Courtesy Peter Palombella
People gather in downtown Holyoke, Mass., for a "bring your own restaurant," or BYOR, event. It's free to those who share. And the ambiance is unexpected, as the outdoor location keeps changing. People learn where BYOR is going to be via Facebook.
After 5 p.m., downtown Holyoke, Mass., is a ghost town. People used to flock to this part of the city to shop, see a show and grab a bite to eat. But the former industrial hub — once famous for manufacturing paper — has been in decline for the past half-century. More jobs are key to its revival, but some locals think sharing in a good meal could really help the city out.
On a recent evening, an abandoned gas station with a curb blocked by cement barriers is the meeting point for a group of people who appear to be pulling chairs and tables from the trunks of their cars. It's almost dark. Some boxes are set on the sidewalk; linens and dishes and food are pulled out; and what moments ago was an eyesore has been transformed into a popular place to eat. It's called BYOR. That stands for "bring your own restaurant." It's not quite an established venue, but the food is very good.
It's free to those who share. And the ambiance is unexpected, as the outdoor location keeps changing. People learn where BYOR is going to be via Facebook. In the mild weather, it's "open" every other weekend. No reservations required — just an appetite and some extra chairs if you have them.
Courtesy Peter Palombella
Stefany Escobar enjoys a recent BYOR in downtown Holyoke, Mass.
This hybrid potluck began with a group of friends heading out to an art opening. They wanted to sit down to a nice dinner beforehand but weren't interested in the very few downtown restaurants open at night. So they temporarily opened one themselves. It was the first BYOR — along the canal opposite the gallery. And it grew from there, into something its "founders" never planned on.
On a recent night, at the height of the dinner rush, 40 people were there, including Rachel Lawrence, one of the original BYOR diners. She grew up in a farm town 30 miles away from Holyoke and moved downtown to be closer to work, her kids and school. And she makes divine chocolate-mocha cupcakes. They're at the center of the buffet table. Lawrence says BYOR is about the food, but in a way, it's also art.
"It's kind of like we're making this place," she says. "This place isn't really anything during the day."
And Lawrence's cupcakes are actually bait. Sometime during a BYOR evening, someone takes them into the street and offers them to drivers stopped at lights, or to people walking by, with the idea that maybe they'll pull up a chair. That's sort of what happened with Robert Seto, who almost drove right by. This was the second time he saw BYOR in action.
The reason Seto didn't stop the first time was out of fear. Holyoke has a reputation for being dangerous. But BYOR, by being so public, might be changing that image. And clearly not everyone has fled for the suburbs. Descendants of families who came here generations ago from Ireland are eating alongside Latinos, African-Americans and Asians. It's these people Ken Johnston came to see. He drove in from a suburban college town 15 miles away.
"They are looking at the community with fresh eyes despite that Holyoke sometimes gets a bad knock," he says. "They're coming out and they're enjoying the city and they're revitalizing it."
And despite its problems, Johnston and his wife want to move to Holyoke before the end of the year.
Everyone is hungrily awaiting word on whether BYOR will go indoors this winter. And some diners hope that maybe then restaurant owners will see they have potential customers — and will be willing to stay open after dark.