I'm fascinated with money left on the table: obvious business opportunities that nobody takes up. My kids now roll their eyes whenever I wonder aloud about why there's no hardware store in the neighborhood or why kids no longer come around after snowstorms to shovel driveways.
Here, in this charming old fishing village on "the other cape" -- Cape Ann, north of Boston -- this obsession has focused on the Annisquam Market, which for the past 25 years has been unable to satisfy the needs of a sizable, well-heeled summer crowd for a decent meal and last-minute provisions.
It wasn't always so. John Egan remembers when he was a kid pumping gas and delivering groceries for the old Chard & Wilkinson market, which had enough business in those days after World War II to keep a couple of butchers busy and attracted fish brokers looking for tuna caught on Ipswich Bay. And even when Ken Hodgkins sold the market in the early 1970s, the whole operation -- lunch counter, market, small marina and apartment upstairs -- could fetch the then-princely sum of half a million dollars.
"It was a gold mine," Hodgkins confesses.
Since then, however, it's been pretty much downhill. As a tenant during the 1970s, Helena Ciarametaro drew a steady crowd, in season and out, to the small market restaurant with a picture-perfect view. People still remember her chowders, fish cakes and lobster rolls during the day, and reservation-only dinners on weekends. But since she decamped to the Lobster Pool at Folly's Cove, the Annisquam restaurant has been hit or miss.
"Every one that had it, they weren't the least bit creative," says Ciarametaro, who at 84 still works the 4-to-8 a.m. shift at the Lobster Pool.
Meanwhile, the market degenerated to the point where about all it was selling was potato chips and overpriced beer. The marina got a reputation for surly service and poor-quality gas. And despite the best efforts of a number of concessionaires, none could seem to work out a mutually satisfactory arrangement with the owners to provide newspapers in the morning, takeout fried clams in the afternoon or an ice cream cone after supper.
All of which explains why there are such high expectations now that the whole enterprise has finally been sold to John Egan's son, a successful Wall Street trader, and Kurt Macnamara, who married into the local Gorton family of fish-stick fame. They replaced the rotting docks and pilings, made peace with the harbormaster and leased the restaurant-market to Rick Noonan, whose mom moved into the village a few years ago and who had proved you can make money selling a decent cup of coffee in Starbucks-free Gloucester.
When the newly refurbished restaurant opened for business Tuesday morning, the coffee was hot and strong, the ham and eggs were cooked perfectly to order and the new proprietor was already busy thinking about how to make things better.
Unlike the majority of people who think they can buck the 4-to-1 odds and get into the restaurant business, Noonan isn't looking to turn his cooking talents into a weekly paycheck. As a former commodities trader and account manager for energy companies, he's got a nose for numbers that goes well beyond the obligatory business plan. And what he's learned already is that what counts in business is not sticking to a fixed plan of what you want to sell, but finding a way to determine what people want to buy and what services they need -- and then organizing yourself to give it to them.
What's most encouraging about this new crew is that they have ambitions that go beyond just paying the bills and earning a living -- the kind of modest goals that, for many small businesses, wind up self-defeating. For owners Egan and Macnamara, that means identifying new revenue sources that can generate a competitive rate of return on their investment. And for Noonan, it means making the Annisquam operation part of a growing food-service company that can take advantage of the economies of scale and scope.
Helena Ciarametaro is convinced these guys have what it takes, and I'm hoping she's right. That way I can turn my attention to figuring out why cash-strapped airlines prefer to fly with empty seats rather than selling them at a discount to standby customers.