the OG Burger, which we just put on the regular menu: onion rings, roasted garlic, mayo, cheddar and bacon. ... The "Fungus Among Us", one of my guys, John, came up with that. It's Swiss cheese, blue cheese, bacon mushrooms and caramelized onion mayo. ... It's a whole lot of funk on one burger.
Q: Last year, you held a spaghetti dinner at Otto's on Christmas Day for people who had nowhere to go on the holiday. Are you planning to do that again?
A: We're going to do a pancake breakfast this year, from 8 to 11 a.m. Christmas Day. Pancakes, bacon, coffee and OJ. Sit-down service will be the same as last year, and it's pay what you can. If you have nothing, that's cool; have some pancakes.
Q: Do you have any regrets about not finishing college, and do you ever plan to go back?
A: I would love to go back because I loved what I was studying: biology and chemistry. But at this point I'm not sure. Some part of me regrets it, but I really can't complain about the life that I have right now.
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