April 24, 2010

LOCATION: Andreas, 268 Thayer Street, Providence, Rhode Island
THEME: Dinner with a realtor/blogger

Bob Black has a lot to say.

It helps explain why the busy realtor has three blogs. It also explains why he proved to be good dinner company, because his ability to touch on any topic that comes to mind, and to do so in an engaging way, protects against any awkward pauses in conversation.

Sometimes when I meet strangers for a meal I wonder whether they’ll be reticent, with little to say, or incredibly shy about the whole situation.

With Bob, I knew I wouldn’t have that problem.

It was a Saturday night in Providence and I was running late for our interview, having taken a few wrong turns on my walk to Andreas Greek restaurant. But only a few minutes after schedule I found the place on the bustling Thayer Street. “Bustling” seems like a throwaway word to describe an area, but it’s perfect to describe the scene. The pavements were crowded, every restaurant and bar overflowing, and most people having a good time.

When I stepped inside Andreas I was still uncertain whether I’d be joining the revelry. Then I scanned the restaurant and saw Bob, knowing his image from his website. He was waving from a window-side table, a big smile on his face. How could I be worried with a welcome like that?

We shook hands — the man has a strong grip — and before I even pulled out the tape recorder and camera felt at ease around the guy. He seems to have a permanent smile on his face, in a good and not goofy way, and seems genuinely interested in people and places. At the start he was asking me more questions than the other way round.

Bob, 37, also has a very mild Northeastern accent though when he talked occasionally I’d pick up hints of his Providence upbringing here and there. Turns out that was a conscious choice on his part growing up. “Ever since I was small I would watch the news and see how people spoke properly, and I would tell myself to make it a point to pronounce my words.”

So Bob largely managed to avoid what he calls the sometimes “brutal but colorful” Rhode Island way of talking, which can turn the word “corner” into “corn-a” or “idea” into “i-dear.”

He was about to continue talking when the waitress arrived. One thing I learned that night about Andreas is that the wait staff is very attentive. I don’t think it was an attempt to rush us through our meal and get the next paycheck in, rather just a friendly place with good service. We put in an appetizer order of saganaki flambée and then got back to our interview.

Bob was born in the city of Providence and then his family moved to the Pawtuxet Village section of Cranston, the next city over from Providence. He was there until he graduated high school and then he traveled for a short while, living first in Ocala, Florida, with a now ex-girlfriend. “There was nothing delightful about Ocala, I can tell you that,” he said. So, it was back to Rhode Island, where has lived (almost) ever since.

I say almost ever since, because for about a year he lived in Massachusetts with his then-girlfriend and now-wife Melissa, before moving back with her to a Rhode Island town called Johnston. Phew. Lot of moving around. But he’s not done yet. During our interview he mentioned that they’re picking up sticks again and moving back to Cranston. As Bob summed it up, “It sounds a bit nomadic but variety is the spice of life, right?”

Here I could make some terrible transition from spice of life to spicy foods and segue into describing the appetizer, but I’ll spare you the horrors of such a clumsy effort.

So in the most straightforward way possible I can tell you that at this point the saganaki arrived. I’ll minimize my felicity of expression in describing this dish. It was a huge flaming gob of cheese, served up with half a lemon on the side.

For $7.99, you get a lot of food. It’s pan-seared Kasseri cheese in a brandy flambée and it is absolutely delicious. Bob’s simple take on the dish — “it’s awesome” — was pretty much the same as mine. The cheese is soft, tasty and there’s so much it’s impossible to go hungry. The only danger is wanting so much of it you lose your appetite for the main course.

Thankfully we had a decent amount of time before the main courses came out, which let Bob sum up why he’s been in Rhode Island so long.

“There’s a certain allure about the city that I grew up in. It’s nothing super fancy but it’s got a good proximity to Providence and the lifestyle is nice. Most of the neighborhoods are good quality, and it’s a good place to raise family,” he said.

That kind of knowledge about the area must serve Bob well in his job as a realtor. Or for my British parents reading this article, in his job as an estate agent.

It was his wife Melissa that first suggested he get into real estate, and her input in shaping the direction of Bob’s last few years was a common theme he kept coming back to during dinner. Not only is she responsible for getting him into his current career but she’s also the driver behind the blogs and several other projects. More on them later.

A few years ago Bob was working for a credit card processing company, but “I was starting to get worn out and was looking for a way out.” That’s when his wife suggested he switch to real estate. “Her reasoning was that it was a good pairing of my personality and my experience,” said Bob, who at that time had worked for more than 18 years in sales.

But how to get into the industry? Bob had to take classes run by the Rhode Island Association of Realtors and pass a test to become qualified to work selling property in the state.

He scouted around for companies to work and started at Prudential Gammons. Some of the brokers there got together and formed Williams & Stuart, and asked Bob to join them. He did, and said it’s a place that Bob that has “quality leadership that sets the tone for a wonderful place to work.” Sometimes people praise their workplace through a fake smile if only to avoid getting in trouble with their bosses. But with Bob his love of his job seemed genuine.

“I’ve never met a better group of people who are more dedicated to their careers as well as helping our community,” he said. In fact, the company’s motto is “Helping Buyers, Helping Sellers, Helping Our Community,” and Bob said they have put on a number of charitable events in Rhode Island, including blood donation drives and fundraisers for organizations that work to prevent animal cruelty among other things. Part of Bob’s work is to serve on the marketing and community relations committees that organize the events.

Indeed, Bob’s joy at simply being involved in his beloved hometown was something he discussed more than the procedural day-to-day aspects of being a realtor. But even without the charitable events, he said it’s a job he continues to love.

“My wife’s suggestion was spot on. I’m not saying I’m the greatest realtor in the world, but I’m pretty successful, very happy and I have a good life.”

Being a realtor isn’t the only suggestion Melissa made that Bob approves of.

As I mentioned earlier, she also helped guide Bob toward launching his several blogs. He was about to explain the origins of the blogs, when the next course arrived.

Unfortunately I forgot to get pictures at this point. I blame the $5.75 glass of Kouros Nemea dry red wine I had at dinner (though my friends will tell you that’s no excuse because I can really put my drinks away). For our pre-entree dishes Bob had a green salad while I had a small cup of lemon chicken soup. I was a bit unsure of the soup based solely on its description, but it was wonderful. The tartness of the lemon gave the soup a pleasant kick, while the chicken was tender and the whole thing a great warm-up for the entree.

At this point I was incredibly relaxed, again probably helped by the aforementioned wine but more because of Bob’s company and the atmosphere in Andreas. It’s a brightly lit place where upbeat Greek music plays in the background at an audible but not intrusive level.

As I enjoyed my surroundings and the soup, Bob continued the story of his blogs.

“My wife and I have a very open, discussion-filled relationship and we were sitting around talking,” when she suggested a blog to help boost Bob’s real estate work, he said. “It seemed a good way to drum up business without spending money.”

So the husband and wife team set about building a blog, called “Bob Black Real Estate.” Melissa handles the web design, teaching herself how to code websites. It gives Bob the opportunity to write about properties in Rhode Island, the state of the business, and happenings in the state. For example, if legislation was pending that could affect realtors in the state, Bob could blog about it via his new website. “Through necessity, blogging became a big part of what I do.”

Necessity then developed into a hobby, as — once again with Melissa’s inspiration — Bob started considering additional blogs that would have nothing to do with real estate, and everything to do with sharing his thoughts online.

That’s how his second blog, “Living In Rhode Island,” came about. “My wife and I go out a lot, we like to travel even if it’s just in the state. But if we had a good experience in a restaurant I had nowhere to write about. I didn’t have an outlet.” So, his wife suggested that Bob take those thoughts about his home state and put them in a new blog.

I wondered if Bob would do an update about Andreas. Thankfully this site gives me the chance to heap praise on the place for their excellent food. Bob had ordered the entree of herb-crusted pork tenderloin. As quoted from the menu, this is “hand crusted with our own blend of herbs and spices, grilled and served with a fresh prepared fig and red currant chutney.”

For $18.99 Bob said the “phenomenal” dish was well worth the price.

I’d ordered the $15.99 braised lamb. Again, I’ll defer to Andreas’ menu for the description. “Tender chunks of lamb, simmered in a traditional house-prepared red sauce and a touch of cinnamon. Served over a bed of fresh made rice pilaf.”

The lamb really was tender, flaking apart in my mouth. The red sauce was thick and rich and oh-so-very tasty. Highly recommended dish, the only problem being that there was so much food I couldn’t finish it. Nor could I take leftovers because my hotel room didn’t have a fridge. Alas!

Still, it was a highly enjoyable meal and the kind of thing I imagine Bob would blog about. But is there really that much else to write about Rhode Island on his site?

I don’t mean that question in a snarky way. Bob responded that there is a limitless range of things to boast about when it comes to the state “It’s a very interesting mix of people, because we’re between New York and Boston but we have our own identity.” He also said that other pluses about living in Rhode Island include a “huge” nightlife, proximity to the ocean, and lack of natural disasters such as earthquakes or volcanoes.

Generally, Bob gets “pretty positive” feedback from his blogs. For example, he’s been contacted by people traveling to Providence who want advice on places to go. And he did a podcast on the town where he grew up, which the mayor of Cranston then touted online. That in turn led to the Cranston Herald newspaper asking Bob for an interview based on the podcast.

He’s also got 100 or so followers on Twitter and more than 200 fans of his Facebook page. The man knows his online stuff, though as always he gives a lot of credit to Melissa. It’s obvious he has a lot of love for his wife, whose name he kept mentioning fondly throughout dinner.

The Internet even played a part in bringing them together. Melissa messaged Bob on MySpace years ago after spotting photos Bob put on the site about a trip to Washington to a Dave Matthews Band concert. Melissa, a big fan of the band, and Bob then got chatting online before meeting and person and quickly falling in love. He approaches their relationship as a genuine partnership, something that extends to the blogs.

“It’s a team effort between my wife and myself. I write them and basically take all of the photos and Melissa designs it on the website. Once she’s done her design work we review it and we’ll make any changes needed before publishing,” Bob said.

That husband-and-wife team also led to the creation of Bob’s third blog, called “I Was Thinking.” It’s a place for him to upload his most random of thoughts.

The blog was inspired by Bob sitting in a drive-thru one day waiting for a morning coffee when he said a sign saying the place wouldn’t be able to honor gift cards at that time, and had a sign saying, “Sorry For Any Inconvenience.” This rankled Bob. “Just saying ‘sorry for any inconvenience’ didn’t make it right. I knew I wanted to blog about that, but it didn’t fit into real estate or writing about living in Rhode Island,” he said.

“I don’t want to anoint myself an artist, but I have ideas and feelings that I need to express verbally,” and the blogs allow him to do that, Bob said. He also paints and pursues an interest in photography as ways to express himself, with some of the pictures featured on his blogs.

So does the future hold a lifetime of living in Rhode Island?

Not necessarily. Bob said that he and Melissa have “fallen in love” with the West Coast based on recent visits to San Diego, California, and Seattle, Washington. They’re contemplating a move across the country some day, but there’s nothing definite yet.

The waitress then came to take our plates away. We declined dessert — the food at Andreas is very filling — but ordered two Greek coffees for $3 each. As we sipped on the bitter drinks (Bob and I both thought the best word for them was “interesting” and that they needed sugar), he said that Portland, Oregon, is also a potential candidate for their next house. And even if they don’t like wherever they end up, Bob said he and Melissa have no problem moving again until they find the right place.

For now though, Bob seems incredibly content living in Rhode Island.

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