December 10, 2018

Niche drops Mercantile Center talks and looks to Grove Street for Citizen reopening

The Citizen Wine Bar got decorated for the holidays before it closes at the end of December.

Niche Hospitality Group intends to eliminate the three concepts housed at One Exchange Place in Worcester by the end of the month. This transition will mark a definitive end for the present iterations of Citizen Wine Bar, The People's Kitchen, and Still & Stir.

Closings were spurred by the Oct. 31 sale of the 60,000-square-foot building to Hingham real estate firm BradyMac Capital Advisory. Michael's Cigar Bar, a separately owned business housed at One Exchange Place, plans to stay in the building.

Niche Hospitality President Michael Covino identified outdated infrastructure, parking, and wayfinding as its primary obstacles.

"We've been trying to move the Citizen's property for years. We need visibility and a better parking plan," Covino told WBJ. "It made sense to end our run."

Mercantile negotiations end

Covino had aimed to line up a new property at Mercantile Center timed with The Citizen's gradual transition to a more suitable space. Niche had executed similar growth models at Mezcal Tequila Cantina in 2014 and The Fix Burger Bar in 2016, but the Mercantile deal fell through.

Niche President Michael Covino.

"We liked Mercantile; it was a large property. We spent almost 24 months trying to get it to come to fruition, but it didn't work out," Covino said.

Mercantile proposed two separate locations for Niche restaurants, but neither one worked out for one reason or another, said Chip Norton, who owns Mercantile Center through his Boston firm Franklin Realty Advisors.

"We tried our darndest," Norton said. "We think the world of Mike and his expertise and capabilities."

Each of The Citizen's 24 employees was given the opportunity to continue working for Niche, including management. Covino plans to compensate employees during their training periods after the new year.

Founder and publisher of Mass Foodies Luke M. Vaillancourt views the Niche group as a valuable risk taker in the development of Worcester's robust hospitality scene, such as opening Mezcal in the ground floor of the Major Taylor parking garage.

"When downtown was dead, before there was a true revitalization on the horizon, Niche Hospitality took a risk and took advantage of favorable opportunities by introducing a new concept in a venue that had failed many others," Vaillancourt said.

Covino is actively seeking a new home for the Citizen.

"Sometimes you take a step to the side to go forward," Covino said. "We have 10 restaurants. This doesn't feel like a throw away, but it's not so disheartening that it stops progress. The physical plant wasn't allowing us to express the Citizen in the way we wanted to right now or in the future."

Covino hopes to see the concept reborn within a year's time.

The new Citizen

Covino is particularly intrigued by the Grove Street corridor, an area which he hopes will be further enhanced by the impending Trolley Yard plaza, a 55,000-square-foot development on the former site of the Worcester Regional Transit Authority garage.

"Grove Street and Highland Street have pockets that are successful because they are well traveled and visible, whereas, we struggle with perception of parking downtown," Covino says.

He credits the Citizen's decade-long run with the introduction of valet parking, despite difficulties in its execution.

"Most successful restaurants have parking lots," Covino said, citing Worcester eateries like The Sole Proprietor, The Boynton, and Niche's own Grove Street property, The Fix.

When asked about the success of downtown restaurants like Armsby Abbey and deadhorse hill who make use of on-street parking, Covino said, "I don't own any restaurants of that (smaller) size, and I can't claim to know what everyone's successes and failures are. I do know that without the parking garage and validation, I think it would be hard to operate Mezcal successfully downtown."

Chef and co-owner of deadhorse hill Jared Forman said Covino is making the right decision by following his instincts with the Citizen.

"As long as you can wake up and be happy with what you're doing, that is success to me," he said.

Forman thinks of deadhorse hill as a slow moving machine, compared to the Niche restaurants.

"I couldn't turn deadhorse into The Fix tomorrow, even if I wanted to," Forman said. "Niche turns out a consistent product that makes him money. Mike has been able to do that again and again. That is very impressive to me, but we run two completely different businesses."

Creating a profitable restaurant

Covino said The Fix and Mezcal have been the most profitable entities in terms of revenue for Niche. Additions in 2017 to Niche's restaurant lineup have included two fast casual concepts at Fidelity Bank Worcester Ice Center, but Covino is firm in his assertion that fast casual is not the future of Niche.

"We're testing the waters, but it's not us. We aren't going fast casual across the board. It doesn't give us an edge the we thought perhaps existed," Covino said.

In the wake of the impending closure of the Citizen, Covino was comforted by the co-owner of WooBerry, Brendan Melican, who reached out to congratulate him on The Citizen's 10-year run. Most of the other feedback he received had felt grievous, but Melican simply asked if Covino was excited about his next steps.

"Brendan embodies Worcester's attitude of resiliency," Covino said.

Vaillancourt likewise viewed The Citizen's closing as a testament to Niche's creativity and business acumen.

"Unfortunately, because Niche is arguably the biggest local brand in town, when an opportunity to change arises, it can be perceived as negative – failure even," he said.

Vaillancourt is quick to remind naysayers Covino and his wife were the visionaries who transformed the defunct Sh-Booms nightclub into the high-volume eatery Mezcal is today.

"I just hope their next venture is French," Vaillancourt said.

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