Beloved chef searches for new home in a crowded market - Michael Schlow finding it difficult to start restaurant in Boston, Massachusetts

Beloved chef searches for new home in a crowded market - Michael Schlow finding it difficult to start restaurant in Boston, MassachusettsBoston's restaurant scene is hopping. So hopping, in fact, that one of the city's well-loved chefs is having trouble finding a new home.

Michael Schlow, whose star ascended both locally and nationally during his time at Cafe Louis in Boston, is entering his seventh month of searching for the right place to hang his toque. But, given the healthy economy and the profusion of recent restaurant openings, this is no small feat.

"There is a very, very low vacancy rate, especially for restaurants," Schlow explained. "The restaurant business is thriving here. ... Boston is a fairly small city and the amount of spaces suitable for the type of restaurant we want are limited."

While no figures appear to exist documenting the number of restaurant openings in the recent past, one city government official speculated that the number of liquor licenses currently dispensed was at an all-time high -- bad news for a city with a limited number of such licenses.

And Schlow's competition for space and necessary amenities, like liquor licenses, is not abating. Not only is he now racing the growing legions of locals with chef-owner aspirations but he also is racing national operators. Among those operators moving into Boston are Chicago's chef Jean Joho, in affiliation with Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, who will open a version of Brasserie Jo here this spring. Also, the spotlights of Planet Hollywood will soon light up the sky.

Nevertheless, Schlow and his partners Paul Connors and Christopher Myers are as eager to stay in Boston as their loyal customers are eager to learn where the next venture will open. Almost daily, local newspapers and magazines publish tidbits -- most of them erroneous -- on the much-anticipated plans.

"People seem to be at least interested in what happens next to us," Schlow commented. "It's kind of creating an aura of mystery."

What has happened so far is a testament to will, hard work and more than a little talent. Schlow came to Boston from New York about three years ago with the mission of reinventing the cafe attached to upscale clothier Louis Boston. The doors opened June 1, 1995. Rave reviews, accolades and awards came flooding in soon after from all manner of culinary associations and from consumer publications like Esquire and GQ.

"I thought it would be a financial success and I thought it would be a local success but never the national success it became," Schlow remarked.

Although pleased with his success, Schlow started to yearn for more -- a bigger site, bigger kitchen and a chance to spread his wings. While the owners of Cafe Louis were flexible on plans to renovate their 46-seat property, the sticking point became a noncompete clause included in a new contract. Schlow refused to sign. His original contract had no such clause.

"As an entrepreneur, I wanted the ability to continue to grow," he explained. "I loved Cafe Louis and still love Cafe Louis. I would have liked to stay there. But I had no choice. ... It was a matter that growth would be stifled."

Schlow and his partners since have formed a company called Guapo Inc. In addition to operating future restaurants, the company also will offer consulting and catering services. And the daily search for the perfect space continues. The group ideally is seeking an existing restaurant with a liquor license ripe for transforming. One deal came close but fell apart at the eleventh hour. Others now are under consideration.

"We could have been in a restaurant earlier, but I think we would have been short-changing ourselves," Schlow commented. "We have a certain expectation of what we want to do and so does our clientele."