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Magnifico! A new generation puts a shine on Massie's

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SOUTH GLENS FALLS

When Jonathan Greenwood was 15, he sat down with his financial planner uncle Matt to talk about his future. They chatted about the importance of finances and he made short-term and long-term goals — including owning a restaurant by the time he was 30.

It was a conversation most 15-year-old Queensbury kids probably weren’t having, but Greenwood had already been earning good money and was learning the restaurant ropes from Mike Willig at Adirondack Seafood in Hudson Falls.

He said he realized early in life that if he wanted things, the easiest way to get them was not to ask his parents, but to work for them. And although he joked that he would often show up to hang out with friends after work “stinking like a chopped clam,” a restaurant-industry seed was planted.

“I was really disappointed when I missed it by about 50 days (the goal of restaurant ownership by age 30),” said the now-proud owner of the iconic Massie’s Restaurant in South Glens Falls that he resurrected just over five years ago.

And he was dead serious about being upset at missing the 30-year-old milestone.

He had been grooming himself for the moment throughout his teens and 20s, years that would see him leave high school early without a diploma, then leave Adirondack Seafood and chart his own cooking course at places like Outback Steakhouse, Dunham’s Bay Resort and then as executive chef at Copper Mountain Resort in Colorado before returning to the area to buy Massie’s with his entire savings.

And although the first year was rough trying to please longtime fans of the restaurant, which served its first meals in 1929, while adding his own touch, he said he has since decided to do it his way, and a packed house every Wednesday through Sunday is evidence it’s working.

But he didn’t ignore the nearly 100-year-old history of the place either, recently paying homage to Ralph “Massie” Russo and his wife, Dot, in his own special way by spending thousands of dollars to have The Blackburn Gallery re-create nine huge old murals painted in the ‘50s and photos dating back to its opening that now accentuate the entirely renovated restaurant.

“See how much the restaurant business ages you,” he said with a laugh, pointing to pictures of Massie Russo from 10 years apart.

He also pulled out an old picture showing his now-57-year-old father as a little boy at Massie’s with his grandparents.

“That’s my dad right there in 1967,” he said with a smile, showing the family in front of one of the murals after a dinner. “And that’s the painting right there.”

The ultimate tribute to the Massie’s history might be a painting of Massie himself that Greenwood rediscovered in the attic, which is now lighted and displayed over the bar, with Massie appearing to be surveying the operation from above.

“From what I’m told, he used to sit at the end of the bar and kind of look over everything, so I thought it was fitting,” he said.

The transformation

In an animated, fast-talking one-hour conversation on a closed Sunday morning after a busy Saturday night, the seemingly tireless Greenwood talked about his decision to buy Massie’s and the process of basically creating a whole new “building inside the building.”

It started with renovations to the original restaurant and bar, which dazzled patrons and got a buzz started. Then came the kitchen and, most recently, he renovated the old adjacent dining room and created a new dining area and new bar in a portion of the building that had never been part of Massie’s before.

The changes left longtime Massie’s fans confused, he said.

“A lot of people walk in like they’re Massie’s aficionados, saying, ‘This is where the old dining room used to be’ — and no that’s not the case,” he said with a chuckle. “I have to open the door and show them and they’re like, ‘I didn’t even know where I was.’”

Though the renovations were his vision, he paid tribute to his contractor brother Jeff, uncle Jim, and father Mike, for bringing it to life — with materials at contractor cost and “labor at a very fair rate.”

He also thanked Pat Russo, the last surviving child of Massie Russo, who kept the restaurant afloat for years after his brother Bobby died — and after he had already settled into retirement from closing his former Pat Russo’s Dugout.

His decision to keep Massie’s going, despite its tarnishing luster from its heyday, gave Greenwood time to get home from Colorado, get some savings accrued and be able to purchase it at a much lower price than if it was thriving.

Russo, whose wife just passed away, was in Massie’s recently to celebrate what would have been her birthday and Greenwood gave him a new Massie’s hat, he said.

“He was freakin’ in his glory,” Greenwood said of the gift. “Like 20 of them came in. During dinner I brought him out the hat and he put it on and we got a picture together.”

Greenwood said Russo also got emotional about the restaurant’s transformation.

“He teared up over the kitchen. Then we came out here, he was absolutely mesmerized,” Greenwood said.

Russo, reached last week, said he is so happy Greenwood is proudly displaying his dad’s portrait and that he kept the “Massie’s tradition alive.”

“A lot of people want to establish their own identity so they change the name and change things around, but he’s maintained it as Massie’s,” he said. “It’s still Massie’s and it’ll be Massie’s for a long time.”

Hard work creates luck

As proud as he is of how far Massie’s has come since he opened in January 2016, Greenwood said it wasn’t easy, especially early on. He opened just four days after buying it and found himself working upward of 100 hours a week and being barraged with negative comments about how it wasn’t the same, with criticisms as basic as “the cranberry sauce tasted different.”

“Some people hated it just because it wasn’t the Russos’ anymore,” he said.

Some nights early on, when the last of the dinners had been sent out, he said he’d climb on the roof and “literally cry my eyes out.” The work was endless and reward was hard to come by.

Plus, he wasn’t proud of how the building looked. He said friends would come by for a dinner and they might have to endure water leaking through the ceiling because it was raining out.

“That first year was the hardest of my life, by far,” he said.

But he didn’t sulk.

He worked harder.

He also decided he wasn’t going to just try to please the Massie’s regulars, but to put more of himself in the restaurant, his vision, and attract new clientele.

And once the initial renovation was done, people started to flock there — and they haven’t stopped.

Despite the pandemic, being closed three months and being reduced to takeout, his 2020 numbers equaled 2019 numbers and he said 2021 numbers will be easily up by 100 percent or more.

At his side throughout the ride has been his longtime girlfriend Raeanna Dube, who Greenwood and patrons say is an equally tireless worker who takes all the reservations and greets guests — and is a neat freak.

Greenwood marveled at how spotless Dube keeps the place, including frequently wiping down the thousands of feet of white trim in a “red sauce” Italian restaurant.

“You look around, it’s immaculate,” he said.

Dube said not every day is perfect, but she said she loves greeting people and is blown away by how far the restaurant has come in five years. She said Greenwood is the ultimate problem solver who “amazes me day after day.”

Both Dube and Greenwood also praised the Massie’s staff, saying everyone has the same work ethic. And members of the kitchen crew, many who have worked with him at other restaurants, equally heaped praise on their boss, saying they like to work for him because he leads by example.

“He washes dishes and everything,” said sauté specialist Rob Long. “And he’s tight. Everything’s gotta be done right.”

“He just keeps upgrading the original,” added chef Keith Wildey.

To the people who say Greenwood is lucky with the success at Massie’s, he bristles a little.

“I tell them, the harder I work, the luckier I become,” he said.

Why they come

These days, Massie’s has lots of regulars, many who come in at least once a week — including grandparents Russ and Bea, who have been eating there for over 60 years.

Greenwood named his grandmother as a huge inspiration for him during down times, having spent half her life in a wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis.

“You will never in a million years see Grandma Greenwood down,” he said. “I feel like that drove me more than anything. It’s like, you can sit and bitch and moan or you can just do something.”

When told what he said, Bea Greenwood said, “Well, he’s an inspiration to me.”

“He has a drive that won’t stop,” she said. “And he’s doing what he loves.”

Russ Greenwood said it was a shame to see Massie’s decline toward the end before his grandson bought it, and said he’s always telling old friends they need to try it again.

Bill and Heidi Marine are regulars with a lot to say. Heidi spoke about how Greenwood found out she loved rice pudding and made it for her — not for the menu — but just for her.

“Jon is a special guy. He gets to know his customers,” she said. “He even messaged me to be sure I was coming in that week.”

Heidi said Greenwood and Dube make a “dynamic duo,” saying Dube always enthusiastically greets customers, making them “feel like family.”

Dube seemed proud of the dynamic duo comment and said she loves greeting regulars like the Marines, saying it makes her job so much more fun.

“We’re welcoming them into our home every day because basically this is our home,” she said.

Bill Marine said he loves how Greenwood comes out of the kitchen to meet guests and get feedback.

And food-wise, he stressed that Massie’s specials — or “featured entrees” — are “extraordinarily creative.”

Asked to name his favorite creation, Greenwood said he’s most proud of his halibut over Parmesan risotto with fried spinach, a simple dish that he said has so many flavors.

“It’s over the top,” he said.

As for coming out to greet customers, Greenwood said he simply likes to hear comments “from the horse’s mouth and to let them know we give a s—- back there.”

“I’m so thankful they’re coming in and I like to go tell them myself,” he said.

Greenwood said he tries to cater to all types of customers: those who want a higher-end dining experience at a reasonable cost and the family of four wanting to eat out “for $40 or $50.”

Mike Sullivan, of South Glens Falls, who grew up going to Massie’s as a kid, is now a regular’s regular at Massie’s, heading there with girlfriend Jenn Theis “four to five nights a week.”

“Honestly, my favorite part of Massie’s is watching the enthusiasm and excitement of Jon,” he said, marveling at his commitment to the “food, atmosphere and the building.” “He hasn’t forgotten the history and doesn’t miss a detail.”

Greenwood’s father, Mike, who was a busboy at Massie’s four decades ago, said he loves seeing people’s reactions when he’s there. And the fact that a lot of local restaurant owners come to Massie’s with their families on their off-days speaks volumes about his son’s efforts, he said.

The elder Greenwood also stressed his son’s civic-mindedness, specifically his annual fundraiser spaghetti dinner that generates thousands for the South Glens Falls Marathon Dance.

But he said he isn’t surprised at his son’s success.

“His instincts are so good and his work ethic is so good. If something breaks, he fixes it. If something spills, he grabs a mop. The kid isn’t afraid of anything,” he said. “There was no place in his mind or my mind for him to fail.”

As happy as it makes him that his dad is proud, Greenwood said, “I want everyone who comes in to feel like my dad feels.”

Cocktail lounge in the future

The original Massie’s, the first part of the building to be renovated, is currently not in use. All business is being done in the renovated former dining room and the new dining room and bar in what was formerly unused space.

But “as soon as possible,” Greenwood will reopen that space as a cocktail lounge, with the former a la carte eating area at the end of the room opened up for dining again from the main menu and offering a more intimate dining feel.

“We’re going to darken it up, almost entirely candle lit with some light jazz in the background, lowboy easy chairs with coffee tables,” he said of the cocktail lounge. “You just sit down there and enjoy a cocktail, either before dinner or after dinner or just walking off the street.”

Food won’t be served there, he said.

In a reflective moment during the interview, asked why he chose to buy Massie’s and not simply chart his own course with something new — especially with everyone telling him not to buy it — he said he “saw potential in it” when others didn’t.

“I don’t know, I saw something in it,” he said. “And it was keeping that Massie’s thing.”

He said these days he loves seeing people enjoying his vision of what Massie’s was. He said it’s been hard bridging that old-school tradition with the “new-school vibe,” but he feels the change is probably a lot like when Massie’s renovated in the ‘50s.

And what drives him to continue, he said, is something he can’t really explain, other than perhaps people’s low expectations of him as a young person and the feeling he gets when people enjoy themselves in his place.

“That’s what I love to do. It’s my passion, I guess. I don’t know, I just like making people happy,” he said.

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