Up until two and a half years ago Mark Belanger only knew the music business from a musician’s point of view. After becoming co-owner of Whippersnappers Restaurant in Londonderry, New Hampshire, he’s had to concern himself with everything from bands to food service to venue security.
After 22 years as a musician, Belanger, 44, decided to go into the demanding, time-consuming restaurant business. He bought into the Whippersnappers partnership with his girlfriend, Michele Corl, who has been working the bar at Whipps for several years. Even-tempered, Belanger maintained a cool manner throughout this interview.
“It certainly is hectic,” Belanger said. “It’s something I’ve always had in my mind that I wanted to do. I looked into it several years back, and it wasn’t the right time, and this kind of fell into our lap, and it was like ‘Here, we go.’ Besides the fact that Michele’s been there for a long time. My circumstances being with Michele put us in the prime seat to jump in and make a go of it and try to keep the business prosperous.”
Belanger and Corl delegate responsibility to a general manager and an assistant general manager for the day to day operation. Yet, the two owners find themselves busy with their business. “We both have a pretty active hand in the week to week scheme of things. We do have two very capable managers, Tammy Gilcreast and Michelle Trulson who take care of a lot of the day to day proceedings and vendors and employees. We’re both managers as well. Tammy‘s our general manager and Michelle is our new assistant general. manager.”
Belanger has also owned a security business for many years. He has invested a considerable about of equipment in keeping his customers safe. He also can find out who was responsible if a problem occurs. Security cameras are installed throughout the rooms and they send live images to Belanger’s office.
“That‘s our biggest priorities, customers,” he said. “There‘s a lot of situations that have been rectified just by having that stuff at our disposal. If I‘m in the office, I can have a view of what‘s going on in the building. If there‘s anything in contention it‘s very easily decided. It‘s easy to decipher having video archives.”
Under Belanger’s and Corl’s ownership, rules have been established for the expected conduct in their establishment. If anyone gets into a fight, they can no longer return to Whippersnappers.
“We have a zero tolerance now for any kind of violence,” Belanger said. “We‘ve been implementing that on Tuesday nights. We have a younger crowd on Tuesday with the specials that we run. Kids will be kids. We have to let them they can‘t get away with everything. If someone gets in a fight, they are no longer welcome at Whippersnappers. We have a very good door team, very gentlemanly, very non-threatening door staff—as opposed to some of the earlier years—working very well with the crowds. We have some very good systems in place to keep people where they should be.”
Belanger could be said to have a personal mission to help rock bands with his restaurant as a venue that hosts them five nights a week. For years, he was a musician who would always like to see his bands get into certain rooms. These days, he balances personal taste with a band‘s ability to bring more business into his establishment. He has also spent a lot of time monitoring each act’s draw.
“I certainly have a very active role in working with the lineup of bands,” Belanger said. “Whippersnappers, for many years, has been a spot to go for great music. There’s not many establishments that have entertainment five nights a week. The key to having successful music is having consistency in your music. The bands are pretty much handpicked. A lot of bands have been playing there a lot of years and they do well for the establishment. It’s amazing the number of bands that call me on a weekly basis that try to get in there. At one point it’s consistency, at the other point it’s business. We can’t just let any band in there. We have to maintain a certain level. There’s plenty of good bands out there that haven’t played there yet. As I find them, I bring them out.”
After a band gets a booking. the band is responsible for promoting their act. Not all do. “There are great bands out there that are musically phenomenal that don’t necessarily have a draw yet. That’s the business end of the music scene that I’ve got to watch, make sure the bands have an active marketing plan in place and are able to bring their people out to see them play.”
Musicians who are always working hard to find rooms to play in could learn a lot from this musician turned venue owner. “It was kind of a shock to myself when I took over the business end as far as all the things you’ve got to look at besides, ‘Hey, we’re good. We can play there.’ It’s a learning process, and I’m still learning.”
It’s more understandable to him why he might not be able to get his own band into certain rooms, as only the owners know what they need to do for entertainment. “A lot of it is risk. The numbers aren’t there and who loses at that point? It’s the establishment,” he explained. “The band has gotten to play there. It’s a coin toss at that point. You can find the diamond in the rough or you can go through another night with just an average band. I like to try to eliminate as much of that as I can beforehand.”
Two to three times a week Belanger will hear from bands, either by telephone, word of mouth, or they send him their promo packages.
“Every month we’re evaluating numbers and as we get more into it owning a restaurant we’re able to see from band to band what the typical numbers are and see what we need to put on our schedules. We do have new bands we do try to bring through. We try to keep it updated. It’s not like we just let the band play and not follow up business wise. We’re always trying to keep the bands that are most active business-wise and entertainment-wise on the schedule. Bands do get weeded out and changed around based on draw and what the customers want to see.”
Belanger wasn’t completely comfortable listing a top five list of bands that draw the most people to Whipps because he didn’t want to offend anyone. But he said a decent representation of the top five would be Last Kid Picked, Mama Kicks, Ript Tigerlily, and his own band Souled Out Show Band, though he was modest about naming his own band, as the info was gently tugged out of him.
Speaking of Souled Out Show Band, that group is still Belanger’s pride and joy as the band is going on its 9th year with Donna Salviati as co-lead vocalist, Russ Magnuson playing drums and running sound, and his brother, Ron Belanger, playing rhythm guitar, percussion, and singing. The band has Belanger on saxophone and lead vocals and he has two other horns, a second saxophonist, Mark White, and a trumpet player, Steve Price. Rounding out Souled Out are Andy Verdi, Tom Eliot, and Marc Smith. Needless to say, Souled Out Show Band have got a very wide, expansive wall of sound going on.
“Being a horn player there’s a certain kind of music that you have to do to qualify as a horn band so to speak,” Belanger said. “It wouldn’t be in the norm to just have a straightforward rock band and be able to qualify that with horns. I’ve always liked the big sounds. We’ve gone through stages where we’ve had one horn to four horns. My favorite array has two saxes and a trumpet.”
Anyone who spends enough time at Whippersnappers to see Belanger in his various roles knows he has the most fun on stage.
“It’s always been my outlet. Having Whippersnappers and the time it consumes, my playing schedule has dropped dramatically. When I do have the opportunity to be on stage, that’ where I have my fun. That’s the fun the part of my job, being the entertainer. If I could do it seven days a week as my job at Whippersnappers, I certainly would. It’s certainly my release.”
A highlight of Souled Out’s presentation is a theatrical routine Belanger has worked out with co-lead vocalist Donna Salviati during the Meatloaf number “Paradise By The Dashboard Light.” Belanger walks off the stage with a portable microphone, looks up at Salviati eagerly, and begs with the lyrics “Baby baby, Can you let me sleep it on, and I‘ll give you my answer in the morning.”
.“It was always a song that I wanted to do. It’s a fun song to do with a partner-singer, and we’re always looking for songs that would show off the band.,” he explained. “Everyone knows the song. You sometimes get inspiration from other people. Mama Kicks used to do the song with the Wicked Big Band at The Yard.“
Commonly, four to five female audience members will climb up on stage and sway and strut to the music during that song. “It’s a good song for people to want to jump up on the stage and be part of the fun as well. We’ve never had any opposition to dragging someone up on stage if people want to be part of the show.”
Belanger considers new songs based on show factor. He likes to grab everyone‘s attention with a song they don‘t usually hear from a live band and or something they might not have heard for a while.
“You have to do the tunes that people are going to dance to, but there’s certainly a show factor to show off the band as best that I can. I think we have a lot more fun than most bands do on stage.”
Belanger began his sax training at age 10. His brother, Ron, who is 16 years older(and turns 61 this year) would play guitar while Belanger watched and tape-recorded him. The Belanger brothers had an uncle who owned an orchestra, and, although the younger Belanger was too young to ever see it, the musical talent passed through the family gene pool. Belanger noted that although his brother, Ron, has a quiet presence on stage, Ron can pick up any instrument and be proficient on it in a few hours.
Becoming a lead vocalist was a slower process for Mark Belanger. He always did some singing in all of his bands but he became more of a singer in his years with Rhythm Coalition. Their lead singer, Mike Green, a national guardsman, was called overseas, and Belanger had to step up.
Tenor saxophone remains his first love. He plays a German-made Keilwerth sax through an AMT microphone. He also owns Yamaha saxophones and an Electronic Wind Synthesizer called an E.W.I. Belanger plays his E.W.I during the Boz Scaggs‘s song “Lowdown” to emulate a flute. “That’s my latest toy,” he said.