How Al Fleury became one of Seacoast’s best-known entrepreneurs

Max Sullivan, Portsmouth Herald

Al Fleury was sleeping in the attic of Wally’s 17 years ago, running the Hampton Beach biker bar on a shoestring budget as its only manager.

Today, Fleury has built restaurants, rental properties and a newly refurbished beach hotel in an empire that spans across southern New Hampshire and into the North Shore of Massachusetts. While his reach has spanned into affluent communities like Portsmouth and Newburyport, Fleury has stuck to his blue-collar brand, including the The Goat on Congress Street, one of Portsmouth’s busiest bars.

Fleury, 41, said he is no investment genius but was merely in the right place at the right time when Hampton Beach was experiencing a renaissance of redevelopment. He said bringing Hampton Beach its first country bar with The Goat, building a new outdoor music venue at Bernie’s Beach Bar and salvaging the historic Colony Motel seemed like obvious steps towards success.

“There’s no secret. I’m not smart,” Fleury said. “We just keep working really hard and doing what we know people like.”

Fleury leaves finance to follow his dream

Fleury now lives in Hampton with his wife, Erica, and 8-year-old daughter, Rosemary. He grew up in Brockton, Massachusetts, taking the bus to Boston College High School, where he worked toward going to college for finance. His family summered in Falmouth, Massachusetts, and throughout his teenage years he worked at a restaurant there called Shuckers World Famous Raw Bar and Cafe.

At 12, Fleury rode his bike to the restaurant wearing a tie, asked for an application and was told by the manager they were not hiring. The owner, Kevin “Murphquake” Murphy, disagreed, though, and gave him a chance. “He came out after and said, ‘I gotta hire you, you wore a tie to be a dishwasher,’” Fleury said.

From there he grew to be manager and bartender, working summers there while attending school in New Hampshire at Saint Anselm College in Manchester. By the time he finished college, he was an intern at Merrill Lynch and preparing to take a job there. He decided finance was not for him, though, so he shocked the team at the financial firm and switched paths to owning a bar and restaurant.

“I knew that wasn’t my thing,” Fleury said. “I liked making food. I liked creating events.”

Fleury began looking for opportunities to buy a restaurant and in 2004 saw an ad for Wally’s in the Boston Globe. It was a biker bar that was previously located in Portsmouth but moved to Hampton in the 1990s.

Fleury said he contacted Hampton Realtor Jimmy Kennedy, who has since died, about buying the property and got a loan from banker Dan Dolan, putting down the only money he had saved — about $30,000. They closed the sale in April 2005, and Fleury moved into the upstairs of the bar where he lived for the next nine years.

“I can tell you what noise is about,” Fleury said of living over his own bar and music venue. He said he ran a lean restaurant with himself as the only manager working every day. He had a partner for the first three years but then was left on his own to run Wally’s with a skeleton crew.

The first few years were challenging. In his early 20s, he was getting used to being the new guy running an established biker bar. Traffic was challenging in the early years due to construction being done on the sidewalks nearby. He said at the time he was happy just to get by and did not see where his career would take him.

“The first couple years at Wally’s, I mean, I didn’t really have the big picture,” Fleury said. “The big picture was just to make enough money during the week to pay the staff and to have enough money to pay the band on the weekends.”

How Bernie’s Beach Bar was born

Fleury’s vision began to take shape when an opportunity to buy another beach restaurant came up. He said he got a call from his banker one night in 2012 about La Bec Rouge on the corner of Ocean Boulevard and L Street. The owners were about to default on their loans, presenting a chance to take the building over, he said.

“The (banker) said, ‘This is a one-time phone call. Do you want to take this? Are you going to handle this? Are you going to figure this out?’” Fleury said.

Fleury, who said he had virtually “no money,” said he did not know if he was going to be able to handle it, but he told his banker he wanted a chance. He got the loan to buy “La Bec’s,” becoming the second operator to run the beach staple since it was sold by the longtime owner Tracey Dewhurst.

Trouble came in the winter following his first summer, though, when Fleury got a call from the Hampton Fire Department about a burst pipe inside La Bec Rouge on Christmas Eve. He said a window was left open by an employee who was turning on the Christmas lights outside. The cold caused an interior pipe to burst, and water poured down the building’s four floors.

“We had to take the building down,” Fleury said. What seemed like a tragedy, however, ended up being a chance to rebrand. He said despite La Bec’s several floors of dining areas, bar seating and entertainment space, the biggest draw was its outdoor seating.

“All our money is made on this little, tiny deck at La Bec’s. I think we had 10 tables in that little outside area,” Fleury said. “That’s all people want to do. They want to come and sit outside. They’re on vacation, they’re on the beach, so why don’t we just make a big deck?”

In place of La Bec Rouge rose Bernie’s Beach Bar, a tiki-style outdoor patio with thatched roofs, umbrellas and garage doors that opened to a view overlooking  Hampton Beach. The name was chosen for Fleury’s golden retriever, Bernie.

The La Bec’s purchase and the construction of Bernie’s served as a new jumping off point for Fleury, he said. He brought in more staff and began purchasing rental properties at the beach specifically to house his workers. In the next year, he bid on the former Happy Clam building on the corner of L Street and Ashworth Avenue, and while he was not the highest bidder, he worked with buyer Terry Daidone to become his tenant. He used old barn material to transform the building into The Goat, now known for its sign featuring the silhouette of a goat, its country music theme and its dollar bills that line the walls, stapled by customers.

Fleury’s hunger for expansion at the beach was driven by the fact Hampton was ripe for redevelopment. It featured a lot of aged properties like historic cottages and motels that were waiting to be converted into higher end buildings. At the same time, the town and state were both making major investments to improve the beach’s infrastructure, sidewalks and facilities. He said people then were only beginning to discover Hampton’s potential as a destination.

“Ten years ago, not that there isn’t some beat-up stuff here, but it was a really good time to buy and remodel and make better,” Fleury said. “At that point, I was happy I didn’t see a bunch of people jumping on this. Now they are.”

Other projects included purchasing the building next to Wally’s to open the Green Room smoothie and sandwich café, a project run by Fleury’s wife Erica. He also bought the storefronts next to Bernie’s to build a new deck and stage that was complete by 2017 that has drawn national touring acts like Lee Brice and Aaron Lewis.

In 2019, he bought the dilapidated Colony Motel and began converting it into the Surf House, bringing Fleury into the motel industry for the first time. He said he knew others were looking to buy condos there, and he wanted to make sure the beach maintained its hotel rooms to keep people coming to restaurants in the summer time.

Fleury recalls the condition of some of the properties that have since been rebuilt with modern construction and how surprised he was it took so long for people to discover the opportunity there. He said he pulled 30 dumpsters of debris out of the property adjacent to Bernie’s during that expansion.

“It was a landfill. It was like, this could be a thing,” Fleury said. “And I was like, ‘Why does nobody do this?'”

Fleury’s business expansion moves well beyond Hampton Beach

The growth has continued into Portsmouth, where Fleury has opened a second Goat on Congress Street and another Green Room at the Vaughan Mall where Latch Key once was. In 2021 he opened a new Goat in Manchester, and this year Fleury bought the former Ear Craft Music in Dover, where has yet to decide his plan. A Mexican restaurant with a tequila bar called Lucho’s is planned for Hampton Beach, though it has been on hold as Fleury puts his focus on a new Goat location in Newburyport.

“We haven’t done Luchos. Why? Because I really want to do Newburyport properly,” Fleury said. “This place will be so unique and so special and so cool, but I need it to be run properly.”

Fleury said he is looking forward to the Newburyport Goat serving as a blue-collar bar along the Merrimack River where other restaurants nearby are known for pricy menus. He expects the Goat to be a hit with industry workers who need a place to go after their shift.

“They’re looking for a spot that stays open until 1 a.m.,” Fleury said. “It’s not always welcoming trouble at midnight.”

What new areas could come next for Fleury?

Fleury declined to share his net worth, but said he has come to own properties across 10 different cities and towns, the number of lots being in the triple digits. He said he does not like to come off as bragging about how far he has expanded his empire in the Seacoast.

While Fleury owns a home in Key West, Florida, he said he does not expect to open a Bernie’s South any time soon. Leaving New England for other vacation areas would be a major step, he said.

New Hampshire’s Seacoast and surrounding area continue to be his focus, with Hampton remaining his flagship. He said no matter how successful the Goat is in Portsmouth, Hampton always draws more volume.

In downtown Hampton, he is also planning what he described as his biggest development yet on Route 1 across from the Old Salt that would bring a new hotel and nearly 100 new apartments. The project still needs approval, but he is optimistic given the benefit having new residents in walking distance of nearby stores and restaurants will bring the downtown.

He said he looks at places along Route 1 like the corner of Winnacunnet Road, where John Tinios and his family “built and designed a beautiful block” with the Galley Hatch and its addition Tinos.

“How do you get that to continue right up the street?” Fleury said. He is optimistic it can happen in Hampton.

“But I’m biased,” Fleury said. “I’m super biased.”