WATERTOWN — Vonnette T. Monteith just couldn’t part with the historic building at 63-65 Public Square that she bought while she was still serving in the Army at Fort Drum in 2005.
While it wasn’t her original intention, she ended up opening a Mexican Restaurant, Casa de Flor, back then.
And now, acknowledging that she’s surprised that she’s doing it again, Ms. Monteith is opening another restaurant in the building she loves.
“I’m sentimental,” she said.
She and her four partners — she calls “the Founders” — opened Empire Square on Saturday with a soft opening, described as a tasting event featuring “Southern flaired” dishes.
In between opening the two restaurants, Ms. Monteith, 53, originally from Oregon, has lived a role of mother of four and an officer in the Army, retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 2015.
During her 29-year career in the Army, she ran track at West Point, was responsible for notifying families about soldier casualties and served as a public information officer during stints in the nation’s capital, Germany, Korea and Japan.
“I loved the Army,” she said.
But it must be fate that she’s returned to the north country after serving at Fort Drum from 2004 to 2007.
Her 17-year-old daughter Madeline got accepted to the Emma Willard School, an all-girls private boarding school in Troy, where Jane Fonda, U.S. Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand and suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton also attended.
She decided to move from her home in Louisville, Ky., so she could visit her daughter on weekends. Another daughter, Katie, 21, attends Jefferson Community College. Two other children, Scotty and Katie’s twin sister, Teddy, also are currently attending college.
But Katie brought her back to Watertown and that downtown 19th century building that she bought from Todd Lavere, who owned Kegler’s Lounge and Restaurant.
“I love this building,” she said. “It’s got a history. I love history.”
Since deciding to open Empire Square, she and her partners have found a bunch of relics in the subbasement, where she believes booze was smuggled into the building through tunnels during the days of Prohibition.
During the renovations, they found old, empty bottles of alcohol hidden in the walls. They also found a 19th century iron pizza maker that’s now on display in the dining area and a vintage original Finesse wall sculpture of a woman the five women owners named “Diana, Goddess of Hearth and Heart.”
Originally, a friend was going to move to Watertown with her family to manage the restaurant, but that plan fell through. Putting together Plan B, she called on four women, ranging in age from 19 to 21, to help her run the restaurant.
Sarah Daus, 21, an artist and former night club promoter who was unemployed because of COVID-19, moved from New York City to be the bar manager. She went to high school with daughter Katie. Chandler Kiel, 20, also knew Katie through attending summer camp in Oregon.
Jacalyn Kupczyk, 20, and Layne Earnest, 19, who both graduated from culinary school at Sullivan University in Louisville, are the chefs. Ms. Monteith knew one of their instructors at culinary school.
The five women live together in a duplex that Ms. Monteith bought when she first arrived at Fort Drum.
“You’re looking at four strong young women,” Ms. Monteith said, emphasizing that she and the others will share in the profits of the business.
They plan to run weekly specials and offer a menu of fried green tomatoes, shrimp with grits, chicken and waffles, Fat Elvis French toast, sandwiches and burgers. Among the offerings of cocktails will be gin fizz and gin rickies.
Last week, Donald W. Rutherford, CEO of the Watertown Trust, said he thinks that Empire Square will be a good addition to downtown, where all but one storefront is now occupied.
“I think they’ll do well,” he said.
Sitting at a table in the dining area with her partners, Ms. Monteith told the story how she ended up opening the first business when she had absolutely no experience in the hospitality industry.
She bought the building with the idea of moving a pottery shop that she owned on Court Street. Somehow, someone got the notion she was opening a Mexican restaurant there. One day, a man came knocking on her front door looking for a job as a chef.
Despite saying she had no plans to run a Mexican restaurant, people started lobbying her to do just that. Before she knew it, Casa de Flor opened.
And here she goes again, with Empire Square.
But customers, she said, shouldn’t be fooled by the building’s exterior appearance. While pieces of plywood cover the front, she’s ready to open for business.
Renovating its facade is on hold. A large picture window is on back order, caused by a building supply shortage during the pandemic. The window should be here in a couple of months, she said.
Empire Square will be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sundays and closed on Mondays.