Miracle of Science
Interview by Heidi Legg
In 1991, Matthew Curtis and Chris Lutes opened the Miracle of Science restaurant and bar. Since then they have been feeding and hydrating students, professors, tech entrepreneurs, and families from Harvard Square to MIT with original and well designed local haunts. Restaurants and bars in college towns have a way of becoming iconic and after 20 plus years building them, we think Matthew's venues have some staying power and, likely, a place as character in many storied pasts. Today we interview Matthew Curtis, a local entrepreneur, who is a friend and neighbor to many.
We could say you were a locavore long before it was trendy. Why and how have you come to consolidate your work in Cambridge?
To me local isn't really a choice, but rather it's the default. For example, we (Tigers and Bears LLC) are more likely to get a sales call from a Boston-based craft brewery than a Denver-based one because of our ethos. And when we're looking for design services, we'll hire that company that happens to have a number of employees who we've gotten to know as customers - this happened with our graphic designers, TANK. When you consider the benefits such as supporting businesses in the local economy where the money will indirectly cycle back, achieving the freshest possible products, and building direct relationships with smaller organizations where communication is more efficient and pleasant… well it starts to make good sense.
Of course we don't want to be eating turnips all winter, so we rely on numerous non-local products, but whenever possible, we certainly start by looking locally.
As the owner of many distinct restaurants and bars around Cambridge high streets, how do you compete against the ever-increasing chains?
In places like Cambridge, it's okay being an independent because there's an appetite for that kind of establishment near Harvard Square and MIT.
If we're not in the right location, the chains are a threat.
Why not expand with your independent brands that have been successful?
We tried with a second Cambridge One in Boston, in the Fenway neighborhood, and it was the exact same design and menu as Cambridge One Harvard Square, but it just didn't work in that neighborhood.
Right now we're focusing on neighborhoods where we feel like our style is appreciated, which means largely Harvard Square and other parts of Cambridge.
We often talk about Cambridge being our spiritual home for theEditorial.com, but then when we try to describe what that means, it takes so many words! How would you describe neighborhoods that appreciate you?
I think that Harvard Square appreciates innovative concepts, and one thing that we try to do when we open a restaurant is to have an original message. Our restaurants aren't really directly derivative of other messages. We don't do throwback stuff nor do we try to be a kind of lounge. We try to develop things that have their own original entity. Much of this is through design. We try to ensure that each venue is going to be valid in ten years or in twenty years as much as they are today, and that can be a challenge.
We think we've succeeded in that. Miracle of Science is twenty-two years old and still looks perfectly relevant and Audubon is seventeen or so years old and it still looks relevant.
How does one design for longevity?
I think some of it is almost subconscious. Longevity comes across to the customer in terms of the quality of the materials that we use and the honesty of what we present to the customer. We try to run our restaurants with a non-industry style and we try to make each venue feel like neighborhood hangouts and not like overly focus-grouped, profit-maximizing enterprises.
When you go in to our restaurants there might be some little things that aren't quite right but it's okay because it feels like you're in a neighborhood place. Part of the way we do that is we hire very young general managers. They can often be in their early twenties because we want the places to feel like they have youthful energy.
Is that hard to manage?
How do you do it?
Well, it takes time. You have to spend time in the restaurants. The difference between twenty-three years ago when we first opened Miracle and today is that my partner, Chris Lutes, and I were both there every night for a year compared to now. Obviously we just spend less and less time per restaurant and the key is just finding the best possible management employees and then they hire their own staff. Each venue is an independent operation.
What is your biggest expense?
The space. Chris is talented at developing food ideas and recipes which then allows us to invest in very considered design and high quality construction. That said, we don’t necessarily want the thoughtfulness of design to be apparent to people who aren’t looking for it, but something that reveals itself to those people who may.
Do you use the same design firm for everything?
We used Anmahian Winton Architects in Cambridge for Cambridge One. They did the community boathouse up the river. Have you seen that? It's pretty cool and they're doing a residential house on Sparks Street.
But then a friend of mine, right out of GSD (Harvard Graduate School of Design) designed Tory Row. His name is Temple Simpson.
He was just a young guy so we thought we could take advantage of him. (kidding) And then Beth Whittaker who teaches and studied at GSD designed Middlesex. Our friend the late Alex Coogan designed Miracle and Audubon.
Do you tire of the tedium of the day to day running of a restaurant and bar over many years?
No. I like the spectrum of work. For example, I'm working on renewing a lease; I'm working on a purchase and sale agreement for one of our assets; I'm managing the Tory Row 5 K. There are so many different things and it's fun when some of them are more demanding in a traditional sense, but it's also nice to do things like taste wine or taste micro-beer.
Was creating local restaurants an early goal when you walked out of Princeton?
It was certainly unplanned to be in the restaurant business. When I came out of college, I was interested in real estate development, but with the timing of the real estate crash in the late '80s, I had some free time. Chris, who was my friend at the time and now partner in Tigers and Bears, thought it might be fun to explore the notion of opening a small place in Allston. But then we saw a space for lease on Mass Ave and we called our friend Alex Coogan who was an architect and it just started moving forward.
Within about a year we had opened Miracle of Science and it did remarkably well. It surprised us enormously and then we figured, 'well, may as well try it again,' and we did. Five years later, we opened our second place. It was a little more of a struggle, but ultimately it was successful and we just kept going.
We certainly didn't intend to own a number of establishments but once we were successful, we became very passionate about the idea of creating as good a small restaurant-bar as possible. The profitability was somewhat naively incidental, but I think that served us well because we were more committed to making Miracle of Science a great operation and an asset for the community than thinking about how to create a big chain.
Were you trying to change something?
Something really strange was going on back when we opened Miracle of Science. There were restaurants and there were bars but there weren't a lot of places that were really good at both. East Coast Grill at the time was smaller than it is now and had a great little bar and a great restaurant, and if you went to the bar, you benefited from the quality of the food of the restaurant and if you went to the restaurant, you benefited from the energy of the bar but there weren't many at lower price levels that did both.
Chris and I would go out to bars and have a few beers and then we'd have to go somewhere else to eat. We wanted to change that. Our goal with Miracle of Science was to build something that was useful and valuable as a bar and a restaurant. I was recalling recently that when we decided to paint the ceiling white, I remember we thought it was so risky because every bar had a black ceiling, particularly in Boston Irish bars. The notion that it could be a normal, light-filled room was foreign. Now I feel like you go into places like Puritan or Westbridge and they're light filled, comfortable rooms. That's what people want.
I don't really think that things need to change that much. When we opened Tory Row, for example, there was a review that was based on the notion of 'what was our raison d’être?' and I thought, why can’t we just be a nice looking room with good food in a good location with good service?
Is that your raison d’être?
I guess. I feel like sometimes the American audience wants a Disney ride and we don't - we just want to be a good restaurant and a place where people can enjoy each other's company and have something to eat and drink.
Do you have any mentors?
We learned a lot from people around us and there are a lot of people who were very generous with their knowledge. It's interesting; I think the activity of entrepreneurialism is a job itself and if you approach it with discipline it's not as risky as it seems.
East Coast Grill was a model to some degree for what we did at Miracle of Science. Chris Schlesinger was helpful and we learned a lot as we went along.
One of the challenges in this business is again trying to visualize something that will be valid in twenty years and avoiding trends and again it's the discipline of doing things over and over again. When customers come into Miracle of Science and they want their favorite things - it's amazing how often they order the same item. I mean, if someone comes into Miracle to get a chicken quesadilla, that's what they're going to order. Honestly, we've barely changed the menu there in twenty-two years and for us, that works because we have the reliability that they're looking for and the simplicity that's good for us. I think that lots of times when restaurants change stuff, it's more because their staff are bored than because the customers are really demanding it.
Do you know what I order?
I'm going to guess a kale salad. Interestingly, in all of our restaurants (besides Cambridge One) where we sell hamburgers, the hamburger is always the best selling item, but at Tory Row the kale salad outsells the hamburger.
Paint a day in the life of Matthew Curtis for us?
I have two different lives - winter life and a summer life. My summer life is the one I prefer. I wake up at seven o' clock and I exercise and then I stop by Darwin’s and get a coffee, then I walk home and work in my home office for a couple hours, and then I'll make the loop around some of the restaurants. I'll check in at our world headquarters, which is our office above Tory Row, and then I'll typically come home and do a little more work. This time of year, I'll likely play some tennis. In the winter, I'll often watch a movie, play hockey around the corner, and then sometimes get back to the restaurants in the evening.
Will marriage (Matthew was married this summer) change your routine?
I don't think it will, really. I just won't tell her I'm playing tennis.
How many buildings do you own?
Three of our five restaurants are in buildings that we own. And part of our business plan now is acquisition.
Are there any new openings we can look forward to seeing?
Right now, we feel like we're in a really comfortable place with five restaurants and some real estate assets.
Would you do it all again?
Where is your favorite place for a drink?
Besides my places, I love going to the Charles Hotel Plaza to sit outside in the summer at the outdoor Legal Seafood tent. I'll go there with some buddies and watch the Red Sox and have a couple beers.
What are you looking forward to this fall?
I want to see the Donald Judd House in Soho.
Joe at Rizzo Tailors on Church Street. He's awesome. He made my tuxedo for my wedding and Hamilton Shirts in Houston.
Great escape from Cambridge?
Hidden Pond in Kennebunkport. Monika and I went a year ago and it's so easy to get to and it's a great little town with a really well run little hotel. You get your own cottage and there are a couple different pool areas and a really great restaurant. So, for a day trip, I really like that a lot.