Six years ago when Flatbread Company founder Jay Gould called Tina Miller to ask if he should open a restaurant at the former home of The Hot Tin Roof, she advised him against it. She didn’t think there was enough of a market for casual family dining at the airport location.
“I said it was too much money, don’t do it,” she recalled.
The rest is history, as they say. Mr. Gould went ahead with the purchase and in the summer of 2010 the brick oven was built and Flatbread quickly became a booming business on the Island. And last December Tina Miller became managing partner of Flatbread Martha’s Vineyard.
The Flatbread Company now operates in 11 cities nationwide, but the Vineyard restaurant never fully fit in with its sister satellites. The pizza is the same and ingredients are sourced from local farms, as is the case elsewhere. The environment is deliberately casual and like all Flatbreads it hosts weekly fundraisers for local organizations. It’s not the resort location that makes it different, either. Mr. Gould opened restaurants in Whistler and Maui, also places he likes to vacation.
The Vineyard branch is different because of the legacy it inherited and chose to respect — the tradition of great music.
Since 1979, the corrugated building by the airport has played host to world-class musicians, first as the Hot Tin Roof and then as Outerland. On three sides of the wooden picket fence that surrounds the outdoor patio area, hubcaps hang bearing the names of some of the biggest acts to visit the Island: The Mamas and the Papas, Hall & Oates, Barenaked Ladies. Carly Simon, a part-owner of the Hot Tin Roof, also performed there, as did Lou Reed, Bonnie Raitt, Peter Tosh, Ricky Nelson and Delbert McClinton, to name a few.
This commitment to the tradition of booking big name bands gives the restaurant a split personality — family-friendly pizza place and 21+ nightclub.
Perhaps the best time to appreciate this full-scale character shift is between 9 and 10 p.m., two nights a week, when the staff scurries to clear tables from the dance floor and converts the space into a nightclub.
This was the first summer that Flatbread owned both businesses established there, the restaurant and the nightclub. In years prior Nectar’s, a concert promotion company, operated the nightclub. When Nectar’s pulled out last summer, Flatbread took over sole ownership of the property, the very thing Ms. Miller had advised them against doing.
Recently, she reflected on “the irony of talking [Mr. Gould] out of it, and now working for him.” She sat in the patio area of the restaurant/club on an Adirondack chair and spoke of the successes and challenges of her first summer on the job.
Truth be told, Ms. Miller didn’t see much of the summer. She goes to work every day at 11 a.m. to prepare for lunch and dinner service, and at least two days a week she stays very late waiting for the last concertgoer to go home. She sticks around to make sure everybody is safe.
“There is no letting your guard down and relaxing at 12:30 a.m. when music has to stop and drinking stops and you have to get everybody out of the building by 1 a.m.,” she said. “That’s a whole different thing. That’s a different animal.”
The profit margin is slim for a music venue like Flatbread, which unlike downtown bars cannot rely on crowds strolling in off the street. They have to bring big names to town, otherwise folks just won’t go out of their way to make the trip out to the airport.
“Times have changed since the old Hot Tin Roof,” Ms. Miller said. “There are now tons of bars, a lot of places do music in town. This sort of has to be a destination. Nobody’s going to be stumbling into your place...you have to make it an event worth going out to.”
Trying to juggle tradition and economic realities, Flatbread piloted this music season with fewer nightly performances than Nectar’s had produced.
“Music is definitely really strong on the Island . . . and I think the owners felt strongly from the beginning that they didn’t want to lose that or give that up,” Ms. Miller said. “At the same time, they don’t want to have something that drains Flatbread [the restaurant]. So we said, let’s try it this summer, and keep it small and controllable and see if it flies.”
It did fly, and they will produce a similar schedule next summer.
Flatbread will continue to recruit big names and use promoters, such as Nectar’s, to buffer the cost. Nectar’s can offer a music group two other gigs — in Connecticut and Burlington — in addition to the Vineyard.
“They are able to take a bigger risk,” Ms. Miller said. “That is the biggest challenge overall, how do we do this and not lose money so that it makes sense [to keep doing it]. You don’t want to lose money. Even for music, it’s not worth it.” Careful calculations aside, Ms. Miller has a few bands she dreams of bringing to the Island, most of all Vampire Weekend. She’d also like to have Willy Mason and Mumford & Sons add their names to the wooden beam in one of the fabled green rooms behind the stage. At one time the beam was covered with signatures of musicians who’d come to the Island. Unfortunately, the signatures were covered over with red paint a few years ago.
Independent music has proved the most successful this summer. Ms. Miller said that while the original Hot Tin Roof audience is aging, there is a new generation of music lovers hungering for bands playing the indie circuit. This summer Flatbread hosted Deer Tick, the David Wax Museum and Chadwick Stoke, all shows that brought in the younger crowd.
The early July Deer Tick concert held on a Monday night sold more than 400 tickets, the biggest tally of the summer. The concert disproved the advice Ms. Miller received that shows had to be held on weekends and that Reggae was the best fit for the Island music scene.
“There are so many people who have opinions about how you should do it,” Ms. Miller said. “Everybody is so attached to this property.”
The next Flatbread show will bring another big name to the Island, Garrett Dutton, better known as the frontman for G. Love & Special Sauce. G. Love will play with the Butter Band on Friday, Sept. 6. On Sept. 14 Flatbread will play host to a group of Nashville songwriters as part of the Behind the Curtain: Nashville Hit Makers tour.
The last music event of the season is an after-party for the Food and Wine Festival, held the third weekend of October. After that Flatbread, both pizza and music, will close for the off-season, most likely until mid-May.
Over the winter, Ms. Miller will plan next year’s lineup, a process she affectionately calls, “a beast.” She wants to create a schedule that will cater to the diverse demographics of the Island population. “If you don’t offer something to all of them, you are not going to survive,” Ms. Miller said.