Two of Somerville’s revered locales for live music, Johnny D’s Uptown and Choices Restaurant and Lounge, were founded by the mothers of the current owners.
Photos by G. Telci
Shirley Ortiz founded Choices Restaurant & Lounge (381 Somerville Ave) in 1983. Today, her son Victor Ortiz is in charge.
Tina DeLellis opened Johnny D’s (17 Holland Street) in 1969. Today, her daughter Carla DeLellis runs the show.
Pose Ortiz and DeLellis alongside one another – as Somerville Scout did during a recent interview at Bloc 11 (11 Bow St) – and they hardly look like vocational twins. Ortiz stands 5-10, weighs 240 and has linebacker’s shoulders. He used to be a bouncer in Boston and a police officer in Cambridge. He remains an active firefighter in Chelsea. And he looks like it. By contrast, DeLellis has the lithe build of a ballerina. If she told you she taught dance for a living, you’d believe her. In fact, she is a former programmer at IBM.
She and Ortiz do share one relevant physical trait: muscular arms. Both trace their guns to their teenage days of manual dishwashing in their mothers’ joints. “That was back before there were [industrial] dishwashers,” says Ortiz with pride. DeLellis nods. It was far from the last time they would concur during a wide-ranging conversation about second-generation entrepreneurship.
Scout: How old were you when you started working at your businesses?
Ortiz: I started DJing when I was 15, 16 years old. I had learned to DJ from other DJs there. That was in ’89. That was old school. It was more of a dance music type of time – it wasn’t rap, it wasn’t pop, it wasn’t rock, it wasn’t disco. Things like Stevie B, Cover Girls, Exposé, Taylor Dayne.
DeLellis: Full time, I didn’t start until ’85. But before then, when I was growing up, I remember for New Year’s Eve parties my mother and I would just have to load tray after tray with cold cuts. And every Sunday as a kid, we’d clean. We’d clean the toilets, the glasses, everything. You’d have your rinse-sinks, you’d have your brushes – no dishwashers. Remember that?
Ortiz: Of course. No dishwashers. Not the 190-degree-temperature dishwashers. It was gloves and those little sponge-things. If you were lucky you had a motorized one (a motorized sponge-thing).
Scout: When did the businesses become yours instead of your mothers’? What was the transition like?
Ortiz: It was a gradual transition, but it was forced upon us a little quickly when she passed away in ‘01. But in some ways the transition began back in ’91-’92. Around then, I was working for the Cambridge Police Department. I was also going to Northeastern – I was a criminal justice major – and I was head of security at a club in Boston. It was called Cotton Club, it’s no longer there. And then she asked me to come aboard to learn the business because none of the other kids wanted to help out. I have five siblings, I’m the youngest.
So I basically came and learned the business from her. Obviously I also wanted to do my own thing. I continued with school, I became a corrections officer. Then I graduated and left [the Cambridge Police Department] and became a firefighter – I’m still a Chelsea firefighter – all the while still helping her out. Even after she got really sick, she still helped out when she could. Her biggest thing – she loved to dance. She had one lung and she was dancing. You couldn’t take it away from her. She was doing it until she passed away (from lung cancer). She didn’t stop.
DeLellis: How old was she?
Ortiz: 59. She lost one lung nine years earlier. She stopped smoking and she lived another nine years. She got a lot more time than they thought she was gonna get. She survived an aneurism. She was a tough cookie. Anybody that knows – I’m sure your parents knew my mother.
DeLellis:You had to be tough. If you were gonna survive. Somerville was a very different place.
Scout: Carla, I know your mom passed away last year. What was your transition like?
DeLellis: Well, my dad died in ’84. That was a heart attack. Unexpected. So my brother and I moved back. I was in New York, my brother was in California, it was only the two of us. I was working for IBM then, I was a computer science/math major. I transferred to the Waltham office. And I would always go down [to Johnny D’s] and help part-time. And I was just about to take another position at IBM and I was like – No. You know what? I wanna go to Johnny D’s full-time. So, really from the beginning of ’85 to just last year I worked with my mother. So I worked with her for 20-plus years. And my brother as well, David, worked in the business. He passed away 11 years ago when he was 37.
Scout: How was the business different back then?
DeLellis: Again, you had to be tough. You had to be able to look at people you knew could point a gun or slash your tires. You had to be able to stand up to them. When my dad was around, there was the Howie Winter gang.
Ortiz: This was inner city stuff out of the city. Boston stuff out of Boston.
DeLellis: Yes. But just as tough and just as bad. So when my dad was around, my mother had a certain protection. He was a cop. My uncle was a cop. They grew up in Somerville. They knew those guys. Back then you either crossed into being a cop or you crossed into being a gangster.
Scout: How often – while you were running the business together with your mothers – did you disagree over key decisions?
DeLellis: All the time.
Ortiz: Every day.
DeLellis: One of mine was over the direction of the business. In my first few years working full-time, we were a mixture of local lip-sync bands and alternating country bands. And I wanted a fuller-scale of clientele on the weekdays. At that point my mother was in her 60s. I kept pushing and pushing (to change the musical lineup) and she said, Okay – one day a week, you can have your bands. And I said that it had to be more (than one day a week). I thought the whole perception of the place had to change. I actually said that I was going to quit. That was in ’87. And that’s when I took over the bookings.
Scout: Why did you feel there was such an urgency to change the perception of the place?
DeLellis: Country, believe it or not, was alive and well, back in the mid-70s. But I could see that our crowd was getting thinner – and older. The lip-sync crowd was nice people but it was a tough crowd. I remember going in, you could feel when there was gonna be a fight. You could just feel it. A lot of tension and a lot of sleaze. I just knew that the makeup of the area was changing and if we didn’t change with it, we weren’t gonna have a business. So it took a couple of years.
Ortiz: The biggest disagreement [my mother and I] had – like I told you, I’m a big security type of person. I don’t believe you can hire just anybody off the street and they’re gonna run the door or the floor. So I brought in all my friends. I got friends 6-2, 6-3, 6-5. And they knew how to handle people. Not that they would just grab you, break you up and take you outside. (They knew how to handle people verbally too.) Obviously the cost is a little different – when you’re paying for real employees instead of some bouncer coming off the street. You’ve got to give them a little bit more money.
So we disagreed about [the cost of paying for more professional security]. Parents are always looking at things like, “Listen, we’re doing well right now, we don’t need to change.” And you want to tell them, “Well, you gotta understand, we’re not always going to be doing well with what we’re doing right now.” Like Carla said, at first she was trying to roll with the punches. I was also trying to roll with the punches. [Our parents] wanted to be knocked out first – to ride it until it’s done.
Scout: What aspects of the business were your mothers ultimately correct about – aspects of the business that you initially believed they were wrong about?
Ortiz: My mother did something very smart. She concentrated on older clientele. We’re talking anywhere from age 40 to 60. And I was 22 when I was coming in there – I didn’t want to see a 40-50 year-old lady – I wanted to see a 22-year-old lady! But this was something [my mother] was very smart about. She could [see the virtues of] older clientele. Do they drink as much as the young kids? No. But do they cause problems like the young kids? No. And to this day, [we] do try to bring a younger crowd in. But [my mother] knew what works. Because Choices is very well known in the Latin community as an old people’s club. So if I’d concentrated on just keeping those older clientele and actually grabbing (just a portion of) the 22-to-32-year-olds, I’d be doing all right. As it is right now, my Saturday is the longest Latin night anywhere around Boston. It goes back to ‘89-‘90 and it’s still going strong. But (for a while) I was Latin on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday (in an attempt to skew younger). Now I’m down to one Latin night. I didn’t concentrate on older clientele. I tried to rejuvenate it. And it didn’t work.
DeLellis: Before my mom died she and I spent a lot of time talking about moving our bar over – and having our bar as a separate entity, with tables. Because you could find yourself so rushed (and overcrowded), depending on the band. But if the band didn’t bring a crowd, you were screwed – because people aren’t just going to wander in (off the streets). So I wanted to get away from having all of our eggs in that one (band-dependent) basket. [My mother] really didn’t want to do it. But she went along with me eventually about pushing the bar over from the tables. But after she died – and we were about to actually change things – I thought about some of her opposition. It was basically, ‘People know you for music.’ And quite honestly, the bands were (finally) bringing in a lot of people. Live music has its own ebbs and flows (as a draw for customers). And I thought – ‘You know, we’re okay.’ Not that I didn’t update. We put tables on the bar, we expanded our kitchen hours. Our goal remains to [attract] non-band people more often.
Scout: What else have you learned about long-term versus short-term decisions?
DeLellis: My mother – people would come to us and say we want to rent out the place. She didn’t care how much money they gave her. She never would close to the public. Because she knew – if you close one day, never mind a month, you have no idea of the repercussions and the impact of that loss. She’d say, “Carla, I used to go to Bobo’s (a Chinese restaurant that was in Ball Square) every Friday night. One night they were closed because they had a private party. And I told them, ‘But I’m a regular customer. What about all your regular customers?’” And [my parents] found another Chinese place. You really have no idea what that (being closed for just) one day could cost you.
Ortiz: I agree 100 percent. Someone would come up to me and say, “You know what? We want Saturday night. We’re gonna rent it out. We’ll give you whatever we need to rent it out.” I’d say, “What kind of music are you playing?” That’s my first thing. “Well, we want to do a Top 40.” “No. I can’t do it.” “Why?” I said, “I do a Latin night. A very strong Latin night and I’m not losing clientele because you’re doing a Top 40 night.” And I actually did it once (rented out my place on a Latin night), about three years ago. But not on a Saturday night, on a Friday night. And I don’t have a Latin crowd on Friday nights anymore.
Now, I tried it because it was a direction I wanted to go in. I didn’t want to be Latin every night. I wanted to go into a new direction. And you know, it might work once. It might work twice. But whereas the Latin crowd was there faithfully every Friday and Saturday, the other crowd wasn’t. So, you know – did I learn from that? Of course I did. I had to lose (money) to learn what my mother had taught me from the beginning.
You can learn more about Choices Restaurant and Lounge at choicesrestaurantandlounge.com and Johnny D’s Uptown at johnnyds.com.