The Restaurant Toolbox: Menu Options for Saving Important Food Establishments
Most of us have experienced the surprise and sadness of walking by a favorite business and seeing it shuttered. The reasons for closures are many – including such personal matters as an owner’s simple desire to retire. But other reasons are potentially within our power to change. Here at GVSHP, as one part of our effort to preserve architecture, culture and small business, we’ve been looking at how food and drink establishments can be saved. Following last week’s successful panel on the topic (see video and photos), we present a roundup of ideas for what all parties can do: diners, restaurateurs, and policy makers.
Be thoughtful about the places you patronize. Even when your stomach is rumbling, take a moment to think before you spend. Use the opportunity to support a business with deep local roots, unique offerings, or a community orientation.
See the East Village Community Coalition’s Shop Local campaign.
Rally for places worth saving. Despite the city’s cutthroat real estate environment, landlords can still be swayed by consumer action. The recent experience of Pino Prime Meats in the South Village serves as inspiration: Last year, together with residents and customers, Pino and his family successfully fought off a rent increase that would have forced them to close. Over 1,000 people signed a petition, and the business was able to sign a five-year lease.
See 2014 Village Award Winner: Pino Prime Meats
Be savvy, nimble business operators. This may sound obvious, but apparently it’s not – because there are plenty of cafes and shops that don’t keep the interior fresh, the displays attractive, the employees enthusiastic, the food excellent, and the menu responsive to the times (which can include consciously embracing the past). They may need to ramp up their online presence and mail-order business. It’s harder to have sympathy for restaurants, even sentimental favorites, that aren’t helping themselves.
Realize that quality engenders longevity. One conversation with Nick Sitnycky, owner of 106-year-old John’s of 12th Street, will convince you of this. Nick is proud of every last detail of his successful Italian restaurant, from the tenured staff, to the antique beer cooler and mahogany bar, to the in-house butchering, homemade mozzarella, and more. Nick was a salesman for Xerox before owning John’s, and his laser-focus on making customers happy reflects that. Presently, he’s looking to sell the business to someone with the same values. That was going to be restaurateur Brett Rasinski until his lawyer recently informed John’s the deal was off.
See Nick’s interview, Part I and Part II, on EVGrieve.
Watch the Sept. 7 season premiere of Boardwalk Empire to see John’s on television.
Buy the building, and the one next to it… Even though you can’t afford it. Nick owns the small tenement that John’s is in, despite the challenge of scraping the money together at the time. (And a tenant’s business supplies the tartufo, by the way.) Katz’s owns Katz’s. Charlie Sahadi of the revered Atlantic Avenue specialty food store Sahadi’s even bought an adjoining space – essential for expansion.
See tips from Sahadi and other operators at Brooklyn Artisan.
…Or have a fair landlord. John Philis, co-owner of the historic Lexington Candy Shop luncheonette, credits the longevity of the well-loved uptown lunch counter to good business practices as well as having a fair landlord. Kudos to them both!
See Can Restaurants Be Saved? in Our Town newspapers.
Use the city’s free services. Small Business Services offers a “business acceleration team” for those opening restaurants, plus pro bono legal help to all, among other tools. “Anyone who comes in should be able to get the services they need,” says spokeswoman Merideth Weber.
See NYC Business Solutions and Business Acceleration.
Use the Restaurant Preservation Matchmaker. It just needs to be created first: A new or existing nonprofit organization could create three self-selecting lists — one of special restaurants like John’s, a second of potential new owners, and a third of potential investors. The nonprofit would perform some vetting and screening services, serving as matchmaker between worthy restaurants that seek new leadership, preservation-minded proprietors who are up to the challenge, and financial backers who want to invest in culinary heritage. This would help people like Nick Sitnycky to find the next generation of cultural stewards.
Policy makers can:
Landmark notable spaces. Food is transitory, but a building can be forever. In last week’s “Historic Preservation, Meet Restaurant Preservation” panel, food writer Mimi Sheraton said she sees a chance for some settings to be preserved — such as McSorley’s Old Ale House or Pete’s Tavern — “which are much easier for a follow-up tenant to operate successfully.”
See panel video at 19:14.
Limit chain stores. Chain stores have grown exponentially in NYC in recent years, bringing with them higher rents, greater homogeneity, and tough competition. There’s an initiative afoot to examine limiting chain store growth in the East Village, for example, which GVSHP is involved in.
See The Anti-Chain Gang and EVCC Formula Retail Restrictions.
Support the Small Business Jobs Survival Act. So many businesses feel squeezed by ever-increasing rents these days that many yearn for commercial rent regulation. The closest thing on the legislative horizon is a bill now in City Council that would create “a small business lease program for establishing an environment for fair negotiations in the commercial lease renewal process in order to determine reasonable lease terms.” Maybe this time around it will go somewhere; it’s the same text as bills that have failed in recent years.
Empower a Restaurant Preservation Committee. Eater.com senior critic Robert Sietsema put forward a Historic Restaurant Preservation Plan that was a jumping-off point for last week’s discussion. “Let’s say we appoint a committee of three, consisting of a chef, a city councilperson, and a real estate representative, who are tasked with the responsibility of selecting a list of irreplaceable dining institutions that deserve to be officially protected. The committee can make choices themselves, and also take suggestions from the public.”
See Sietsema’s plan; be sure to scroll down to his list of restaurants to save.
Do you have additional ideas for the Toolbox? Please add them in Comments.
Maybe You Can Save Your Favorite Restaurant Before It Closes, Off the Grid
San Francisco – and Sean Penn – show a city’s heritage bars are worth saving, The Guardian