Punk rock and tacos: How a drummer turned real estate agent found restaurant success
Scott Kirmil’s life has been full of more twists and turns than straightaways. After sitting behind the drums and selling real estate, the Northeastern alum now owns half a dozen restaurants in Rhode Island and is always on the lookout for the next great flavor or idea.
NEWPORT, R.I.––Scott Kirmil has lived many lives. That’s what happens when you’re always on the move.
He’s been a punk rock drummer and a criminal justice student intent on becoming an arson investigator. He’s been a bartender and a real estate agent. Most recently, he’s become a restaurateur, a successful one too. With Inked Restaurant Group, Kirmil owns five––soon-to-be six––restaurants in Rhode Island, including his first, Diego’s, a punk-infused West Coast-style taco joint on Newport’s waterfront.
“I’m not good at sitting still,” Kirmil, Northeastern University class of 2004, says. “I’m a high-energy person. I was alright when I was doing real estate because I was running to the gym and then going to bartending [at night]. That was all crazy, but I’m definitely not a huge desk guy. I like challenges.”
Although it’s been more than a decade since he opened Diego’s, success wasn’t always in the cards for Kirmil. Most of his life has been twists and turns, energizing highs and lows that almost brought him to his knees.
And it all started in the kitchen––and behind the drums.
Growing up in Newtown, Connecticut, Kirmil’s early years were spent going to school, working in the local restaurant scene from dishwashing to catering and also thrashing his drum kit in hardcore and punk bands. He played in several bands, touring throughout Connecticut, gaining a local following and even recording a record with his band Tomorrow We Die. But over time he became “jaded about the whole thing.”
“That was my fourth band, and it broke up over an argument with the singer and someone else,” Kirmil says. “I was just super frustrated and just like, ‘This is a waste of my time.’”
By the time he came to Northeastern to study criminal justice––he wanted to investigate serial killers or arsonists––Kirmil had given up his punk rock dreams, but restaurant work stayed a part of his life.
He bused tables and worked kitchens and, during his later university years and post-university years, he would bartend 40 to 50 hours a week, and not only because it helped him pay the bills. Kirmil says he enjoyed the fast-paced, chaotic nature of restaurant work and the collection of “have nots and wackos” that find a home there. It turns out it wasn’t too different from his punk rock days.
“So many people at restaurants are into or from underground scenes of some sort,” Kirmil says. “There’s obviously a mix of all types, but it’s definitely super similar. There’s so many chefs who are old musicians. I think it’s a fun, erratic, crazy place to work, and that’s kind of what a lot of that music is like.”
Kirmil graduated from Northeastern thinking he would work for the Boston Fire Department to help investigate arson incidents. He aced the fire department test twice, but competition was fierce. While he waited for his crime fighting career to take off, he started doing real estate work “to kill a couple of years.” For a natural extrovert like Kirmil, it was a great fit, but even for someone who loves life on the move, balancing real estate and bartending became too much.
“For seven years, I was doing at least 50 to 55 hours a week at real estate and another 35 to 45 at bar, so really I would have Sunday nights off and then I was just grinding for the rest, going to the gym in between for the one hour and running to the other job,” Kirmil says.
Then, he found Newport. He had already started buying and flipping houses in the Boston area when he and his wife, Adrienne, a restaurant and bar manager he had met in Boston, visited the coastal Rhode Island town for the first time on Valentine’s Day in the early 2000s. Kirmil says both of them became enamored with it.
Picturing life in Newport got him thinking about where his real passion was.
“Going full circle, it took being successful at something else to realize I still appreciated and liked restaurants more,” Kirmil says. “It doesn’t have to be a [terrible] job. So many people think that. … I’ve worked with some career waiters and bartenders who have whole families and it’s their lifestyle and they get used to it.”
“I realized it’s ok to like restaurants,” he adds.
Kirmil and his wife eventually found a property on Bowen’s Wharf, right on the waterfront in downtown Newport, that fit the bill for what would eventually become Diego’s. Kirmil had fallen in love with West Coast style Mexican food after countless trips out to California and wanted to bring it to Newport. Diego’s, a nod to San Diego, opened in 2009.
To say that opening his first restaurant was a struggle would be an understatement.
“We jumped right into a big renovation, quickly went over budget and ran out of money,” Kirmil says. “I think I had $50,000 on personal credit cards to get the place open, so it was a painful start.”
He and his wife took out more and more loans to get Diego’s up and running, and eventually the restaurant started to become more and more popular. Unfortunately, without a liquor license, the restaurant was still not making a profit. Kirmil vividly remembers his lowest point.
For the first couple of years Diego’s was open, Kirmil continued to bartend in Boston to supplement the money he and his wife were losing on the restaurant. One weekend, after his wife had told him their bank account was in the negative, he earned $2,400 in tips in three hours while bartending.
“I came back and slapped [the cash] down on the table and was like, ‘Booyah!’” Kirmil recalls. “She threw it in the account, and she’s like, ‘Ok,’ but she had this weird look on her face. I was like, ‘What?’ ‘It’s still going to be negative $100 because payroll went through today.’”
“That was probably the worst of it, and then it slowly got better,” Kirmil adds with excitement. “We got a liquor license and we were able to start doing mixology drinks, which was kind of my thing up in Boston. That helped a ton honestly.”
It also helped that the punk rock, against-the-grain flair that Kirmil has imbued in all of his restaurants made Diego’s stand out in what was a staid Newport food scene at the time. However, it did take a while for people to get on Kirmil’s wavelength.
Like Kirmil, Diego’s is covered in tattoo-style art, with sugar skulls, birds and roses adorning the walls, cushions and seating. Dozens of polaroids hang on the walls and from the ceiling, providing a scattershot selection of mezcal-fueled good times and memories shared between friends and family. It’s all soundtracked by the blistering guitars and rapid rhythms of punk rock as it blares from the speakers.
“We definitely in the beginning would get a lot of reviews that were like, ‘What’s going on? Why is there punk rock in a Mexican place?’” Kirmil says. “But then people got into it and slowly were like, ‘This is working,’ so we were able to make our work funkier and our ads crazier.”
Newport’s dining scene has changed over the last decade, and Kirmil’s taste for fusing flavors and styles has been a big part of that.
“There’s plenty of demand for fish and chips and chowder, but there’s plenty of locals who want to eat funky food, so it’s definitely gotten a lot better over the last 13 years,” he says.
Kirmil has opened up more restaurants in the area as well, each with its own unique vibe and flavor. Wharf Southern Kitchen and Whiskey Bar opened in 2018, offering a different take on a mosaic of Southern cooking, from Creole to Texas barbecue. The restaurant also has an adjoining Polynesian-style tiki bar, Wharf Fish House. Diego’s Cantina opened in 2019, and in 2020, right before COVID-19 shut down the world, Kirwin and his wife opened Diego’s East Side in Providence, Rhode Island’s Wayland Square.
He also helps manage Reject’s Beer Co., which his sister owns and operates, in Middletown, Rhode Island, right next to Diego’s Cantina. And soon Kirmil aims to bring his take on Italian food to Newport with Quencher, a mix between an old school bar with live music and the kind of cozy family eatery that can become a neighborhood hearth.
I get excited for something new and so do our bar managers and chefs because all of a sudden we get to do something new and fun.Scott Kirmil, owner and operator of Inked restaurant group
What started as one restaurant with 10 employees will soon be six restaurants with 41 managers and 212 total employees between them. Sometimes Kirmil worries whether he and his wife are stretching themselves too thin, but the couple’s rapid growth is not just theirs to shoulder alone at this point.
“There’s probably been years where we would make more money if we just owned our initial restaurant because you’re spending money getting the other ones going and dealing with the painful years of getting them busy enough, but we wanted to have a team and have it grow with us,” Kirmil says.
As for whether he plans to slow down anytime soon, Kirmil, who now has a 10-year-old son already hitting the drums, says he isn’t quite ready to stop moving.
“I really like projects,” he says. “I like running restaurants too, but I get excited for something new and so do our bar managers and chefs because all of a sudden we get to do something new and fun.”