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A Good Match

Catering Business, Opportunity Met When Joe Black's Restaurant Closed

ERIC GERSHON

December 30, 2008

Jim Bucko had never heard of Joe Black's, the restaurant and event space that briefly occupied the Pratt Street building in downtown Hartford once occupied by the Society for Savings Bank.

But when Joe Black's closed March 29 after $4.1 million in renovations and just two years in business, Bucko heard all about it from brides who had booked wedding receptions there.

"The next morning we were getting bombarded by calls," said Bucko, a partner in The Riverhouse at Goodspeed Station, a catering business with a 20,000-square-foot facility on a Connecticut River bluff in Haddam that opened in June 2007.

Bucko and his partners sensed an opportunity.

"It's never good for business when you have brides crying on the 5 o'clock news," he said.

Within weeks after Joe Black's closed, Riverhouse negotiated a temporary lease with the building's owner, Alkon Pratt Street LLC, a partnership of Phil Schonberger and Simon Konover. They began operating a venue now called The Society Room of Hartford. There was even business in place events initially booked with Joe Black's.

Real estate brokers and experts had said shortly after Joe Black's closed that a similar use was the only practical solution. "Given the incredible investment and the physical space, it's got to be a similar-type thing, a restaurant-banquet hall," Jay Wamester, a commercial broker at Colliers Dow & Condon in Hartford, said at the time.

On Monday, Riverhouse Properties signed a long-term lease for the space, for five years with options for two five-year extensions, said Bucko, general manager for Riverhouse.

Unlike Joe Black's, which was intended as an upscale Irish pub as well as an event space, Riverhouse is not operating a restaurant. With a few exceptions, the company will cater only private events, mainly weddings and corporate meetings. About 60 events, mostly weddings, have already been booked for 2009, Bucko said, roughly the total run by The Society Room this year.

"We're not a restaurant group," Bucko said. "We're in the catering business," which allows for "a controlled inventory."

When Joe Black's closed, Riverhouse was trying to expand its off-site catering business but was not looking for an additional venue, he said.

But after visiting the space replete with gilt ceilings, giant windows with thick curtains (still embroidered with the initials JB), a walk-in bank vault and expanses of shiny, inlaid wood the partnership decided it was "one of those opportunities that you just can't pass up," Bucko said.

Riverhouse thinks the Hartford space will capture business from companies that might not consider holding an event in Haddam, as well as provide a base of operations for off-site catering in Greater Hartford.

Weddings and corporate events may be smaller than usual on account of the recession, Bucko said, but they'll still take place.

He declined to discuss the Haddam facility's revenues or say how much the partnership expects from The Society Room. Riverhouse invested about $5 million in the Haddam enterprise, he said.

Wedding reception rates at The Society Room range from $99 to $125 a head, with bar, food and facility fee included, Bucko said. Rates for corporate events range from $16 a head for a breakfast, for example, to $250 a head for a "gala" event.

The Society Room accommodates as many as 260 people for a wedding and 350 to 400 for a corporate event. Bucko said Riverhouse might turn the vault into a wine cellar.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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