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Episode #2: Opening a Restaurant Part 2 with Carol Downs and Megan Mainzer of Bella Luna and The Milky Way

Ever wonder where all the cash comes from to open a restaurant? Carol Downs and Megan Mainzer tell us how they crowd-sourced the money for their dream and opened a community gathering place that has been a mainstay in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood for the past 25 years. 

Bella Luna restaurant owners

Hello and welcome to the official Restaurant Insider podcast. Thanks for joining us. Thank you for joining us for the second episode of the Restaurant Insider podcast. In this episode, our host Meghan sat down with Bella Luna Restaurant owners Carol Downs and Megan Mainzer. Carol and Megan’s mother Kathie were two of the founders of this Boston mainstay, who crowdfunded the cash needed to open 25 years ago when Megan was just 11 years old. Now a mother herself, she’s happy to take the reins of this community gathering place. This is the second episode of a three part series revolving around opening a restaurant. Here’s Meghan.

Meghan: Great, so we are here with Carol Downs and Megan Mainzer, who are both co-owners of Bella Luna & The Milky Way in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, and they’re here to talk to us today as we continue to talk about opening restaurants and how restaurateurs got started and what made them get into the business. So, thank you guys for joining us.

Megan: Thank you for having us.

Carol: Thank you, Meghan. We’re so happy to be here.

Meghan: Thanks. So the original Bella Luna restaurant opened 25 years ago. Congratulations on such a milestone. That’s amazing.

Megan: Thank you.

Carol: Thank you.

Meghan:          That’s great. So do you want to tell me a little bit about what you guys do there and how you’ve gotten to the 25 year mark? That’s huge.

Megan: So, we were all living in Jamaica Plain. My mom, Kathie Mainzer, Carol and her husband Charlie Rose, and a good friend of my mom’s who she actually met playing soccer, Pierre Apollon. We were all living in JP, and Hyde Square was kind of in the throws of a tough time and there were a lot of closed businesses, and so we found a small space right in Hyde Square, kind of in the Latin quarter, and wanted to open a small business that kind of created jobs, and we decided to do pizza as something kind of affordable and accessible to all people.

We called it Bella Luna because in Italian, it’s “beautiful moon,” but also in Spanish it’s “beautiful moon,” and we were in a highly Latino neighborhood. And so none of us had any experience in restaurants, really running restaurants. My mom was really good friends with this woman named Clara Wainwright who founded First Night, and she recommended that you just kind of go around and ask all your friends for $1000. It was kind of crowdsourcing before there was crowdsourcing. And so everybody did that. Pierre, Carol and Charlie, my mom all went around and asked their friends for $1,000, and literally we scraped together and made Bella Luna on like $20,000 to open.

Carol: Yeah, it might have been closer to $50,000, but it was an inadequate amount, we can say now.

Megan:      Right.

Meghan:          Totally. Yeah, and how was that just once you even got that money, how did you know what to do next? Was it all trial by fire, you just kind of jumped in with both feet?

Carol: Completely trial by fire. In fact, we made our first pizza the night before, and it didn’t come out very well, and we just opened anyway the next day, and we were just packed, because the neighborhood was really excited to have a pizza place in the neighborhood. Obviously, our pizza is really good, but at the beginning it was just, yeah, all trial by fire. Every single aspect of running the restaurant, we learned on the job.

Megan: Yeah. And we thought about pizza because it was affordable to make, and we were in a very small space. There were only 19 seats when we first opened, and we wanted to make our own dough and sauces, and we didn’t have space for a dough machine, so we ended up having to go to a local bakery in Roslindale and make our dough using their mixers, and then bring the dough back to Jamaica Plain. You know, definitely trial by error. We were just trying to make it work.

Carol: Yeah, you’d sometimes on a really, really busy Friday night, we’d send someone to Roslindale to make dough, then come back into the restaurant carrying the dough into the kitchen. We had an open kitchen and it was, you know, yeah. We just made it all happen.

Meghan:          Yeah. And what was one of the most challenging parts that maybe you didn’t even anticipate about owning a restaurant that when you were starting up that you were like, oh shoot, how do I do this?

Carol: I think the restaurant business is very layered. You have to be able to do a lot of things every day and have multiple priorities all the time, and then there’s always daily crises that happen. So I think just managing the totality of the restaurant was a little bit overwhelming in the beginning.

Kathie was really running it by herself for the first few years. I was home with our kids, and Charlie worked elsewhere, Pierre worked elsewhere. And she was raising Megan. So it was really like Megan would go to school and then come to the restaurant, and Kathie was running the restaurant. So I think the totality of, you know, you have to pay bills, and you have to staff it, and you have to manage the staff, and you have to manage the schedule, and you have to design the menu and deal with facility. It’s an intensive facility job running a restaurant. So I think the totality of everything was a little overwhelming.

That’s why what we ended up developing was a two person team, so when my kids were old enough, I came in and worked with Kathie so we were a two-person team.

And that allowed us all to be parents and run the restaurant at the same time. So then when Megan came in and she and I are running the restaurant, she’s able to raise her kids and we’re a two-person team. So I think it was developing that kind of two-person structure that really helped us deal with the complexity of running a restaurant.

Meghan: Yeah, that’s a great way to look at it, especially running a restaurant is not a 9-to-5, it’s a 24-hour job, right?

Megan: Right.

Meghan: And I’m sure you grew up with that, so I’m sure you can appreciate this structure now, you know, being a parent yourself.

Megan:      That’s right. And I think that my mom, watching her kind of have to, like Carol said, you are constantly troubleshooting and learning as you go. She has only worked in nonprofits, and so she really didn’t have any sort of classic restaurant experience, but she had great management of people. And to me, the biggest part of the restaurant is the people. It’s really managing all the people on your team. It’s being able to deal with people in your customer base. We have entertainment. It’s being able to deal with artists or musicians. You kind of really have to be people knowledgeable, and I think she really brought that to the plate.

Meghan:          Yeah, absolutely. So when did you guys finally feel like you had made it in some sort of way? Did it ever feel like that? Did you ever get to breathe a sigh of relief?

Carol: Well, we went through a series of expansions. So we opened, as Megan said, with 19 seats. Then we added a whole section to the dining room, so we became like a 30-seat restaurant, and we added a little patio in the back. We got a beer and wine license. And then underneath us was this 10-lane candlepin bowling alley that the landlord was running and then decided to stop running. And we were so busy, we wanted a place for people waiting. People were waiting in line out front. We wanted a place for our overflow customers to be able to hang out, have a drink while they were waiting for a table.

So we decided to take over this bowling alley, and that was crazy. But that was in 1999, so this is our sixth year. So we’ve expanded once. Now this was our second expansion. And that was about a 10,000-square-foot space. We took out a couple lanes, we added a bar, we added a stage, there were some pool tables. So we suddenly were in the kind of night club business in addition to our restaurant. And I kind of forget what the original question was, but-

Meghan: Oh just when you felt like you had made it.

Carol: Oh, so it took a while for us to get a grip on this whole new thing. We were doing entertainment seven nights a week, plus the bowling, which was another huge facility intensive activity. And then we started doing parties and weddings-

Megan:      Parties.

Carol: People wanted to get married and bowl, which was super fun. So I would say it took another maybe eight years in that new formation to really feel like we were stable and doing well. It took a long time. It takes a long time.

Megan:      Yeah, I would say like at the 14- to 15-year mark, we were starting to feel like we had hit a rhythm, and that was around the time that our lease ran out and we had to figure out what we were going to do, if we were going to move or-

Carol: Yeah, we couldn’t really … The landlord wouldn’t negotiate with us, and was expecting us to renew at a level that was unsustainable for our business, so then it was very, very challenging and difficult, and we had to sit down and say, OK, are we gonna keep this business going? We felt it was really important to keep those jobs and keep everybody employed, including ourselves, and we were very lucky to be able to find a spot in the brewery complex in JP where Sam Adams is, and it’s all run by a nonprofit, CDC. And we were able to get a space there and borrow a substantial amount of money and build that all out.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t bring the lanes, you know? It was just not possible. So that threw us into a whole new … It was almost like a, it was a startup.

Megan: It was a startup.

Carol: We were doing construction, and then the business changed quite significantly when we moved, and it was very, very challenging. So we had maybe one or two years of feeling stable, and then we just rocketed into this entirely new thing, which I think now, 10 years in, we’re starting to feel stable.

Meghan:          Right, exactly.

Carol: It just takes a long time.

Meghan:          Right. And so many restaurants don’t even get to that point of, you know, “We hit our stride at year 14, 15,” so what do you think even kept you going in that first decade, when a lot of restaurants might last a year or two and then have to close up?

Megan:      I mean, I think you … My mom used to say people tell you not to go into business with your family, and I think that she just felt like, who else do you go into business with? Those are the people you trust and those are the people that you can rely on. And as Carol said, we never question each other. We are always constantly there for each other and kind of confronting all the challenges that you’re dealing with.

And so I think what keeps you going is being able to have a good team, and just kind of this mentality that no matter what curve ball comes your way, you’re going to confront it and deal with it, and I think if we didn’t have that kind of a relationship, it would have been really hard to go through all of the challenges that we went through.

And I think the same for my mom when she was going through it, just knowing that all of her partners and Carol always were there to kind of say, “Okay, this happened. How do we fix it? How do we deal with it?”

Meghan:          Right. And do you think that mentality trickles down to the staff who aren’t members of your family? And how do you sort of make sure that they feel a part of the family, even if they’re not part of this original core group?

Megan:      I think that one of the core pieces that makes Bella Luna who Bella Luna is, is this concept of community and family, and the way people kind of feel so invested in Bella Luna. We’re very transparent and share all of the information kind of about like what our goals are as Bella Luna. It’s to be kind of a neighborhood living room space where all people can come and have a drink at the bar or get takeout for their family or sit on the patio or kind of have a queer dance party. It’s kind of everybody included, and I feel like the staff come to Bella Luna for that kind of environment. And I feel like we have a culture where when it’s somebody’s birthday, we get a birthday cake and everybody sings Happy Birthday.

In the summer, we rent a old yellow school bus, and we close the restaurant and we all go to Rhode Island to the beach, where kitchen people and bar people and delivery drivers were all together kind of at the beach.

Meghan:          That’s awesome.

Megan:      And our culture is very inclusive, but also kind of making people feel like it’s part of a family.

Carol: Yeah, and Kathie always said from the beginning that hospitality begins with you and your staff. That’s where the hospitality begins. So we have … I think we all respect each other’s work. It’s very much a team culture. So, the dishwasher is just as important as Megan and I, you know, because you can’t run at night without a really good dishwasher. And the front of the house and the back of the house, they work really well together.

People who don’t get the team culture don’t stay at Bella Luna & The Milky Way. We pool tips. Everything is a team approach. There is no, “That’s not my job.” Everybody’s job is everybody’s job, and you help out. So I think the customers can feel that when they come in. People are working there because they want to be there. And also, we’re not super hands-on managers. We’re not there saying, “Do this, do that, don’t do that.” People have to kind of self-manage a lot in our model, and so our staff are all self-sufficient, they take initiative, and they care a lot about what they’re doing.

Meghan:          Right. And I know that you also are involved in the community outside of meal times. You do a lot of work with nonprofits and everything, so do you think that that mentality trickles out into the community in a way that makes them respect you? It’s like a nice cycle that they respect that you’re part of the community, they want to be part of your community, and it just kind of goes from there?

Carol: Yeah, absolutely. I think the community reinvestment that’s part of our mission is baked into our daily operations. It’s not something we’re doing to get PR or for marketing. We’re not doing huge events in order to get our name out there. So every week, we’re doing three or four or five or six things that are supporting maybe somebody who’s running the marathon and they want some pizzas donated for their house party. Or maybe there’s a nonprofit that wants to bring its staff together, but they have a budget of $300 for 50 people, you know? Which you couldn’t even take them to McDonald’s for that, right?

Meghan:          Right.

Carol: So we help subsidize their meetup so they can bring their staff together in our space. But those things are happening just on a daily basis in our business. It’s just built into our core operations. So, definitely the staff feel that. We make sure that the staff are taken care of in this model. It’s really the business that’s subsidizing those activities.

And it just means that we’re using our business to help make the world more just, and that’s just what we want to do. It’s just a core value.

Megan:      When we were moving Bella Luna and were going to be closing our doors on our Center Street location and moving over to the brewery, we were trying to figure out a way to kind of take the energy and that kind of Bella Luna community feel and bring it over to the new space. And so Carol was talking about having kind of a New Orleans style funeral, where you kind of would have a procession and a band playing, and we would kind of all march over from the old space to the new space. And so we organized it on this cold day in March-

Carol: March 2009, right after the worldwide financial crisis hit, right?

Meghan:          Oh right. Yeah.

Megan:      And so we didn’t know how many people were gonna come. We just invited the community. We had the New Orleans-style band, and then we had this Brazilian percussion group. And literally it was like over 1,000 people, all the people from the neighborhood and the community, and we all marched from the old space to the new space. It was just this feeling of like, you do all this stuff every day, you’re trying so hard to be a place in the community that people can come to, and then to just see all those people there supporting us, it was very powerful.

Carol: Very powerful. Mayor Menino was on a flatbed truck and gave a little speech, and our friend Janet Corpus did a blessing. She’s a reverend. People were crying on the side of the street because everybody felt in tremendous anxiety at that time. I don’t know if you remember what it was like, but people were losing their homes, people were losing their jobs, their retirement funds were disappearing. It just was a time of tremendous uncertainty, and I think it was just so powerful to feel all the love come back to us, and people just wanted us to succeed. It just gave us a huge boost as we were doing this really hard thing of moving and building out our space. It was just really tremendous.

Meghan:          Yeah, I have like chills. That’s amazing. And what better boost as you enter a new chapter than knowing that literally the entire community is behind you walking with you.

Megan:      Totally. Totally.

Meghan:          Yeah, that’s amazing.

Carol: And another core value is our inclusivity, which I think Megan touched on. But being a safe space, being an inclusive space, having diverse staff working at our restaurant, doing diverse types of entertainment programming. We want to be the place that everybody feels comfortable and comes to.

Meghan: Right. And you talked about obviously you’re not doing this for PR or marketing purposes, but do you ever announce that you’re doing things like that, or charity work, or that you have an inclusive staff? Is that ever part of your ethos of let’s get this out there so people know about this and if people are looking for a safe space they can come here? Sort of what’s that strategy like if you have one?

Megan:      Well, we’re like the only restaurant that has a mission statement.

Carol: Yes, it’s in our mission statement.

Megan:      We have a mission statement.

Meghan:          What is your mission statement? I’d love to hear.

Carol: Oh wow. Do we have it memorized?

Megan:      I don’t know if we have it memorized.

Carol: Our mission is to create community through delicious food, beverages, art, and music, to be a place where everyone feels comfortable and has fun, and to support the work of Boston nonprofits.

Meghan:          That’s awesome.

Carol: That’s our mission statement.

Meghan:          That’s a great mission statement.

Carol: But we work with a lot of partners, especially in our entertainment, so I think our promoting partners help spread the word about what’s going on at Bella Luna. We’ve had long relationships with a whole bunch of key promoting partners, so I think they spread the word to their communities, so that’s one channel.

Megan:      I also think that when you hire diverse staff and then people come and they see themselves reflected, that that creates this sense of kind of inclusivity, and then people kind of tell that to other people. In choosing where we do promotions, we have El Mundo or Bay State Banner, and trying to get ourselves out there as having diverse programming as well.

Carol: Right. I would say that Kathie was really excellent at promoting the restaurant when she was in charge. I think Megan and I have more of a … we’re more operations focused, so we are with our 25th anniversary, trying to tell our story more, and that’s really why we’re here.

Meghan:          Yeah, that’s amazing. We’re so glad to have you here to help with that. I’ve lived in Boston before, and Bella Luna has such a reputation, and I know that you host a lot of these inclusive events, and I think that’s probably … just seeing that alone, even if you don’t shout it from the rooftops, that just knowing that you have these dance parties and things like that, you know, that speaks volumes to people looking for that in the community.

Carol: Right.

Megan:      Thank you.

Meghan:          That’s great. And how much would you say that there’s sort of … you guys have been very flexible throughout the years. How important is it to be able to pivot when you’re owning a restaurant and when you’re starting up, and then starting again, and again?

Carol: You have to embrace change and you have to constantly change. There is no static running a small business, especially now with technology changing, the way we communicate, the way we process payments, the way we process orders, the way people live their lives. We have to constantly be looking at the bigger picture and adjusting our business to match the bigger picture. So, being flexible is a core strength, I think, that we have, and that is one of the reasons we have survived.

Meghan:          Yeah, absolutely.

Carol: There is no static. There is no … I mean, I would love to have few stable weeks of stable operations, but-

Meghan:          Never gonna happen.

Carol: … it’s an elusive goal. It’s a real elusive goal.

Meghan:          I know, it’s like, 25 years, when is it supposed to get to be like-

Carol: I think last week we had two days, maybe 24 hours of normal operations, and I was real excited-

Meghan:          Did you buy a cake and-

Carol: … and then something happened. You know, it was like … there is almost no such thing as stable operations. I don’t know how it is for other restaurant owners, but at least for us, as hands-on, day to day, running the thing, it’s just constant change.

Meghan:          Yeah, absolutely. That actually leads me into my next question. We’ve been asking our guests about some of their craziest moments in the restaurant, and it sounds like you could sit here for hours and talk about that, but do any in particular stand out, either when you were opening or yesterday, that were some of the moments that you were just like, how am I gonna handle this?

Carol: We were talking about this question, and so many of our crazy moments are not to be shared, I think. We thought, well we’ll talk about the parade, which we did. That was crazy and beautiful and wonderful.

Megan:      I think our beach days are pretty crazy, and I feel like when you’re on the bus and everybody’s chanting and singing, I feel like this is so unique and crazy and fun. But yeah, a lot of the crazy moments tend to be really stressful. You don’t know if you really want to go back.

Carol: Not pretty.

Meghan:          Yeah. You’re like having flashbacks, traumatic flashbacks.

Megan:      Yes.

Meghan:          Well no, beach days are a good crazy moment. That’s a good crazy moment to have.

Megan:      Yeah, super fun.

Meghan:          That’s awesome. So we’re also asking all of our guests to help contribute to … we have Restaurant Insider Radio Spotify playlists, and we want this to be a place where front of house, back of house staff, as they’re prepping, as they’re closing, they can really jam out to some proven jams from our valued guests. So what do you guys typically listen to in the restaurant, or what are some of the songs that kind of get you going?

Megan:      Well, I think for us we used to have this long-running Latin night, and it was very fun to kind of have all the people who worked in the kitchen be blaring music and then be able to come out and at the end of their shift dance and have a good time. And so I was trying to think of a song that kind of captures that, and I would say, Los Hermanos Rosario, they’re a Dominican merengue group, and they have a song called “La Dueños Del Swing,” which gets everybody moving and jamming when they’re setting up in the beginning of the shift and at the end of the shift.

We also have a lot of Colombians who work in the kitchen, so there’s a very kind of classic guy named Pastor Lopez, and he has a song called “Traicionera,” and the kitchen, they’re all singing that song at the end of the night. So I thought that would be fun.

But we also have this history of having reggae artists come and play at the Old Milky Way. We had Ky-Mani Marley, Bob Marley’s son play, we had Anthony B, so I was trying to think of like a reggae song and I was thinking of Super Cat, Ghetto Red Hot, kind of like a very fun old school dance song. So those are just a few.

Meghan:          Those are fun. And how does that help the staff, you know, just in terms of morale and just as they get ready or celebrate the end of a shift, a successful shift?

Megan:      I mean, I love that our kitchen is listening to music from the moment they arrive till the moment they leave. And when you walk in, everybody is singing. So to me, that’s such an amazing feeling. It’s not like this rigid, quiet kind of environment. It’s like there’s so much love there, and they put so much love into the plate, and I think that’s huge.

And in the front of the house, I think as well, people setting up, you know, we have everything from hip hop to reggae to … we have a very diverse staff, so there’s like African music and Afrobeat.

Carol: Yeah, the bartenders really come in, they control the music in the front. So it depends who’s working. You might hear Kings of Leon, or you might hear It’s Getting Hot In Here, or Beyonce. You know, it really depends who’s on the bar, actually. They really set the tone during setup. And then you have to shift into kind of guest-friendly music.

Meghan:          Right, exactly.

Megan:      Yeah, I definitely like kind of-

Carol: Kendrick Lamar is pre-guest.

Meghan:          Set the tone. Exactly. Great. Well, thank you so much for joining us, and just before I go, I just want to know, what are you looking forward to the next 25 years? What’s in store for Bella Luna?

Carol: Well, my visual for us is this. You can’t see it, but it’s me running. We’re running, and the nearest goal line is paying off our loans. So we had to borrow … When we first opened the restaurant in ’93, we were all renters, and we were all able to buy homes. We actually moved to Roslindale. We all live in Roslindale now and own homes in Roslindale. But in order to finance the move, we all had to put our homes up as equity for a significant loan. So we have about three more years left to pay off that loan. So to me, that’s a huge milestone that I’m really looking forward to and working towards, because then it will free up our finances in a way that will give us a lot more options. So I’m looking forward to that. That’s my near goal.

Meghan:          Yes.

Megan:      I feel like I’m … in the world that we’re living in right now, I feel so grateful to kind of be this kind of special place for people to gather, and I feel like in the next 25 years I want to kind of continue with that mission and that goal, and yeah, have more resources to be able to invest more in the space and kind of develop more options for Bella Luna. But I think that’s our goal.

Meghan:          That’s great. Well, cheers to that. That’s amazing. Thank you guys so much for coming in.

Megan:      Thank you so much, Meghan.

Meghan:          Thank you, this was wonderful.

Carol: Thank you, Meghan.

Meghan:          Thank you.

We hope you enjoyed the fascinating story behind Bella Luna. Our next episode will be the final installation of our three part series of opening a restaurant, with guest, Meghann Ward, the co-owner of Boston’s Tapestry. Restaurant Insider is a go-to resource for the latest in restaurant news and trends that you should know to help run your business more effectively. If you’re on the go, you can listen to us on Stitcher and Google Play. For more episodes of the podcast, articles, e-books and other tools, check out RestaurantInsider.com.

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