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February 19, 2024

Amid post-pandemic rebound, Max Hospitality eyes growth with expanded Hartford presence, new golf simulator concept

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER Max Hospitality CEO and President Scott Smith (left) with Vice President Steve Abrams in their newest downtown Hartford location, Bar Max.
HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER A look inside Bar Max, which is located on the bottom floor of the Goodwin Hotel.
HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER A look inside Bar Max, which is located on the bottom floor of the Goodwin Hotel.
HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER A look inside Bar Max, which is located on the bottom floor of the Goodwin Hotel.
Max Hospitality: At A Glance
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In a little over four years, Max Hospitality has swung from laying off almost all its staff during the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, to sales of about $60 million in 2023 — topping pre-pandemic revenues.

Now, the Hartford-based company is up to 900 full- and part-time employees and growing — not just its manpower, but also its footprint.

After selling a far-flung Florida restaurant in 2023, Max Hospitality began this year by taking over a bar and events space in downtown Hartford’s iconic Goodwin Hotel.

The company is also preparing to launch a new bar/events space featuring high-tech golf simulators — Max’s Swing Lounge — that will be paired with Max Tavern at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.

“We feel really good about the team we have right now, we have a great group of next-generation manpower,” said Max Hospitality CEO and President Scott Smith. “We feel like we are in the right position, and we have the muscle to do it.”

Smith said he expects continued expansion to follow in the short term, as the company is in a position to take advantage of new opportunities.

Downtown Hartford rebound

Among all of Max Hospitality’s establishments, the iconic Max Downtown was hit hardest by the pandemic. It has also seen the most dramatic turnabout with record revenue in 2023, according to Max Hospitality Vice President Steven Abrams.

Max Downtown is located across the street from Bar Max, the newest Hartford location of Max Hospitality.

Nestled among downtown Hartford’s largest office towers, the location was particularly hard hit by the flight of office workers to remote-work settings.

Hartford’s population of downtown workers has rebounded, but is still a far cry from pre-pandemic levels. Even so, Abrams said, there has been an increase in evening guests, who have always been Max Downtown’s largest customer base.

More businesses are also returning to face-to-face meetings, which has helped.

“Not everybody uses that Zoom nonsense, you know?” Abrams said. “Aetna and Travelers and The Hartford and Marcum accounting and PwC and Deloitte all started having customers and other offices fly in. And when somebody flies into Hartford, when they’re on the plane and they ask: ‘Where should I eat,’ everybody says Max Downtown. So, I’m lucky in that sense.”

New ventures

At the start of this year, Max Hospitality began leasing the former Bar Pina and Terreno Restaurant spaces in downtown Hartford’s Goodwin Hotel.

Max Hospitality has taken over operations of the bar, now called “Bar Max,” while the former Terreno Restaurant is being used exclusively as an events space. It’s operating under the name “The Haynes,” after the street it borders.

The spaces were yielded by Chef Tyler Anderson’s restaurant group, which, after six years at the 1881-vintage hotel, opted not to renew its lease, citing a drop-off in corporate events.

So far, little has changed at the bar, apart from the name affixed to its windows and its short menu of food. Max Hospitality has engaged a head bartender, Taylor Gillaspie, to refine the drinks selection and operations.

A planned bar renovation this spring will include a new color scheme, back bar, pictures and furniture, along with upgraded lighting, Smith and Abrams said.

A look inside Bar Max, which is located on the bottom floor of the Goodwin Hotel.

Even without big changes, the bar, and neighboring hotel library room, is already performing well, drawing a capacity crowd of about 75 people on the third Saturday of January. By that time, The Haynes had hosted several business meetings and after-parties following wedding receptions.

Smith and Abrams expect to eventually install a new restaurant in the Terreno space, in concert with a planned extensive renovation of the 124-room Goodwin Hotel by its owner, Stamford-based RMS Cos.

Randy Salvatore, president and CEO of RMS, said a comprehensive hotel renovation is expected to begin late this year.

In Massachusetts, Smith and Abrams will shortly launch an estimated $1.2 million renovation of a roughly 7,000-square-foot events space attached to Max Tavern at the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Max’s Swing Lounge will feature nine golf simulation booths surrounding a long bar, booths and tables. Max Tavern will provide the food. The plan is to open by early summer.

Max Hospitality has leased the tavern and events space at the Basketball Hall of Fame for about 22 years, Smith said. While Max Tavern saw a 20% increase in catering business last year, demand for the events space remained lackluster.

So, Smith and Abrams began fleshing out a new concept.

“We have talked at various times about whether we give it up, but then we kind of stumbled onto this idea of an indoor golf business,” Smith said.

Smith, an avid professional golf fan, said he hit on the idea with the help of a friend, Shawn Reilly, who is part owner of Back 9 Social, a bar and restaurant featuring indoor golf simulators in Wallingford.

Abrams said the Springfield venue will feature an upscale design, reminiscent of a “country club grill room.”

Central CT staple

Max Hospitality has been operating in Greater Hartford since 1986. That was the year Rich Rosenthal opened bistro-style Italian restaurant Max on Main in Hartford, quickly becoming one of the city’s more popular dining spots.

A decade later, Max on Main would move to the City Place I office building, where it rebranded as Max Downtown and became a popular meeting spot for area business and political leaders.

Rosenthal and partners opened 10 restaurants leading up to 2022, when he sold his shares to eight remaining operating partners, including Smith and Abrams, as well as Robert Cooke, Hunter Morton, Doug Kelly, Chris Torla, John Thomas and Brian Costa.

At that time, Max Restaurant Group rebranded to become Max Hospitality. In addition to the operating partners, the business has about 35 investors, who also own shares but don’t take part in direct management.

A look inside Bar Max, which is located on the bottom floor of the Goodwin Hotel.

Max Hospitality in November opted to sell its one restaurant in Florida — Cooper Craft Kitchen & Bar in Palm Beach. Rosenthal, who had a winter home in the Palm Beach area, prompted the launch of that restaurant eight years ago.

While Cooper Craft had also come out of the pandemic booming, Smith said, Max Hospitality decided it was too far from the home office in Connecticut.

“We really wanted to concentrate our efforts in the Northeast,” Smith said.

Long partnership

Smith and Abrams had worked with Rosenthal since 1991. Abrams, now 65, was hired by Rosenthal as an assistant manager. They met as roommates at Bentley University.

Abrams grew up tending to his family’s hardware store in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. He had also helped manage restaurants in New York and Colorado.

Scott, now 62, began his affiliation with Max Restaurant Group as a consultant, providing inventory management services for Max on Main and Max a Mia in Avon.

When Max’s Oyster Bar opened in West Hartford in 2001, he joined the company full time as director of operations.

Patrons enjoy lunch at Max Downtown in Hartford.

Scott said the hierarchy and roles at Max Hospitality haven’t changed much since the 2022 reorganization. Only now, he and Abrams have greater responsibilities overseeing the entire company.

“I joke with people when they ask: ‘How has the transition been?’” Scott said. “I say: ‘You know, it’s like going from being a babysitter to being a parent.’ I’ve had ownership before and everything else, but when there’s somebody over you, it’s a lot easier.”

Abrams said he has learned over the years to put employee morale first. That’s why Max Hospitality offers health insurance to employees working over 30 hours weekly, as well as the recently added benefit of a 401(k) matched at 4%.

About 40% of Max employees are eligible.

“If you don’t have a happy employee, it’s hard for them to make your guests happy,” Abrams said.

Despite that philosophy, Max Hospitality, like many Connecticut companies, found hiring a challenge coming out of the pandemic. But it’s getting easier.

Open positions that generally took months to staff, Abrams said, are now being filled in two to three weeks, and are attracting multiple candidates.

“The labor market is getting much better for us,” Abrams said. “It’s not like it was pre-COVID, but it is certainly getting less tight, and we are finding good people.”

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