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Leading In Central MA: Hospitality Entrepreneur Michael Covino

Monday, August 05, 2013


From one restaurant, Michael Covino has grown a hospitality empire that includes some of Central Massachusetts's hottest restaurants and bars.

For Michael Covino, 43, President/CEO of Niche Hospitality Group, it began with a dream. The dream of opening what became Block 5. The rest is history, a timely concept, and a lot of hard work. What started out as a dream has become a surreal reality for Covino and crew, who have gone from opening a restaurant to launching a hospitality group. Niche restaurants include: Bocado, Worcester's first authentic Spanish Tapas and Wine Bar; Mezcal, the southwestern/Mexican destination that first opened on Shrewsbury Street and has since added a new location in Leominster; The Citizen at One Exchange Place, a significant addition to Worcester's changing downtown landscape and a favorite stop of mine for wine, cheese, and chocolate; The People's Kitchen, located above The Citizen and featuring a "home cooked meal" approach; and Rye & Thyme, an American tavern in Leominster. At the "NicheXchange" property, Still&Stir, a professional cocktail bar showcases Niche’s passion for quality spirits and the art of bartending. Niche continues to add to downtown Worcester’s culinary offerings and is now preparing to expand to the Metrowest area.

A Conversation with Michael Covino

SW: It seems that most people spend a lifetime searching for their dream job and that, at 43, you have found it. How did this all come about?

MC: I grew up in a restaurant family. My grandfather was a chef and my parents worked in restaurants. I was raised in a hospitality culture and developed a passion for it. However, no one in my family owned a restaurant and I never even thought it was possible, so I followed another path. I got my masters in a different area but kept my hand in restaurant work. As time went by, it became obvious that between my passion for hospitality and an unrelenting entrepreneurial spirit that it was time to take a chance. We scraped together equity lines, credit card credit lines, and savings and in 2005 opened our first restaurant. It was probably a crazy move as I had a family with three young children. However, by the time the economy crashed we were opening our third property and had established our brand.

SW: It is so exciting to see life coming back to downtown at the former Sh-Booms space on Major Taylor Boulevard. Moving Mezcal into the over 11,000 square foot space will obviously entail considerable expansion. Can you talk about what customers can expect to see in November?

MC: Demolition has started and our goal is to be open no later than February, 2014. We are tripling the size of Mezcal but also developing a lot of other uses for the property. Our headquarters will be there, a training facility, test kitchen, and the opportunity to explore more off-site food and beverage opportunities. We are looking to launch a commissary model and central prep for all our restaurants will be there as well. The expansion of Mezcal gives us the chance to develop even more signature dishes. We have a wait almost every night and this will allow us to open the doors to more customers.

SW: Will you be moving out of the current Mezcal space on Shrewsbury Street or do you have plans for it?

MC: We own the Shrewsbury Street building and have a new restaurant planned. It is currently in the think tank phase and will launch 60-90 days after the new Mezcal.

SW: Can you describe a typical day in the life of Michael Covino?

MC: We are in a growth phase, so I am always looking for new opportunities. Otherwise, 75% of my day is spent on all aspects of accountability so that we are maintaining and improving our current culture to deliver the experience that people have come to expect. The other 25% is spent on-site. I spend three nights a week in the restaurants to stay in close touch with employees and with our customers. Now that Mezcal is under construction, I am spending a lot of time with contractors and creating checklists for our opening.

SW: What do you do away from your career?

MC: I spend time with my family. My wife heads up our human resources department and is busy with benefits, payrolls, and handling our functions. We try to have time to be alone with our three kids who are aged 8-14. I coach their teams and we enjoy sports as a family. Although all of us embrace the restaurant culture and our kids are growing up in it, we look for that balance between family and careers.

SW: Who had the biggest influence in your life and values?

MC: I would have to say my mother. She is a take charge, take control person like I am, but our hearts are in the right place. She was steadfast in her beliefs and instilled the integrity and core values in us that I place so much emphasis on today.

SW: What is something few people know about you?

MC: That I have a masters in physical therapy, not in restaurant hospitality.

SW: People all seem to have opinions on what Worcester can do as a city to reach its full potential. You seem to be making your mark on downtown. Any thoughts?

MC: I am a transplant who grew up in Boston, so we chose to come here. We live in Worcester, our kids are in public school here, and we have met a lot of wonderful people. It is great to have a bedroom community wrapped around a downtown. Education and medicine are huge here. I hope residents will embrace what we do have and not just talk about what we don’t have.

SW: Any new restaurants in the works?

MC: We just signed a lease deal to do a second Bocado in downtown Wellesley. That has almost 4,000 square feet of space. We take occupancy in April or May of 2014 and expect to open in late fall or early winter next year.

SW: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

MC: I just love food and wine so I will be working and I will still be working in the hospitality industry. We started in Worcester, expanded to north Worcester County and now to Metrowest. We could expand our geographic area, develop new concepts, or duplicate the ones that we have. Perhaps all three. I have also started restaurant consulting.

SW: What do you attribute your success to?

MC: It is a combination of things. We have great employees that we offer growth opportunities to within the company. Our staff stays excited about what we are doing. We work tirelessly on our culture of internal hospitality to create an environment in which employees really want to work. We don’t have a lot of turnover, which contributes to the quality of the food, service, atmosphere, and hospitality. Core values are a key to our success as well. We have always offered a high quality dining experience at a reasonable price. Also, our restaurants were diversified early on so there are different times of year when each of them thrives.

With more than 25 years of leadership experience, Susan Wagner has driven events, initiatives, launches, and openings through her company, Susan Wagner PR. She recently opened a new division to offer affordable start-up packages, including professional writing services, websites, collateral, marketing, social media, grassroots outreach, and PR campaigns, to new and emerging small businesses and non-profit organizations. Susan is a regular contributor to GoLocal Worcester.


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