From its inception in the early 1990s to the complicated move from Hyde Square in 2009, The Bella Luna & Milky Way Lounge has a storied history. With the restaurant celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the Gazette recently conducted a question-and-answer session through email with co-owners Carol Downs and Megan Mainzer. (The other co-owners are Pierre Apollon, Charlie Rose, and Kathie Mainzer.) For more information about the restaurant, visit milkywayjp.com. (The session has been edited.)
Q: How did the Bella Luna start?
A: Megan Mainzer: My mother, Kathie Mainzer, was living in Hyde Square and running a nonprofit that she founded called Citizens for Safety. The space on 405 Centre St. was sitting empty and had been closed up for a few years. She believed in the concept of community development and if there were empty storefronts that it hurt the neighborhood. She got the crazy idea when playing soccer with some friends from Chile that if they opened up a pizza place they could open a small business. They decided on pizza since it was affordable and accessible. After watching Moonstruck she decided Bella Luna because it meant beautiful moon in Italian for a pizza place but in Spanish as well since we were opening in the Latin Quarter. She asked Charlie Rose and Carol Downs her good friends from the nonprofit world to partner with her. They asked all their friends for one thousand dollars and opened Bella Luna on Nov. 20, 1993.
We were literally still painting and putting together tables when we opened. I was 12 years old and was “the first Bella server”. It was the epitome of a family business.
Q: How will the owners celebrate the 25th anniversary?
A: Megan Mainzer: For every large anniversary we usually throw a large party with first investors, longtime customers, friends and family and we always have it be a fundraiser. This year, the funds will be raised for the Hyde Square Task Force.
Q: About a decade ago, the restaurant was forced to relocate from its original location in Hyde Square. Talk a little about how that came about and what the transition was like.
A: Carol Downs: After 15 years in our location at 405 Centre St., we reached the end of our lease and were not able to negotiate a new lease with the landlord due to an extreme increase in rent. We knew we were facing either finding a new location or closing our doors as a business. We were determined to stay open in order to save our employees’ jobs, that was our main concern. We were extremely fortunate to find a space at The Brewery Complex. The space was extremely raw, just dirt, bricks, rusty columns, it was full of pigeons and rubble. It would require a huge investment to turn into the new Bella Luna & Milky Way. A decade later we are still working to pay off those loans. It was extremely stressful trying to operate the business at 405 Centre St. while constructing our new space at 284 Amory St. We decided to host a parade to move all of the positive community energy from the old location to the new location. It was March 2009, just after the financial meltdown, people were losing their homes and jobs all over the country, it was a time of anxiety and bad news. We thought maybe a hundred people would show up for our parade. Mayor Menino was there on our flatbed truck with co-owners Kathie Mainzer and Charlie Rose. Ken Field and some Honk musicians were at the front, with Maak Pelletier from Sponateous Celebrations stilt-walking, and we had Boloco Brazil drum corps at the back of the parade. It was beautiful and amazing, about 1,000 people showed up and walked down Paul Gore Street and over to The Brewery Complex. Korinn and Kate from ULA Cafe gave out cupcakes in the parking lot. Thank you to everyone who came to that parade, it helped us carry on and dig deep and get through the transition and the first few years in the new space which were very difficult.
Q: Twenty-five years is a long time for a restaurant to be in business. What are some of the challenges it has faced and how were they overcome?
A: Megan Mainzer: The challenges have been having to move and really start over. Our business really changed. We lost the bowling alley and our nightclub downstairs that had many successful entertainment nights. We had weddings and parties in the old space and the new space at first it was hard to develop our party business and entertainment since the space was smaller and we didn’t have the bowling aspect for the parties.
We also feel like the business of getting new customers and how people go out to eat, how they order, what they enjoy dancing and listening to is constantly changing as we must evolve and change as well.
We are constantly having to assess how we can remain true to our mission statement for different generations and diners.
We now have grub-hub for online ordering for take-out and delivery. We have had to re-design our website. Change our programming over time.
Q: What does the future look like for Bella Luna and the Milky Way Lounge? Any big changes coming?
A: Carol Downs: We have always wanted to be that neighborhood business that serves several generations over the course of decades. We also always focus on improving and getting better at what we do in the great location that we have now. The biggest change in the near future will be re-building our patio, it is already very pleasant, sunny and full of flowers but we want to install all new fencing and seating to take it to the next level.
Q: What are some of your poignant memories over the past 25 years?
A: Megan Mainzer: As I think about 25 years, I realize that it is really my whole life. I started when I was 12 and now I am turning 37 this year. Bella Luna is in my blood. It made me the person that I am today. I was exposed to so many different people at different stages of their lives. I was a teenager watching young immigrants leave their homes and families to come to Boston and work to provide for their families. I saw young artists move to Boston to go to Mass Art and create family for themselves here in a diverse community and neighborhood. I watched my mother, a single mother, work so hard to provide for her daughter and create a place where all people feel safe, accepted and welcome. I saw musicians trying to make a living making their music and brightening the lives of others while they do it.
All the small businesses of Hyde Square also raised me. Nobel, from El Oriental would make me mango shakes and when I went to college sent me with a small care package of all the ingredients to make them for myself. Damaris from Ultra, did my hair on my wedding day. Nelson who used to work at JP Bowl downstairs before we took the space over and made it the Milky Way would “babysit” me and let me bowl and play pool while my mom was upstairs working at Bella Luna.
And now as an adult I have had my two children here and they have grown up at Bella Luna making plates, wiping down menus, dancing with the disco light. Bella Luna means hard work, commitment to core values and mission, positivity and creating positive change in the world one pizza at a time.
Q: How has the neighborhood and the clientele changed over the years?
A: Carol Downs: We have always positioned our business to be a place where any and all people can feel welcome and enjoy going out, so our clientele has always been very broad and deep. Whether you are just grabbing some pizza with some friends after work or bringing the kids after dance class or out on a date enjoying a bottle of wine or looking to dance late into the night or celebrating a special event like a birthday or wedding or just looking to sip a beer at the bar and watch some sports. We have always used our business to support musicians, artists, LGBTQ communities, non-profits, spoken word movements, DJs, comedians, storytellers, anyone who is part of our city’s creative culture and will continue to play that role in the future.
Q: Anything else you would like to add?
A: Carol Downs: We are grateful for our business partnership which is based on genuine care and trust, and we are very grateful to our employees many of whom have worked with us for over a decade (or even two!), and we love our promoting partners who work so hard to keep Boston’s nightlife interesting and active, and we are tremendously grateful for our guests, thank you for dining, dancing and celebrating with us!