Jonathan Van Allen’s family and staff had no time to grieve. The day after he was killed in an early morning, one-car accident they had to put on an elegant wedding reception at a restaurant that would soon be Jonathan’s third in South Berkshire County.
The reception was for the son of Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, whom Jonathan, 24, had befriended four years earlier under unusual circumstances: He waited on Chairman Bernanke’s table at Pearl’s, the same restaurant he was in the process of buying.
Somewhere between “Good evening. May I start you off with a drink?” and “Thank you for coming,” Jonathan had added Bernanke to his growing group of admirers. Perhaps Jonathan eloquently described an unusual wine or a special entrée. Although he drank little and ate even less, Jonathan made it his business to discover everything he could about fine wine and food. However, he never patronized with his knowledge. Rather, he shared.
Frequent patrons, of which I was one, would enter Jonathan’s Bistro in Lenox – his first restaurant, opened in October, 2006 when he had just turned 22 – become seated at one of its seventeen tables and feel immediately enveloped and comforted by the warm, coffee-colored walls. At some point during their meal Jonathan would come over to chat. Sometimes he would even get down on his knees so he could talk eye-to-eye. He couldn’t wait to point out the latest items on his menu and ask what you thought. He might even dash for a glass and pour his newest wine so you could taste it.
Of course by sharing Jonathan was also getting “buy-in”: He was making his patrons into advisers, psychological “partners” in his restaurant. Although he truly enjoyed engaging people, underneath he was all business.
In fact, Jonathan was a self-taught, insightful business leader fueled by idealistic goals with the passion to reach them. He was all the more impressive given his youth, his leprechaun-like looks – red-brown hair, pale, pale skin and mischievous twinkling brown eyes – his small stature, about 5’7”, and his bantam weight, 120 on a good day and less than 110 when he was too busy to eat. Like Susan Boyle, the matronly singer with the powerful voice, who first exploded on YouTube, Jonathan shattered expectations built on looks alone. It was the surprise of that gigantic presence inside such a small, childlike body that was so disarming.
Jonathan’s journey began about eight years before he died. He was sixteen, a high-school drop-out and for over a year appeared to do not much of anything. He stayed in his room day and night at his parents’ home in Kinderhook, New York. He was close to his parents, who believed in letting their children find their own way in life. While in his room he visited Web sites about Nascar and day-dreamed of owning a Nascar team one day. Jonathan shared an avid interest in automobiles with his younger brother, Alex, and his father, Neil. Jonathan’s favorites were performance cars, super-powerful sports cars.
He also studied business web sites and listened to motivation tapes until abruptly his family’s financial circumstances changed. His father, a street-smart man and an executive at a major supermarket chain, was forced to take a demotion and a steep cut in pay. His mother, Michelle, had to close the restaurant that bore her name in the village of Kinderhook because it was failing. Needing money to help support his family, Jonathan could muse in his room no longer. He joined his mother at a restaurant where she was a waitress in near by Chatham, New York, and became a dishwasher.
This jarring experience had a deep, lasting effect. Jonathan gave a speech to a Berkshire Community College business class in 2007 that was recorded. On the DVD, Jonathan, very casual and confident in jeans and a t-shirt, shared his feelings: “Seeing my mother work her heart out for five years and actually lose money from the experience was something to me that blew my mind … (my father) was demoted time and time again because he angered one of the wrong people. I went from being sixteen and having a rather wealthy family to all of a sudden my parents being hugely in debt.”
Sitting in her late son’s restaurant beneath soft pink track lighting that reflected her innate warmth, Jonathan’s mother, Michelle, who worked as the Bistro’s front-of-the-house manager and now works hard to keep his dreams alive, recalled Jonathan’s rise as an entrepreneur. Jonathan became friends with the chef in Chatham and together they left to work at the restaurant at Jacobs Pillow. He became captivated by fine dining, and decided to begin his career in earnest by waiting tables in Great Barrington. However, for a job-seeker, he was unusually picky: He wouldn’t sign on until he first examined a restaurant’s menu. Upon seeing the menu at Pearl’s, Jonathan applied for a job. Even though they didn’t have an opening, the management was so impressed with his passion that they hired him.
Over the next four years Jonathan thrived. He rose from waiter, to bartender, to catering manager to floor manager and even met his girlfriend, Georgia Sparco, at Pearl’s. He got his GED and took courses at Berkshire Community College. He absorbed everything he could about fine food and wine. Most of all, he worked like a demon and saved. By April 2006, he had $15,000 in the bank and was ready to be his own boss.
Together with a friend from Pearl’s, Alex Olchowski, he secured a substantial bank loan and then selected a restaurant to buy in the Aspinwell Plaza in Lenox. David Case, president of Case Enterprises and owner of Aspinwell, originally wouldn’t rent to the young partners. Interviewed by phone, Case recalled “My gut said they had underestimated the challenges. Let’s save us all the trouble of seeing them not succeed.” Yet Jonathan wouldn’t give up. He invited Case and his wife, Mary, to Pearl’s, where he was then a bartender. Case was so impressed, describing Jonathan as “a host with ease,” that he changed his mind.
Both young men were anguished when their partnership fell apart after just one week. “There were so many fights due to the stress of the huge bank loan,” said Olchowski “It was like getting a divorce.” Still owning the restaurant and letting Olchowski run it, Jonathan returned to Pearl’s. Six months later, with the restaurant in trouble, Jonathan returned and took over. He changed the menu by adding reasonably priced, fine food, ranging from an edamame appetizer, to a spiced-pork chop entrée to a glazed doughnut bread pudding dessert. He also changed the name from The Source to Jonathan’s Bistro. The new restaurant was an immediate success. Then Jonathan quickly took another risk by opening Jonathan’s-to-Go at the Prime Outlets in Lee. Jonathan the entrepreneur had become Jonathan the brand.
In May 2009, when Pearl’s owners, Steve Picheney and Charles Shultz, offered to sell him their restaurant, Jonathan jumped at the opportunity – then went out and bought a few Hugo Boss suits and nearly a dozen brightly colored shirts, turquoise, purple, blue, and pink. He was on the fast track and was finally ready to look the part.
With each success, Jonathan’s confidence grew, and he wanted to share his knowledge with anyone who would listen. That could be charming – like the time he learned that the manager of Domino’s Pizza in Pittsfield had never tasted lamb, and he drove some ten miles back to the Bistro, cooked up a pair of chops and drove back to serve this fellow his first taste of lamb. Or it could be brash – like the time he spied a limited-production Jaguar outside a chain restaurant across Aspinwell Plaza and lectured the owner that a man with such good taste in cars should have better taste in food.
Moreover, Jonathan’s high standards for everyone, himself included, could be as infuriating as they were inspiring. He broke up with Georgia, his girlfriend, when he discovered that she hadn’t given up cigarettes as promised. (Upon missing her after a week, he returned.) His mother, Michelle, only partly in jest, called him a “slave-driver.” However, staff members who had left Pearl’s returned in droves to work for him. Loyal staffers became loyal friends. The former chef at Pearl’s and current chef at Jonathan’s Bistro, David Frechette, said “You could see he cared about the people who were working for him … You could see how happy he was and how much he wanted it (Pearl’s) to succeed.”
By 2008, Jonathan had finally saved up enough money to buy one of his beloved performance cars – a deep metallic-blue 2006 BMW M-series coupe manufactured by the BMW racing division. His father, who had raced cars at one time, wanted to make sure that Jonathan knew how to handle such a powerful machine and taught Jonathan what to do if he ever had a blowout.
Unfortunately, nothing his father said could protect him on Thursday morning, August 13, 2009. Around 4:30 AM, after spending the evening at Pearl’s and other places in South County, Jonathan and his new colleague and friend, Colm Higgins, were driving up Route 7 in the BMW to Jonathan’s apartment in Pittsfield when something happened, and Jonathan lost control of the vehicle. The first set of skid marks both began and ended before the intersection of Housatonic Street and Route 7 in Lenox. The second set appeared just after the intersection, first making a sharp swerve to the left then almost a 180 degree turn to the right where the BMW went off the road and hit a tree. Jonathan and Colm died upon impact. The only public comment the police made was that “speed was involved.”
Interviewed at Jonathan’s Bistro, his father, Neil, said “Jonathan was going fast, we will not dispute that … But you know what? He went fast the night before that and the night before that and he went fast the night before that … He had to get around something. That’s where he lost control.” Was it a bear that he had to get around? A deer? Neil thinks it had to have been another car pulling out from the cross street. No one will ever know.
In the days immediately after the accident, curiosity consumed the bereaved Berkshire community. What happened? How did Jonathan die? Slowly that curiosity about his death became a deeper interest in his life. How was he able to accomplish so much at such a young age?
It wasn’t just money that motivated Jonathan – or power either – although he was extremely fond of both. What he wanted most, he had to a large extent already achieved. His primary goal dates back to his teenage years in his room and the time his parents found themselves in financial straits. From Jonathan’s Berkshire Community College speech:
“To make somebody happy to come to work is the greatest thing we can do for society … when you have employees that become your friends and you’re not necessarily doing it because you want to put tons of money in the bank … That’s the goal of our business: to never have anybody worry about that job security.”
© 2010 Nancy Salz. All rights reserved.