A new restaurant opening in Newport on Tuesday may not have come about had plans to reopen the Mike Fink floating restaurant in Covington not broken down.
Bob Conway, founder of The Bistro Group which owns dozens of TGI Fridays and a handful of McAllister's Delis, was part of the plans that would have reopened the Fink on the Ohio riverfront at Riverside Drive. When he and the Bernstein family, which owns the Fink, could not come to terms on operational details, Conway had to look elsewhere for his next venture.
With hopes of reopening a Northern Kentucky dining landmark, Conway gave notice to the owners of the property that housed his Karlo's Bistro and catering operation that he would be leaving the space to work on the Fink, the property was leased to a new operation.
When plans for the Fink reopening fell apart, Karlo's was homeless.
That was until Conway found a place to relocate Karlo's catering operation in an historic building on the 1000 block of Monmouth Street in Newport, a property owned by businessman Jimmy Peluso and former longtime Mayor Tom Guidugli.
"I'm happy with where I ended up," Conway said. "I wish I wouldn't have had to go through all the pain in the process and wish I would have been doing this since last June instead of pursuing the Mike Fink, but it is what it is and you just plod on."
Now Conway plods on with his new endeavor, Packhouse Meats, a trendy new spot specializing in meatballs.
The idea for a new meatball joint originated in a casual conversation between Conway and the president of the Bistro Group, a conversation that ended up lasting a couple of hours. And then things got real, really fast.
"After we talked all this time, we said maybe we should Google this to see if anyone else is doing it," Conway laughed. "We typed in meatball shop and it pulls up a New York City meatball shop for the first three pages. We pull up their website and say, hey, these guys stole our idea!" Conway laughs again.
The meatball shop in the Big Apple saw so much success that it opened five locations. Conway and his colleagues planned and made a visit. They came away confident that such an operation could work in Northern Kentucky, and also with a few of the NYC location's ideas, such as including homemade ice cream ad cookies made in house.
The next decision was whether Packhouse Meats would be a fast-casual operation, "that's the hot segment, that's where all the growth is," Conway said, or full-service.
Conway and team opted for full-service with a limited menu from which diners select a type of meatball and sauce, a presentation (a bowl or a sandwich), sides, and then desserts. Servers, while attentive, won't be tipped.
Turning the building into a sharp new destination took a lot of work. While Karlo's used the kitchen for its catering work, the front of house had been empty and relatively neglected after many years as various greasy spoon diners.
Conway hired an interior designer and Covington-based the BLDG to handle its branding.
"They are absolutely top-notch," Conway said of BLDG, which had been working with him on the Mike Fink plans. Conway asked an architect to do a build-out with the mechanicals and the table-spacing. "We didn't want him to do anymore thinking than that."
"(The architect) said, if I don't know the concept, how can I do this. And we were scratching our heads. How do we have any identity? It couldn't have been a week after that I said we have to have an identity."
That's when BLDG stepped in.
Conway admits that at his age he is no longer in the target demographic for a trendy new restaurant but he has the business sense to be open to ideas from those who are. BLDG urged him to keep the original wood floors rough around the edges, put up a Packhouse mural on the exposed brick, and brought in an interior designer who painted the walls in chalkboard paint (yes, diners can create on them), installed contemporary lighting schemes, and used black-and-white table cloth-style patterns on the booths' upholstery.
The front facade was partially removed to make way for a glass-filled garage door that offers more natural light and can be opened for fresh air in warmer months.
"Being that I'm not in the target market, sometimes I have to take a deep breath and just trust people who are," Conway said. "It might not be my flavor completely, but it grows on you, too."
Now the variety of meatball dishes and special sides and beverages (sodas will be served primarily in glass bottles -- and the Coca-Cola products will be of the Mexican-style with real sugar) will be enjoyed in a hip new environment on the southern end of Monmouth Street, Newport's most prominent commercial path which boasts of Newport on the Levee at its northern end.
"Monmouth Street is coming alive," Conway said. "Newport is the most business-friendly city. They actively come to you and say, what can we do to help?"
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News
Photo: Packhouse Meats/provided