By Bob Tagert
Michael Strutton – Music Man by Night, Entrepreneur by Day
As I have said before, by writing this column I have met many interesting folks over the past 29 years, and this month is no exception. When I heard that the former Trattoria da Franco Restaurant here in Old Town Alexandria had been sold to a “guitar player” I had to check it out. That being said, Michael Strutton is not your “ordinary” guitar player.
You may have already heard Michael perform. His band, Both Sides, plays at Murphy’s Irish Pub twice a month. He is the lead singer and his music is his joy. Promoting, marketing and branding, whether it be people or businesses, is his passion.
Michael grew up on the Jersey Shore, which is a beautiful place. Over the years it has unfortunately gotten a bad rap though not deserved. He was the only child to a policeman father and his mother worked as a nurse. His dad also played guitar, which Michael learned at an early age. His musical talent extended to the piano as well as singing. During his early years the Jersey Shore was a hot bed of music. The sound evolved from the mixing of pre-Beatles rock and roll, rhythm and blues, doo-wop, and the urban culture of the Mid-Atlantic States. The form has a strong Italian-American influence, in as much as many of the form’s key precursors and artists, from Frankie Valli through Bruce Springsteen, are of Italian ancestry and urban background. This music had a great influence on Michael as well as his dad.
When Michael’s dad retired, the family moved to Charlottesville, Virginia. He continued his schooling and playing music but he was also developing an interest in the business world. After graduating from high school, Michael enrolled at Belmont University in Nashville and majored in Music Business. Belmont is home to the only AACSB International accredited Music Business program in the world. “Most of the kids wanted to become singer songwriters and get a record deal, music business was secondary. I was more interested in the business end,” he tells me. “I went to class with the likes of Brad Paisley, but I was more concerned about managing artists, so that is what I did.”
With everyone else looking to perform, Michael began the business of managing their careers. In a short time he was managing a number of entertainers and getting paid. Dreamcatcher Entertainment, a company founded by Kenny Rogers, noticed Michael and they offered him a position. Michael began to do the marketing and publicity for such stars as Rogers, Sara Evans, and Diamond Rio. While his former classmates were still looking for that elusive record deal, he was beginning to manage those careers. “I may have been one of the only guys in the music business school that actually wanted to be on the business side,” he says. Michael received three RIAA Gold and Platinum Album awards for his work at Dreamcatcher.
Over the six years that he was in Nashville, Michael met and started working with Ed Nash, another Belmont alum and music business leader. Through the years they became good friends and eventually formed a partnership, which exists today. Their business began to flourish as their hard work was paying off, however, an old work related injury to his dad was getting worse, so in 2003 he returned to Charlottesville to be with his family. While he was there he bought a local furniture/antique store called the Consignment House. “It was a good store but it needed a jolt of energy,” he told me. “Once I changed things around and everything was working properly, the cash flow tripled.” “I love and have a great knack for creating an experience,” he says. “That is what I like doing best…it is all about attention to detail.”
It was during his time with the Consignment House that he found his new calling. “I sold the Consignment House and started to buy businesses that were good but I wanted to make them great,” says Strutton. This is when he became a “business flipper”. He would buy a business, streamline it, and then sell it. “It seemed like the businesses were good, the problem was with the owner…I changed that,” he continued.
In 2005 Mike liquidated his businesses again and decided to take some time off. “I just kind of did what I wanted to do,” he says. “I dabbled in the cigar business, played professional poker, consulted with small businesses, and started playing music again.” In 2011 he came to Alexandria and fell in love with the city. He got a regular gig playing and singing at Murphy’s Irish Pub and moved here permanently in 2012.
His business in Nashville with his partner Ed Nash continues to prosper. They continue to develop television concepts, entertainment strategies, and help to build brands through content and substance. All during this time period Michael had been thinking about opening a restaurant. When he wasn’t playing at Murphy’s he would frequent Trattoria da Franco where he got to know the proprietor, Franco Abruzetti, pretty well. He expressed his desire to own his own restaurant and one day Abruzetti asked, “Why don’t you buy mine?” Eventually, he thought…why not?
“I am half-Italian and I love to cook and Italian food and culture is a large part of my life. Italian dining is a ritual in my house. My grandfather was from Sicily and a longshoreman in Brooklyn. My grandmother would go to the market every day and buy things like live chickens and lobsters for dinner…meals were a very important part of life,” he says. And so it is at his own house. Every Christmas Michael prepares the Feast of Seven Fishes for friends and family. This is the attitude that he will take to a restaurant. His mantra is, “It’s not just the act of eating. It’s the right wine, the right music…the experience.”
Eventually Michael brought in partners Bill White and Alain Bolliger and they purchased the restaurant. With Strutton as managing partner and his goal to practice “La Dolce Vita”, the sweet life, at the newly named La Trattoria of Old Town the adventure has just begun. The enthusiasm of this entrepreneur turned restaurateur is undeniable. It is clear that he likes and welcomes a challenge. “In three weeks we have made some great cosmetic changes with many more to come,” he says. I for one am excited. The restaurant is only four doors from where I live. Come in and check it out, and watch the changes as they occur.
I have yet to hear Mike Strutton and Both Sides play their music, but I will do that soon. If he is as accomplished on the guitar as he has been in the business world, it will be something to see and hear.