NORTHAMPTON — When Peter St. Martin and Maureen “Mo” McGuinness opened Sylvester’s, the iconic Pleasant Street breakfast and lunch spot that serves Sunday last-day meals, customers were hard to come by.
“It was very slow,” St. Martin said on Wednesday, reflecting on the 39-year-old business as Sylvester prepared for his final days. “We knew that opening a restaurant was quite a risky business. We’ve always felt that if you’re going to open a restaurant, you have to do something special, one big, special thing to attract people.”
For Sylvester, this special thing was actually an idea that touched every aspect of food: everything, even bread for toast and salad dressing, had to be made at home.
Nearly four decades later, amid historic labor shortages and soaring ingredient prices, the family is closing Sylvester’s to focus on Roberto’s, another Pleasant Street eatery they bought in 2004. The owners said they offered jobs at Roberto’s to all of Sylvester’s employees, including baker Bonnie Burnham, who has been working for the family since 1993.
“This is the wrong model for economic times,” McGuinness said of two restaurants operating during a labor shortage, one of which is only open for breakfast and lunch. “It used to be possible to have breakfast, but now it’s very difficult not to lose everything if you don’t stop doing it.”
According to St. Martin, the family could not imagine that prices would rise to keep pace with rising costs. The restaurant buys organic free-range eggs from The Country Hen in Hubbardston, just one of the high-quality products that the owners insist on serving, but which have become much more expensive in recent months.
“Egg prices are up about 30% in a couple of months,” St. Martin said, dismissing the “stupid” idea of raising prices on menu items like $12 omelettes. “Who will go out and pay $19 for an omelet? So we just had to decide that this model wasn’t right for us.”
“Maureen and I met while working at Judie’s in Amherst,” which closed due to the economic collapse caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, St. Martin said. “I graduated from college, but she was still in school and we met and talked about starting a business. She and I decided to open this place not far from his previous job in a former Woolworth’s store in the center of Northampton.
Before it belonged to Sylvester, the building at 111 Pleasant Street was already living a legendary life. It was the home of Sylvester Graham, the 19th-century dietary guru who invented the graham cracker and swam in the Mill River every morning. Before St. Martin and McGuinness moved into the premises in October 1983, it was a vegetarian restaurant called Feast & Folly and, before that, a small cafe.
And he already had another breakfast spot across the street.
“It wasn’t the bustling street it is now,” St. Martin said. “At that time, this area was not considered part of the city center. If you wanted to be in the city center, you had to be on the main street. This has changed over the years.”
The original Sylvester’s was considerably smaller than today, little more than one room with a service counter and a few tables.
“We had about 35 seats there and the kitchen was a cramped little kitchen in the back,” St. Martin said, but the business expanded over the years as customers kept coming back for home-cooked food. “By 1993, we had really outgrown the space, and there were some developments that allowed us to buy the building.”
When the building became property, they expanded the area, added a second dining room, and placed a prep station in the basement. In 2004, the second room was expanded and the restaurant took on its present form.
“I spoke to a couple who have been coming here from Holyoke since the 80s,” St. Martin said. “We saw a lot of people coming with babies, and now those babies have babies. … We walk through the cafeteria and get to know the people who have been coming here for years and years.”
When businesses across the country closed due to COVID in 2020, there was little Sylvester could do to serve customers. Although public health regulations eventually allowed takeaway food to be taken out, “Benedict’s eggs don’t transport very well,” St. Martin said, and the family began to consider options for consolidating their business.
Chris St. Martin, son of the owners, manages Sylvester with his wife Gillian Duclos. The couple met while working at a restaurant, and on Wednesday, their one and a half year old son Henry followed his grandmother around the dining room, playing with a toy fire truck.
“We are restaurateurs. We love what we do. … We were just so blown away as a family,” Duclos said. “Raising little Henry and then filling in the gaps on the labor side. We didn’t really have time to think about what could be next, but now we’re starting to feel some hope, almost, perhaps, the possibilities are endless.”
When asked about construction plans, Peter St. Martin said that nothing had been decided yet. Sylvester may return with new owners or with a different business model; meanwhile, the family is inundated with requests for bread and pastry recipes, and it is possible that these popular products will remain available in stores or at Roberto’s.
“Sylvester can be reborn into something else, or we can find someone who is willing to take over what we’ve been doing and continue the Sylvester tradition, or we can rent him out to someone who has a completely different idea of what what they want to do with space,” St. Martin said.
McGuinness said that Sylvester “could turn into something in three weeks. Open a cafe, you know? We do not know. … We can stay open and sell bread” for a while.
She added that Sylvester and Roberto’s teams provide meals and volunteer work to several local homeless relief organizations, as well as the Children’s Advocacy Center. The restaurant pays “above average” salaries, she said, because they value their employees and see themselves as part of society.
Customers left “teary” comments on social media when Sylvester announced he was closing, McGuinness said, calling the outpouring “completely unexpected.”
Chris St. Martin said that Roberto’s employees will now work seven days a week instead of five and will work longer hours.
“Roberto’s has had the same pizza recipe since the 1960s,” said Chris St. Martin. “I think this is the best pizza I’ve ever had, but we also have a great pasta menu that we’re currently trying to expand. … We are trying to bring it back to a full-fledged Italian-style restaurant.”
Duclos said that Roberto’s is “like Cheers where everyone knows your name. It’s one of those places where people have been coming for years. … This is exactly where you collect these relationships, and we had that too at Sylvester.”
Sylvester’s Restaurant is open until Sunday, last business day, from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm.
Brian Steele can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.