The ownership behind Progress, a new eatery in Farmers Park, jokingly describes the path to its first brick-and-mortar location like giving birth.
It’s a somewhat apt description since it took about nine months from when the idea of a restaurant was first placed before owners Daniel Ernce, Michael “Jersey” Schmitz and Cassidy Rollins to its opening Oct. 12. The trio created and developed Progress as a dining concept from a series of pop-up dinners in the Springfield area.
“Creating a new vision, giving birth to something like this, isn’t easy,” said Ernce, the head chef for the restaurant. “It’s been like a nine-month gestation period since our initial contact in January.”
Tim O’Reilly, the CEO of O’Reilly Hospitality Management LLC, contacted Schmitz in January to ask the Progress team’s interest in filling a couple of vacancies in Farmers Park. O’Reilly had experienced one of their pop-up dinners, and he was helping cousin Matt O’Reilly, whose Green Circle Projects LLC developed Farmers Park.
The openings were created by the Jan. 27 closings of Metropolitan Farmer and its top-floor bar, called Barley, Wheat and Rye Social House, amid a lawsuit seeking back rent and late fees, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting.
The idea caught the trio off guard, Ernce said.
“We weren’t out shopping for a restaurant space,” he said, adding their past conversation about operating an establishment was more of a whimsical nature.
They were content with the business of holding pop-up dinners, Ernce said.
But conversations continued with Tim O’Reilly over the next few months.
Rollins, the restaurant’s front-of-house manager, said the three planned to move forward with the brick-and-mortar idea together, or not at all.
“After many conversations and soul searching is when we finally came to realize that this was the right time and right situation,” she said.
The three signed an offer agreement July 4 for the restaurant and the upstairs bar space, which is now dubbed Reverie and slated to open this winter on the fourth floor of the westernmost Farmers Park building.
The owners declined to disclose lease terms with Green Circle or startup costs for the ventures, which include 4,800 square feet for the restaurant and an additional 3,200 square feet for Reverie.
As discussions about a restaurant were ongoing, the Progress pop-up events continued, said Schmitz, who serves as the group’s beverage director. Over a two-year span, 16 events were held in a variety of venues, such as The Golden Girl Rum Club and Mother’s Brewing Co. The last pop-up was held in May at Druff’s downtown.
“We didn’t tell anyone it was going to be our last one. But we knew,” Ernce said.
One of the bright spots of the brick-and-mortar location, Ernce said, is that at the end of dinner service, the team doesn’t have to load up dirty dishes to be washed elsewhere, like with the pop-ups.
“That’s our favorite part about owning a restaurant – we don’t have to drive our dishes across town at the end of the night,” he said.
Schmitz said transitioning to management of a staff of 25 has been the biggest learning curve they’ve encountered. They say it’s meant creating systems for the employees and owners to learn and buy into, so everyone is on the same page.
“I don’t think we realized how much we would learn,” Ernce said. “But we’ve learned new things about business and managing people and working with other teams, such as contractors.”
The ownership has received help in the months leading up to the restaurant’s opening; Rollins said Farmers Park owner Green Circle has assisted with branding and marketing.
“O’Reilly Hospitality Management has basically shown us how to manage a business, like (human resources), accounting and all of that,” Rollins said.
Ernce said the trio’s Japanese and Nordic-inspired vision of the interior look for the restaurant was a collaboration with Juli Russell, principal of Juli Russell Interior Design Group LLC.
Reverie is under construction, and former Marlin Network executive-turned craftsman Michael Stelzer is creating custom red cedar tables. Ernce said the tables are made in a centuries-old Japanese wood-scorching technique, called shou sugi ban.
At the restaurant, menu items are meant to be shared, he said, to create a sense of community while dining. The global dishes draw inspiration from Korean, Middle Eastern, Italian and Japanese flavors.
“Progress really is a space for the community to come have dinner together,” Ernce said, adding brunch is served on weekends. “We want to be approachable, and we’re really passionate about our community.”
Price ranges are $5-$10 for small plates and $30-$120 for family-style entrees.
Pairing with the food is a large selection of wine and an artisanal cocktail menu. Schmitz described Progress as “wine forward” with over 125 bottles on the list, including 20 by-the-glass pours.
The restaurant approach differs from the exclusive pop-ups dining events.
“We want people to be able to come here as they are, as often as they want,” Ernce said.
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