Eight days a week
Only love could make restaurant owners work so hard

Jay McSharry Taking a breather from the bustle: Jay McSharry '90 pauses in the bar at Jumpin' Jay's Fish Café, one of his four restaurants, with partner Louis Hamel and his family. Hamel's son Louie, center, is the namesake for Little Louie's Fish House.

It is 7:30 a.m. on the day when Little Louie's Fish House is set to open. The kitchen has been stocked, the basic broths and sauces simmered. With four permits down and two to go, the health inspector arrives and makes a pronouncement. The kitchen must be cleared of all food before he will inspect. The liquor inspector is coming at 11, however, and she won't inspect unless the kitchen is stocked. Owner Jay McSharry reveals no trace of dismay. It's as if he somehow anticipated this Clash of the Inspectors, which will delay the opening for a whole weekend. "When everything goes smoothly," he explains, "that's a surprising day."

McSharry's easygoing manner makes him seem an unlikely namesake for his first restaurant, Jumpin' Jay's Fish Café in Portsmouth, N.H. Yet he is indeed the one who put the jump in Jumpin' Jay's—not to mention Radici, Dos Amigos Burritos, and now, in nearby Dover, Little Louie's Fish House and Dover Soul.

"If I had to pick one word to describe Jay," says Louis Hamel, partner in Little Louie's, "it would be 'nonstop.' He's always working two phones and doing three things at once." The cell phone is indispensable. "It allows me to be in one place while still running the show in another place," McSharry explains. A case in point: "Can you call me back in about 15 minutes?" he asks mid-conversation. "I'm in the dentist's chair."

McSharry racked up 6,000 minutes on his cell phone and worked some 300 hours the month Little Louie's opened. Long hours, big responsibilities and constant crises can be hard to take. According to the National Restaurant Association, six out of 10 restaurants fail within the first three years, and one study found that owners usually quit for personal reasons.

Dover Soul Dover Soul coffeehouse and martini bar and adjacent Little Louie's Fish House are McSharry's newest businesses.

"The walk-in goes down overnight," McSharry says by way of example. "Things are still cold, but it's losing temperature fast. Then there's a staffing issue. Somebody's out with bronchitis. Somebody else cuts his finger. And you know it's just going to be one of those days." On a raw November "one of those days" he finds himself up on the roof at Radici, his Italian restaurant in Portsmouth, troubleshooting the vent fan.

McSharry has seemingly abundant energy—enough to open four restaurants in four years, with plans for two or three more. Hoping to have a family with as many as four children some day, he expects to cut back his hours once his businesses are established.

"When you open a restaurant, the hours can be intense," says Joe Durocher, UNH professor of hospitality management. "Don't do it if you want a 9 to 5 job." He identifies three requirements for success: a good location, a sharp eye for expenses in an industry with narrow profit margins, and a clearly defined "concept," or identity.

McSharry particularly enjoys designing the concept of a new restaurant and choosing appropriate furnishings and knicknacks. "For me the process is so organic that the name is the concept," he says, using Jumpin' Jay's Fish Café as an example. "It has white Corian tabletops—nice and clean, but no formal tablecloths. It's a lively place. A subdued place is great for a date, but I wanted something with a little more push to it." Push it has. And fish. Six different kinds on any given night, ranging from amberjack to wahoo.

By filling the fish-but-fun niche, the restaurant has earned great reviews, received two calls from Bon Appetit requesting recipes, and taught diners to call well ahead for a weekend reservation.

McSharry, who worked in several restaurants growing up, majored in communications at UNH with a minor in business. After graduation in 1990, he tried sales, film production and advertising. One day he found himself at a photo shoot in the kitchen of the Manhattan meat-eaters' mecca known as Smith and Wollensky's, surrounded by all that sizzling, charring, clattering and energy. "Everything was in motion," he recalls. "I wanted to say, 'I'm in the restaurant business, too!'" He pauses. "But I was in advertising."

Jay McSharry and Louis Hamel
Jay McSharry and Louis Hamel

Not for long. McSharry left with a new determination to open his own restaurant. He read a book on writing a business plan and waited tables to stockpile money and observe a successful business from the inside. He opened Jumpin' Jay's "on the cheap," with $20,000 of his own money pooled with $30,000 from three friends plus a $30,000 loan. He did much of the construction himself, opening one-third of the 40-seat restaurant initially while he renovated the rest.

Little Louie's Fish House

The Italian restaurant Radici happened next, almost by accident, when the landlord offered McSharry the space next door to Jumpin' Jay's. McSharry discovered he enjoys identifying a need. He opened Dos Amigos Burritos, it seems, to satisfy the city of Portsmouth's communal craving for short-order burritos made with fresh ingredients. Then he was on to help Dover with its hankering for fish.

In short, McSharry has a passion for providing customer service. It started in high school, when he was named Class Partier—for all the right reasons. Back then he didn't "throw" a party so much as coordinate one, he recalls, "working the phones, taking everyone's ideas and channeling all that into something bigger."

It is not clear, says McSharry, where he will end up, other than "involved in the community somehow." But for the foreseeable future it is clear that, if not jumpin', he will certainly be in motion—and working a phone or two.

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