BY DYKE HENDRICKSON
---- — NEWBURYPORT -- If it’s true that the third time is a charm, restaurateurs John Coley and Justin Radulski could be in for a good (repeat) run at Middle Street Foods.
The once-popular eatery re-opened late last week in the 25 Middle St. space that formerly operated as Stella’s. It is the third time in recent years that the café has made a “debut” there.
The veteran co-owners are intent on once again bringing people together in a comfortable social setting – a potential meld of Facebook and Cheers.
“It’s great to be back, but I’ve been a little nervous that former customers will have such high expectations,” said Coyle, a Rowley native who handles much of the baking and back-shop food preparation.
“Some former customers have their personal mythologies about this place, or special memories of who they met here. Still, we are very happy to have the café going again.”
Middle Street Foods started in 1984 by Meg Degive, who owned the building. She is not active in today’s restaurant, but Coyle nevertheless describes her as their “spiritual advisor.”
It operated until the late-’90s when restaurant managers from Nantucket took it over for a couple years. They left, and Middle Street Foods returned with Coley and Radulski in active roles.
“I guess Newburyport wasn’t Nantucket enough,” observed Coyle.
Coyle and Radulski left about 2004, and the space was eventually turned into the eatery, Stella’s. When the restaurant closed last year, the Coyle-Radulski team began making plans to re-open Middle Street Foods. They refurbished the first-floor venue over the winter.
Since its opening, customers have been trickling back.
“I’m glad we have Middle Street Foods back,” said Tammy Bottner, a former customer who ate there recently. “My friend texted this morning about lunch, and we were both pleased that we could meet at the cafe again.”
Shari Wilkinson, another former patron who was munching there the other day, said, “I used to come with my children, as did other women. The kids are in college now.
“This used to be where much of the creative community came, for coffee or a meal. You could expect to see people you knew, and have a lot of ideas and information to share.”
Radulski, the step-grandaughter of Degive, said that part of their game plan is to offer catering as well as the in-house menu. She said, “It’s great to be back, and we look forward to seeing former customers.”
The pair was in the local catering business during the “Stella years.”
Middle Street Food has been redesigned with about 32 seats, many adjacent to its large south-facing windows. Its menu offers a variety of baked goods, house sandwiches and tossed salads.
Of course, it also offers coffee and other beverages. It can’t be said that one can’t obtain a cup of java in Newburyport.
“There is (restaurant) competition in town, but our price points are low,” said Coyle. “In the past we’ve had a steady stream of local lawyers, businessmen and merchants who come here on a regular basis, and I hope that continues.
“Our catering will expand as our brand gets known again in the community.”
He said that the café is expected to provide about 70 percent of its business, with the catering accounting for the other 30 percent.
The venue, with natural boards on the floor and historical photos on the walls, only opened last Thursday.
But it appears it is being re-discovered by former regulars.
“It’s so exciting to be back,” gushed Hilary Esdaile recently as she embraced a fellow customer whom she hadn’t seen in some time.
“When I lived here, I came by regularly. Now that we’ve moved to Wenham, I am so happy I have a place where I can count on seeing people I know.”