STOWE — Mark Frier has a full plate these days. He and business partner Chad Fry own the Reservoir Restaurant & Taproom in Waterbury, and Stowe restaurant The Bench. And they recently added a third spot to their repertoire, revamping the iconic Stowe music venue Rusty Nail into a Mexican restaurant and live music space called Tres Amigos & Rusty Nail Stage.
The restaurant opened to the public on Sept. 8, serving authentic Mexican fare along with a sizable list of tequilas, mezcals and margaritas in addition to 24 draft-beer selections with an emphasis on Vermont brews. The music space — downsized from a capacity of 700-plus to around 300 people with an upper-level viewing area — is scheduled to open on Oct. 27 for Halloween weekend.
Frier, 36, and Fry, 40, bought the venerable venue in May, for $1.5 million, from Bill Davis and Associates, who purchased the nearly 50-year-old, 9,000-square-foot space in 2014. Burlington-based Nectar’s Presents managed the Rusty Nail music programming during that time, booking a variety of local, regional and national acts in what has widely been regarded as one of Vermont’s best live music venues.
The new owners are aiming for a more intimate music experience, while still retaining existing qualities of the space. To that end, the Rusty Nail Stage has been walled off from the restaurant, and now has its own second-floor mezzanine. But Frier says that fans of the former Nail will feel right at home.
“It’s different and not different, surprisingly,” Frier said on Tuesday. “When you walk in, I find some sense of, ‘yeah, OK, this is still the Nail.’ Because we still have the 50-foot ceilings, the stage isn’t changed, the dance floor isn’t changed, that whole bar area to the right of the stage is still going to be there.”
“We’ll now have a real two-level music experience for about 300 people,” he said. “And I think it actually is going to work a lot better for some of the smaller acts that, before, I think were actually hurt by having such a big space. So now, when 200 people show up, it should be a really fun, vibe-y show instead of feeling like you’re in a big empty room.”
Their plan, he added, was to fix the issue of smaller shows not really working in that space.
“We gain a restaurant out of it. And we hopefully save a music venue that could’ve easily sold to someone who had no interest in it whatsoever,” said Frier.
Frier counts himself among the crowd of people who loved the Rusty Nail, and that’s who they designed the revamp for. “That’s why it’s important for us to keep the name. And I think the first show you come to, you’ll be like, ‘OK, the Nail is still very much here.’”
Frier said music offerings will focus on regional and in-state bands, in addition to national acts that work for that size space. “We might lose some of the national act stuff, or we’re either going to have to negotiate a different price structure, maybe have to bump ticket prices up slightly, or try to do two-night sets. We’re going to look at all the options there,” he said.
The Rusty Nail Stage will largely rely on outside promoters to book music, which Frier said is still being determined. “We’re talking with a couple groups. We’re hoping to have that solidified soon, because the first show we’re trying to do is coming up quickly.” Shows will be for age 21 and older to start, but Frier said they are also considering an 18-plus model down the road.
The arrival of Tres Amigos fills a void of Mexican food offerings in Stowe that previously included such beloved locales as Frida’s Taqueria and Grill, Cactus Café and Bender’s Burritos. “There was a need and want for it,” said Frier, who grew up in an area of Chicago that had a lot of Mexican food, and was a big fan of Frida’s. “So we felt there was some opportunity there.”
Frier said “it took a lot of research” to come up with a menu of authentic Mexican cuisine that they could stand behind. “As we were constructing, we would taste through different salsas and sauces and stuff like that, until we felt like we were hitting things right. So it was a lot of practice and education on our end, for sure.”
Chef Paul Moran, previously of the Bench and the Reservoir, was brought on board for Tres Amigos, which will be managed by Megan Maher, who has also worked at both restaurants.
Tres Amigos employs approximately 50 people. Several more will likely be added with the opening of the Rusty Nail Stage for a total of about 150 employees at all three restaurants, all of which seat around 150 diners each.
Frier and Fry named the new restaurant after a gladed ski trail at Stowe Mountain Resort. “We always try to name the restaurants after something that has a local feel, so people who live here know what we’re referring to … (and) will feel like really are part of the community,” said Frier. “And we work hard to try to keep the local clientele happy and wanting to come in.”
Frier, who lived in downtown Waterbury for 10 years before moving to Waterbury Center in December, moved to Vermont in 2006 to work at Burton Snowboards in Burlington. He moved to Waterbury after visiting lauded brewpub the Alchemist at its original downtown location (now Prohibition Pig).
One fateful Tuesday night, there was a two-hour wait to get in. “That’s when I started to get interested in the idea of a restaurant in Waterbury,” said Frier. “And then, like a week later, I saw Waterbury Wings was for sale and I was like, ‘all right, maybe that’s what I do.’”
Frier purchased and renovated the space that housed Waterbury Wings, and opened the Reservoir in 2009, “to complement the Alchemist’s world-class beers with a really nice lineup of beers up the street and good food,” said Frier.
Frier cites his father and step-grandmother as inspirations for his business pursuits. “My dad always pushed for a strong work ethic, and had me working when I was really young,” he said. His step-grandmother was a “serial entrepreneur” who owned a series of piano and organ stores.
“Her stores eventually closed, but she got into the real estate at one of her locations, and that’s where she actually made a lot of her money,” said Frier, who decided to follow suit in his business pursuits. “So when we look at restaurants now, we look at trying to own the real estate instead of leasing it. We feel like it gives us the best opportunities to succeed.”
Frier has long had “a big love” for the Rusty Nail. “As I got into restaurants, I always kind of kept my eye on it and wondered, what does it need to work? I watched the different ownership groups go through and said, how can this be reworked so it’s not going to keep changing hands every couple of years?
“So, for us, it was how do we do something like, that but make sure that we’re open for the long run?” he said.
Brian Mital of Nectar’s Presents, which booked and marketed the music at the Nail, thinks the plan is a recipe for success. “I do think restaurant revenue is crucial to the space’s financial viability, and I am sure Mark and Chad will hit that out of the park,” he said. “The plans seem like a great way to honor the existing space, but accomplish what changes were important to them from an operations standpoint.”
“We’re hoping that people feel comfortable coming for dinner and then sliding into the music space,” said Frier. “Or coming for dinner and being surprised that there’s music and maybe sticking around. And we’re hoping that the two brands really complement each other.”
Tres Amigos & Rusty Nail Stage is located at 1190 Mountain Road in Stowe. Tres Amigos opens daily at 4 p.m. Learn more at www.tresamigosvt.com, or by calling 253-6245.