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Is panini-making science or art? Does the perfect panini result from the calculated counterpoint of a tomato’s acidity with the milky tang of mozzarella, and of an evenly golden crust on moist bread? Or does it arise from the inspired pursuit of the elusive Platonic ideal of a panino? We could think of no better place to settle this momentous question than our August Business of the Month, Café Panino Mucho Giusto at 551 Hudson Street (@ Perry Street). So we headed over to this Greenwich Village classic to investigate the secret behind their outstanding panini. We are not sure if we quite uncovered it; but we learned of the journey that led to their confection.
The story of Café Panino Mucho Giusto begins with the chance encounter between a longstanding local café and a recent immigrant with an acute sense for management, service, and hospitality. Café Panino Giusto opened on Hudson Street in 1996, at a time when there were few similar establishments in the neighborhood. About a year later, Arshad Sayed arrived in New Jersey from his native city of Mumbai, India to pursue a modeling career. While doing so, he worked a variety of jobs, including one at a local pizzeria. One day, Arshad, feeling he had been treated unfairly by his boss, quit, hopped on the PATH train, got off at the first stop in the city, Christopher Street, and went for a walk. As he went down Hudson Street, he saw a help wanted sign for deliveries at a café called Panino Giusto, inquired about the position, and came out with a new job. At first, the gig earned him little income, because his salary depended on tips, and there had been few deliveries. At his suggestion, the café printed and distributed menus, whereupon orders drastically increased. Within a month, Arshad had been promoted to manager. Stable job in hand, he found a small place in the neighborhood and moved in. He has been in the Village ever since.
Arshad had a rare knack and a disposition for making customers feel welcome at the café. This allowed him to thrive in his new position, contributed to the success of the business, and helped cement the café’s connection to the neighborhood, as well as his own. He describes that process thus:
I met people from the neighborhood and got to know them. They bring people on a date; then they get married and have kids; and the kids are now as tall as me. And I know the names of their spouses, their kids, and their pets. I feel I am a very big part of the neighborhood. The coffeeshop itself is a very big part of the neighborhood. Regulars come in and they find comfort.
During his years as manager of Café Panino Giusto, Arshad held various additional jobs, including one in a catering company, in order to make ends meet, send money to his family back in India, and set aside some savings. He dreamed of using those savings to open his own coffee shop. An opportunity to do so arose when the café lost its lease. Arshad proposed to his co-workers that they pool their resources and open their own shop as partners. Being, like Arshad, immigrants eager to work hard to achieve financial security, they agreed. Together, they purchased the shop’s equipment and set out to look for a place. This proved far more challenging than anticipated. They were not from here, had no record of business ownership, and lacked a co-signer. As it turns out, though, Arshad seems to have made his own good fortune. One of the many café customers that he had regularly greeted and befriended had become the landlord of the café’s building, and he agreed to give Arshad a chance.
The coffee shop reopened in 2007 under the slightly different and new name Café Panino Mucho Giusto. Shortly thereafter, Arshad, together with his wife Sarah, set out to make a series of long contemplated changes. They streamlined business operations and trained the staff they assembled on how to cater to customers. In so doing, they managed to cultivate a supportive enough working environment to earn the longstanding loyalty of the employees. Arshad recounts:
People who work with us have been with us for 9 years. We don’t fire, we only hire; and we tell them, if you need help to start your own business, we will help you in every possible way. So the people who have worked with us, they stay with us.
The couple also sought to improve upon the café’s offerings by upgrading ingredients and standardizing the preparation of dishes. Here, Arshad’s scientific training (he has a degree in chemistry) came in handy, as he conducted research and home experiments to, for instance, find the optimal ratio among panini ingredients and arrive at a formula for delivering perfectly toasted bread. Thinking back on these changes, he explains:
Nowadays, the cost of a sandwich is so expensive that I feel personally bad if I’m not seling a good product. And I am in that category myself as a customer. I want the product to justify that price.
Finally, drawing from Arshad’s experience in catering, the couple expanded the menu to better cater to the café’s customers. This entailed the introduction of organic, vegan, and gluten-free options and numerous additions to the drink menu. In its new iteration, the café, which is now co-managed by Sarah, offers a wider range of coffees and teas (hot and chilled), a small assortment of wine and beer, smoothies, a variety of breakfast options and salads, and the shop’s namesake, the panini. Standouts include the tomato mozzarella, the avocado, and the prosciutto panini. Everything is made fresh every day.
Arshad and Sarah’s efforts have paid off. Café Panino Mucho Giusto remains a favorite among longstanding regulars and a draw among newcomers and tourists (an Italian guide to New York paid the shop the high compliment of featuring it as the place to go for panini). Arshad is confident enough in the shop’s approach and product that he shows little concern for the impact of the many competitors that have arisen in the area over the past couple of decades. To the contrary, he counts some of their proprietors as personal friends and welcomes new arrivals:
Every time a new place comes up, I send them blessings, and I tell them this is good, because this will attract more people to the neighborhood. A store closed is negative energy.
If Arshad is correct, then it stands to reason that hundreds of closed stores is a lot of negative energy. And so it was when COVID hit. The business had been bustling. But all of a sudden, after an infection scare, it shut down for six weeks. Although the couple paid business expenses out of their savings for a while, they would have had to discontinue operations permanently had it not been for the extremely generous support of customers who contributed to a fundraising campaign to help with the store’s monthly payments. Despite a level of fear, Arshad and Sarah felt compelled to reopen. Upon doing so, they recoconfigurd the shop to allow for social distancing and operated the business themselves with one other person. To keep the shop afloat, they did not take a salary for seven months. Even so, the circumstances were difficult enough that they considered closing for good on multiple occasions. Government grants helped, and so did delivery apps at first. But although deliveries kept the shop busy, the couple soon realized that the fee the apps charge lowered their profit margins to unsustainable levels. Even now, complications remain. The prices of ingredients and deliveries have skyrocketed; labor shortages have forced the shop to shorten its hours; tourism has plummeted; and many residents seem to have left town over the summer, presumably making up for foregone traveling over the past couple of years.
Notwithstanding all the challenges, Arshad remains optimistic about the future of Café Panino Mucho Giusto. Regulars have started coming back. Summer vacations will soon come to their conclusion. And the panini are as good as they ever were, and await new customers to discover them. During our visit, a young woman sitting one table over asked Arshad for the name of the shop. He gave it to her and asked if she was new to the neighborhood. She was. She had just gotten a job offer (and an avocado panino) and was looking for a studio apartment nearby. “And I just found my new favorite coffee shop,” she announced.
So is it art or science? After talking to Arshad and sampling the product, we’ve come to the unsurprising conclusion it is both. On the one hand, the assembly of a proper panino requires technique. On the other, you can’t divorce a panino from the eating of it; and that eating is greatly enriched by the art of the shop’s hospitality. For having brought this special alchemy to our neighborhood for over twenty years, we are happy to name Café Mucho Giusto our August 2022 Business of the Month.
Do yourself a favor and let the helpful recommendation of that Italian guide to New York lead you to 551 Hudson Street.
What special small business would you like to see featured next? Just click here to nominate our next one. Thank you! #shoplocalnyc
Here is a map of all our Businesses of the Month: