Q&A: Spotted Horse restaurateur riding high after three decades
After more than 30 years in the restaurant field, Tommy Febbraio has finally entered his own "horse" in the Westport dining race.
The new contender, the Spotted Horse Tavern, makes its home in downtown Westport at 26-28 Church Lane in a space encompassing approximately 2,000 square feet in the restored federal-style Sherwood House. The restaurant, which serves contemporary American fare, seats 80 patrons inside and another 44 on an outdoor patio lit by gas lanterns.
Dating to the early 19th century, the Sherwood House was slated for demolition about two years ago until Westport-based developer David Waldman decided instead to extensively renovate the house to accommodate commercial use.
The new restaurant represents a dream come true for Febbraio. He is a Westport native, graduated from Staples High School and still lives in Westport. While in high school during the 1970s, he worked in several local dining establishments, including the former Arrow restaurant on Charles Street.
Befitting its name, the Spotted Horse's interior features an equestrian theme. Barn doors demarcate the entryway to the restrooms, while the restaurant walls' wood paneling comes from a Wisconsin barn.
Among a collection of equine portraits, the visage of a spotted horse hangs prominently across from a contemporary fireplace.
A toy spotted cheval, meanwhile, watches over the restaurant from a different position each day.
Last Saturday, on Kentucky Derby day, the talisman surveyed its surroundings from the top shelf of the Spotted Horse's horseshoe-shaped bar, as real thoroughbreds raced across a pair of flat-screen televisions.
The Spotted Horse -- Febbraio's first restaurant venture in Westport -- has jumped quickly out of the starting gate since its late March opening. It averages between 3,000 and 3,500 customers per week, attracting as many as 750 patrons a day on weekends.
Soon after he graduated from Boston University, Febbraio opened his first restaurant, Tommy's, in 1979 on Post Road in downtown Fairfield at the current site of the Old Post Tavern.
He launched another restaurant, Sidetracks, on Post Road in Fairfield in 1984, and added a third dining establishment, the southwestern-themed Arizona Flats in the Black Rock section of Bridgeport in 1988.
He ran the latter restaurant until 2001 and sold Tommy's and Sidetracks respectively in 2003 and 2005.
In addition to his career as a restaurateur, Febbraio is an experienced commercial realty agent. Since 2005, he has co-owned the Fairfield County franchise of Coldwell Banker Commercial. During the last three years, he has brokered leases and business purchases for about 35 restaurants in Fairfield County.
Febbraio co-owns the Spotted Horse with longtime business partners Kevin McHugh and Peter Mennona.
The trio also owns the Gray Goose restaurant, which opened in July 2010 in the Southport section of Fairfield.
Febbraio sat down last week with the Westport News to discuss the opening of the Spotted Horse, his hopes for the future of downtown Westport, and the evolution of the restaurant business since he opened Tommy's more than 30 years ago.
Q: Why did you choose to open the Spotted Horse in downtown Westport?
A: There are several things that lured me to that Sherwood house. One was that it was a 200-year-old historic house. The preliminary plans looked great on the outside, so we thought that we could really do something fun and different on the inside.
The other added factor was that Urban Outfitters moved in next to us, and they draw in a lot of people. Their draw is huge.
Lastly, but mostly importantly, it was a David Waldman project. As far as I can see, as a Westport resident, he has the insight and foresight that most towns' developers wish they had.
Q: What is the origin of the Spotted Horse name?
Then we had purchased these barn doors that are in the restaurant now from Lillian August.
I was talking to Kevin (McHugh), and I said, "We should utilize the doors and we should probably call it horse something or other." And Kevin was flipping through a book and actually saw a picture of a spotted horse and called me up and said, "What do you think of the name `Spotted Horse?'" And I said I loved it.
Then we walked down Main Street and we asked a number of women what they felt about the two names.
And 99 percent of the women said they liked the name of the Spotted Horse much better than The Chelsea. They said The Chelsea sounds like something you go to once a month or so; the Spotted Horse sounds like something you go there two, three times a week.
Q: How would you compare the dining scenes in Westport and Fairfield?
A: I think there's a huge difference between Westport and Fairfield. In Westport, we have about 24,000 people, whereas in Fairfield, you have almost 59,000 people.
There're a lot more bodies to draw from. Fairfield relaxed their zoning rules long ago, so if you compared the amount of liquor permits in Fairfield compared to Westport, you'll see that Fairfield has a lot more liquor permits.
Over the years, where Westport used to be the destination restaurant place, now a lot of Westport people go to Fairfield to dine, rather than stay in Westport. We're trying to change all that.
Up to 15 years ago, Westport was the hot dining spot. And then it gradually shifted. I don't believe Westport was giving out any new liquor permits and Fairfield was happy to take on new permits, and there was just a lot more of variety in the restaurants in Fairfield. And Fairfield took a lot of the market share away.
Q: Westport's Planning and Zoning Commission has passed a series of text amendments during the last two years that have aimed to attract more restaurants to the town. How did those regulatory changes relate to your decision to open the Spotted Horse in Westport?
A: As a Westport resident, I kept abreast of that. When the P&Z relaxed their liquor law regulations (in July 2011), that was the incentive at that point where it opened up our minds, and we thought perhaps there was an opportunity for us in Westport.
I think they did that because they were losing a lot of market share to Fairfield and some to South Norwalk and other towns. That was probably the seed that led us to where we are today.
Q: What are the next steps that could be taken to further revitalize downtown Westport?
A: Whenever you model yourself after a town, you want to look at the strengths and weaknesses of that town. If you look at Fairfield, they have the Fairfield Theatre Company, they have a lot of draw from other activities, and I think a theater (in Westport) is a great idea, and I think you can draw a lot of people to the downtown area.
I think a lot of people will benefit by that -- retail, restaurants.
There's been talk of a boardwalk in the back bay area (along the Saugatuck River) -- all of those things, you keep adding them to the mix, and it's just a recipe for a great success.
Q: How has the restaurant industry changed since you opened Tommy's in 1979?
A: The whole industry has changed. If you look at a lot of the trends today, the 20 and 30-year-olds today are more attracted to what we call small plates. They would rather buy two or three small plates and try each one and fill up on those versus years ago people were trained to come in and purchase an entree and have a salad and a dessert. The older people kind of do that today.
The Gray Goose and the Spotted Horse are designed very differently than the older restaurants that I had.
We have a lot of tapas, or small plates. People can come in and share plates.
The (Spotted Horse) price point is $20.95 or less, so it allows people to come one to three times a week and not break their piggy bank. We try to make it affordable and attractive for customers to visit us more than once a week.
Thirty years ago, the competition was a lot less. Today, everyone and their grandmother wants to open up a restaurant. The competition is very steep today.
Years ago, you were able to wean yourself and learn your business as you went along. Today, that is not the case. You have to know your product inside and out from day one.
Q: Do you have any concerns about the planned departure of the Westport Weston Family Y in 2014 from its downtown headquarters across the street from the Spotted Horse?
A: The only concerns that we have are probably through the construction phase. We don't want to make it difficult for our customers to park or to attend. With the finished product and the schematics that I've seen, I think the end result is that it's going to be a phenomenal project.
I look at it like a Bergdorf Goodman. It's going to be kind of an indoor mall, probably close to 120,000-square-feet or so. It can only help us.
Q: In addition to the Spotted Horse and Gray Goose, are you, Kevin McHugh and Peter Mennona working on any other restaurant projects?
A: We are toying with another restaurant project in Fairfield County. It's still in the development stage, but it's a very strong possibility. Right now, we're working on the concept, and then we'll figure out where to put it.
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