It’s fair to say that Kevin Novellino is one of the more recognizable citizens of the Bay City area. A former Bay City Commissioner, Kevin and his wife Jen have also been fixtures in the Midland Street Business District for over a decade. Over the last few years their Brooklyn Boyz enterprise has evolved from a NYC style pizza kitchen to a full service Italian restaurant and bar. (Which still makes great pizza, by the way.)
I’m not going to write about the restaurant part of their business, though. Part of this is because I am a bachelor and will eat just about anything you put in front of me, so my opinion doesn’t really count. Besides - if you want to know more about that part, the Novellinos are easy enough to find. You can assume they will be working at their restaurant before, during and after business hours. Jen will be the one who is attending to the details and doing the dirty work that make a business owner successful. Kevin is the guy working the room with the salt and pepper hair, big smile, big vocabulary and even bigger dreams.
It’s that last point that turned into the focus of this interview. I truly understood how far the vision for the business had expanded when I was sitting at the bar after dinner one Friday night. When 9:00 PM rolled around looked at me, the lights dimmed, and suddenly Brooklyn Boyz had transformed into a Jazz Club.
Cue the smile.
Jazz – Where Hipsters and Hippies Meet
When I sat down with Kevin shortly before the day’s lunch crowd rolled in, the obvious first question was “Why jazz?” This is a town known for a shot and a beer, Jesse’s Girl and Jason Aldean. What was the thought process behind going in a completely different direction with the entertainment he is hosting?
“Personally, I enjoy jazz. Just as a music lover. I feel it is underrepresented in this area,” he reflects.
In full disclosure, I first met Kevin through music. We’ve noodled around a little bit over the years. (Pasta joke intended.) I can tell you he does a pretty mean version of Almost Cut My Hair. But even then he seemed really intrigued by the “jazz chords” and way the songs were put together. Once a chef, always a chef, I guess.
Kevin went on to say, “The musicianship needed to play jazz is inherently better. So far we have had some really great players here and have garnered a lot of inquiries from the area’s A List musicians.
We also get a lot of people dropping by to sit in. It is also interesting to watch a group of guys just pull out their Real Book and pick a song.”
When asked what his goals were for the music portion of his business, his first response was “By far, a sustained support for jazz in our community - both for the music and the musicians. I am establishing that I will pay musicians a fair and consistent scale. They won’t be taking a risk by playing here. I probably shouldn’t say this, but I am not making money on the music part yet. Getting a liquor license for the restaurant has helped, but this is something we are still trying to build.”
“Basically, I love to entertain people. That’s why one of the things I worked for when I was on the City Commission was the ability to have decks and outdoor dining in the Midland Street District. These are the social amenities that people in our community along with those that visit our community want.”
Kevin also made another interesting observation for anyone who would think of jazz as old fashioned, “I am surprised by the number of young people that come in just to listen. I was talking to a young kid the other day and he told me this is the kind of music they play when it’s just their friends.”
No matter what you may have heard, Jazz is not dead.
Back In the New York Groove
Even with the addition of music to the menu at Brooklyn Boyz, the most familiar sound in the room is Novellino’s brilliant Long Island accent. It is certainly one of the reasons that people say the restaurant has a “New York” vibe, but far from the only one.
As Kevin said, “We worked nearly 10 years to bring everything together so we could have a venue that could serve liquor with food. While we always had a vision for the kind of place we wanted to own. I grew up in these kinds of places in New York. There are a lot of similarities between those cities in Upstate New York and Bay City – the architecture, the history of the labor force. It was in these restaurants and clubs that I saw the people that I wanted to be surrounded by. This was the social norm of higher thinkers. Of bohemes.”
Kevin explained that he was born to a mother who was “basically a hippie” who would cut school to see acts like Bob Dylan play in the City. It was in this environment that he learned to love the music and enjoy the hustle, bustle and hard work of the restaurant business.
Brooklyn Boyz certainly has the look and feel of an east coast eatery. You can see the Novellinos have put a lot of attention to the details of the environment they have created. It is subtle treatment, which is such a welcome thing in the world of prefabricated restaurants with hundreds of irrelevant artifacts nailed to their walls.
For those that have watched the Brooklyn Boyz business grow over the years, you can see that they have stayed true to their vision of bringing a little NYC into BC.
Hope Means Hard Work
Any conversation with Kevin inevitably strays into other topics. Whether you agree or disagree with him on any issue, you would have a hard time arguing that he doesn’t care or that he hasn’t given an opinion much thought.
When we discussed the Midland Street District, Kevin started with the statement “We need a shift in how people think about the area. Unfortunately, it is sometimes easiest to cater to the lowest common denominator. To some degree we are combating history and an image problem. There really is a new mindset here, though.”
Novellino is also a proponent of doing everything possible to grow Bay City as a tourist destination. “Basically, Bay City is an architectural museum with riverfront views. It really is a beautiful city. But it is one that has to continue to evolve, or it might get left behind.”
This is one thing that you will also notice if you do get the chance to sit down and talk to Kevin. He is a big picture thinker who can also hone down on a detail. When he speaks of a need to evolve, it is because he has a vision of the future of the community and a respect for its past. Ever the anarchist, though, only Kevin would hatch a plan to use traditional food and old school music as a catalyst for change.
In fact, he’s made those very things the family business.
Brooklyn Boyz is at 507 E. Midland St, Bay City. You can find them on Facebook and at www.brooklynboyz.com