by Michael Monks
More than twenty years ago, the Conway family of Cincinnati had just sold off its manufacturing business and was looking for a new enterprise to jump into. They decided upon a TGI Friday's franchise at the newly built Covington Landing but the restaurant chain had a stipulation for new franchisees that someone with restaurant experience be involved. The Conways tapped the Bernsteins, operators of BB Riverboats and the Mike Fink floating restaurant, to come aboard and help with their entry into food service. Now, Bob Conway says his family has the second-largest collection of TGI Friday franchises in the country in addition to Newport's Hofbrahaus, Karlo's Bistro in Florence, and multiple McAllister's Delis but as he sets out on yet another new endeavor, Conway is once again collaborating with his old friends, the Bernsteins, only this time it's that family in need of a partner.
After thirty-five years the Mike Fink served its last meals on Valentine's Day 2008 and since then has mostly remained at its once thriving spot on the shoreline of the Ohio River in the front yard of Covington's Historic Licking Riverside neighborhood. The steady deterioration has drawn the ire of many residents in this posh part of the city dominated by its blocks of antebellum mansions and towering condo developments. Jimmy Bernstein and Bob Conway visited the neighborhood association during its monthly meeting Wednesday night and shared some welcome news: the Mike Fink is on pace to reopen in time for the Cincinnati Reds Opening Day next spring.
"When we closed, we couldn't compete because the boat was run down and we didn't have the capital to invest," Bernstein said. "But I've matured greatly over the last few years." Closing the Fink was not originally on Bernstein's menu. In fact, in the summer of 2007, six months before the closure, Bernstein had applied for and received approval for plans to renovate the boat once operated by his parents. But the hull of the boat which was built in 1930 was quickly deteriorating and though Bernstein contends that it was never in any danger of sinking a surveyor recommended that the Fink be closed, especially after developing multiple pin leaks.
The hull was replaced during a trip to Portsmouth, Ohio and should be good for another eighty years, Bernstein told his longtime residential neighbors. Now, the goal is to have some business going on inside it. "In order to compete today you have to keep your eye out, know what's new, appeal to all ages, and have a great product," Bernstein said after acknowledging and empathizing with the neighborhood's concerns. "We just want to serve great food. We want to be your neighborhood restaurant. We want to give Licking Riverside preferential treatment and always have a table for you."
If there were any bad feelings from the neighbors toward the Mike Fink Wednesday night they were hard to notice as most of Bernstein's remarks were met with enthusiastic applause. But before those tables are available to neighbors or anyone else, financing has to be achieved and that has yet to happen, though Conway is optimistic that their estimated $1.5 - $2.5 million investment will be backed by a bank. Conway is already turning some of his assets into cash so that painting on the Mike Fink's exterior can begin right away.
"We need to get moving on restoring the outside immediately," Conway said. The color scheme will be the familiar black and white, the traditional colors of an old-fashioned steamboat. On the inside, "there will be lots of character to it," Conway promised. "We want people to come in and discover different areas of the boat and its unique characteristics."
There are some external issues still facing the boat's reopening in addition to the pursuit of financing, the most pressing of which are in the hands of nature. Bernstein explained that the Ohio River fluctuates from twenty-six to fifty feet about three times a year and that debris dumped from Licking River goes right into the Ohio with its first stop being the Fink. He is working with the City of Covington on developing drift deflectors, though current drawings place them at the Roebling Suspension Bridge, too far west to be of any help to the restaurant. In any case, a crew from BB Riverboats will be on regular patrol to maintain any debris that accumulates. Trash on the land is also an issue and neither Conway nor Bernstein is sure yet where to place the necessary dumpsters.
Back on the inside of the boat when the kitchen is cooking again, a third generation member of the Bernstein riverboat family will be serving up its new menu. Brad Bernstein, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who studied in New York and Napa Valley, will be the Mike Fink's chef. He cut his teeth in the boat's kitchen before earning his formal education, though his time on the floating restaurant allowed him to skip many classes at the exclusive school. Brad was inspired in California by the farm-to-table movement and hopes to incorporate that into the relaunched Mike Fink. In its first incarnation the Fink ordered a lot of wholesale products, but this time will be different.
"We'll be getting our product locally, taking it in its raw form and creating wonderful meals from it," Brad said, promising slow-cooked entrees over wood fire. He also looks forward to dockside service, a feature that will bring other boats on the Ohio River back to their long-dormant friend, the Mike Fink, ready to breath and serve once again.