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The Restaurant Toolbox: Menu Options for Saving Important Food Establishments


7A Cafe
The dearly departed 7A Cafe at East 7th Street and Avenue A, an East Village institution. It became Miss Lily’s 7A this year.

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.

Diners can:

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

Restaurateurs can:

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.

John’s co-owner Nick Sitnycky, leaning on the mahogany bar built after Prohibition, standing on the tile floor that gets bleached every night, with a white antique refrigerator (full of drinks) behind him. Photo courtesy James Maher Photography.

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.

Further resources:
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


3 responses to “The Restaurant Toolbox: Menu Options for Saving Important Food Establishments

  1. Curiously your list fails to mention that the governor, state, mayor and city council do not take realistic views of small business vis-à-vis:

    Taxes (UBT especially), mandating sick leave, vacation, minimum wage rates, permit and license fees, fines and penalties. Oh yes, and tort reform. As a small nyc business owner for 14 years it is my belief that the cost of doing business—just by the city and state government—can be crushing!

    Few if any of our elected representatives ever owned a small business. They have the attitude that business is the piggy bank for all their misdirected laws, fines and mandates.

  2. Further thoughts on how to help stem the tide of high rents and invasions of the chains is to throw in the face of the chains and the landlords the fact that 98 percent of the crowd at the recent meeting and perhaps 97 percent of the public and tourists at large are happy to ban chains from Manhattan and especially in the Village. Combine this with real life stories of Chains gone wrong in the form of a detailed chronology of dismal failures such as the recent IHOP on Carmine Street and the Chain-like pizza place that first overran Joe’s Pizza on the corner of Carmine and Bleecker but was utterly rejected by locals and tourists alike; the Subway shop that lasted only a few weeks on Bleecker between 6th and Macdougal. The Mexican Qdoba chain that failed miserably on the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal (displacing Figaro’s Café and now an empty space for years). There are countless examples of Chain types that were totally rejected by the public, including tourists in the Village who are smart enough to know better. THEY need to know about this before signing on for another stupid overpriced lease. They need to know they are NOT wanted and it needs to be promoted loud and clear.
    Moreover there needs to be some serious research into the real story behind empty stores that are left empty for years, never mind the possible scamming of investors in sure-to-fail endeavors, especially the franchisers conned by disreputable real estate brokers and landlords who mislead or outright lie about important details with the deliberate desire of turning over tenants faster and more often for their own profit while ruining small businessman and franchise investors as well as the poor giant corporations (officially designated now as human people with rights, so why not the right not to be scammed by landlords and their brokers just as any other person should have).
    If landlords could be punished for leaving their store fronts empty for more than a few months with higher taxes instead of lower taxes, the price of rent would have to come back to a more real market value based on reality instead of based on science fiction fantasies of market value. Delusions of grandeur among building owners and their brokers need to be reigned in and properly diagnosed and finally cured by simple regulations that are reasonable. The price of many products are inflated because of investors or hoarding of products to illegally fix prices. Real Estate price fixing is just as ominous and hurtful to the people ultimately and to small businesspeople generally.
    A serious investigative journalist or blogger could probably uncover more illegal problems in real estate. How can any of the Village tenants afford the current prices realistically? One has to wonder how many criminal operations are using expensive Village store fronts to launder money, perhaps as a front for any number of illegal activities that could easily be exposed and eradicated if anyone only looked carefully. A task force to expose criminals in real estate would be a great help in turning the tide on ridiculous prices. Buildings owned by criminals, terrorists (both real or even speaking figuratively as in the landlords who are determined to destroy our way of life) and double reverse arbitragers of whole communities (that is to say the ones who deliberately run a community down in order to buy low and then suddenly build it up to boost their investments) could all be nipped in the bud by simply catching the malevolent capitalists at their game, and exposing them both publically as malicious menaces and bringing them to justice in the meticulous investigation of their activities that is bound to be both fascinating and perhaps even entertaining if written well by a Matt Taibbi or a modern Jonathin Swift, shaming the rascals out of town or getting jail sentences when appropriate. Fining the hell out of the worst offenders for every little offense to maximum fines allowable in order to eradicate them and scare them away would help, especially when journalists and the public can log in to a website that keeps track of their offenses. Who can forget the Kentucky Fried Chicken on 6th avenue in the Village that had rats and vermin crawling around the floor at night in full view of cameras? There is so much power in public discussion and exposure, not only morally but also in making it clear to anyone prepared to pay a stupid price for rent that the real market value is far below what the fantastic claims are despite the fact that a few too many suckers are paying those high prices. The suckers need to be better educated. By any means necessary.

  3. Bravo! We’ve been promoting preservation of food heritage sites for many years at The Food Museum, foodmuseum.com, and recently, have been doing blog entries about food historic sites and food heritage for MotherEarthNews.org, under Real Food, search tag to use is food heritage. Just shared this at facebook.com/foodmuseum also.

    Also a Tumblr we started is foodhistoricsites.com.

    All the best

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