Apropos of The Orchard taking top-10 honors on this year's Zagat Newcomers list, owner John LaFemina has a book coming out November 1st. A Man & His Meatballs: The Hilarious but True Story of a Self-Taught Chef and Restaurateur (co-written by LaFemina's lovely wife, Pam Manela) is half cookbook and half proprietor memoir. He turns over a few recipes (75), including one for his world-class white chocolate bread pudding, and tells the story of opening Ápizz. While cookers amateur and serious alike will enjoy the recipe portion of the book, the real treasure for us is in the first hundred pages, during which we get a play-by-play on Ápizz. We laughed, we cried, we--well, you get it. Plus, the story provides a glimmer of hope for anyone with dreams of owning a restaurant, though, admittedly, LaFemina having a partner stake in Peasant on his CV makes him far more than a amateur at the start.
Just ahead, we're pleased to present an excerpt from the book; more specifically, it is the story of how Ápizz got its liquor license (way back when in 2002). An interesting story, indeed, especially in light of LaFemina's more recent run-in with the SLA at The Orchard.
By the time I signed the lease on [Apizz], my head was spinning from all the “you’ll needs” I was hearing from everyone about a liquor license: “You’ll need a lot of money,” “You’ll need to suck up to the Community Board,” “You’ll need an insider at the State Liquor Authority.” It seemed that everyone had someone I needed to talk to, some valuable contact who could facilitate my liquor license quickly and cheaply. And everyone had a horror story of a friend of a friend who spent thirty-five thousand dollars trying to get a license just to be turned down by the SLA right before they opened.
Someone I knew in the restaurant industry swore to me that his friend Steve, an expediter at the Buildings Department, had all the right contacts and could push my paperwork through with the SLA right away. It was implied that this guy took some shortcuts and might not be all together legitimate, but my contact urged, “Don’t go to a lawyer. I’m telling you, use this guy and you’ll get your license.”
“Great,” I said. “Give him my number.”
Steve called the next day and asked me to meet him on the corner of Second Avenue and Sixth Street. He was a clean-cut guy in his forties who sounded more like a Midwesterner than a New Yorker.
“So, what’s the first thing we have to do?” I asked.
“I’m going to take care of everything. Don’t worry.”
I started to worry.
“I’ll need two hundred dollars to get started,” he said.
Steve must have sensed that I had a bad feeling about the whole thing because he added, “It’s for filing fees and whatnot. I’ve done this a million times. Don’t worry, you’ll get your license.” It was only two hundred, I thought. I would take a shot. I reluctantly took the cash out of my pocket, handed it over to Steve, and hoped for the best.
I called him regularly over the next few weeks, asking for updates. “Everything is fine,” he always said. “We’re moving along.” Having never done this before, I didn’t have any idea what was supposed to happen. I felt like I had to trust Steve a little while longer. Six weeks after our first meeting, I called him up and insisted we get together again. I wanted to see him face to face and find out what kind of progress he was making. We met on the same corner of Sixth Street and Second Avenue.
“It’s already been six weeks, how much longer until I get my license?” I said.
“Just a few more weeks,” he said. “But I’ll need another two hundred dollars.”
“You know how it goes; there are more filing fees and whatnot.”
I thought Steve was filing an awful lot of papers and wondered why I hadn’t filled any forms out yet. I decided to put an end to this right then and there. I would rather pay more to do this legitimately, I thought, and sleep better at night.
“I’m not giving you another cent,” I said.
“I can’t do it without more money.”
“You can’t do it with the money,” I said. “We’re done. I don’t want to hear from you again.”
After he walked away, I stood on the street alone, angry at myself for dealing with this guy and anxious about how I was going to get a liquor license in time for my opening. I took a deep breath and looked around. I counted five restaurants that all had liquor licenses on two blocks of Second Avenue alone. Something told me that the owners of all these places were not brilliant and if they could figure it out, so could I.
The next morning, I read an article in the New York Times about how difficult it was getting for New York City nightclub owners to get liquor licenses. The article included a lot of quotes by a guy named Warren Pesetsky, a Manhattan-based lawyer. I thought this is a guy who gets liquor licenses for people; this guy’s an expert. I called him that same day and made an appointment to meet with him. Over the phone, Warren asked me one question. “Just give me the address of your restaurant,” he said. I gave it to him and told him I would see him the following week.
I liked Warren right away, he was a straight shooter, plus he represented a long list of impressive restaurants and bars in the city. As soon as I sat down in his office, he told me that my liquor license was feasible. He knew exactly how many liquor licenses were issued on my block and, based on my lot number, knew there were no churches or schools within 200 feet of Ápizz, a big no-no with the SLA. He also told me I would have to go before Community Board Three and that he had good dealings with them in the past.
“Now, on to some equally important matters,” he said. “Do you have a clean record?”
“No felonies if that’s what you mean.”
“Good. How late will you stay open?”
“Until eleven P.M.,” I said.
“Very good. Any outdoor seating?”
“How many days a week will you be open?” he asked.
“How big will your bar be?”
“No bar stools, just a small service bar,” I said.
“Okay, it’s a slam dunk,” he said.
“I want to open in about three and a half months.”
“I think you’ll be fine.”
When someone was as confident as Warren, I usually felt extremely reluctant, but with him, I had a good feeling right from the start.
“How much will this cost?” I said, waiting for the thirty-five-thousand-dollar ball to drop.
“Somewhere between forty-five hundred and fifty-five hundred.”
“Done,” I said.
Less than three months later, I had my license.
All and all, I got off easy. I spent two hundred dollars on an idiot scam artist and five thousand dollars on a legitimate lawyer who knew what he was doing and had a great track record. With all the stories, warnings, and pieces of advice that go around on the dreaded topic of liquor licenses, here’s what I think: If you are opening a restaurant in New York, you need to do one thing to get a license--call Warren Pesetsky. And do that before you sign your lease.
A Man and His Meatballs by John LaFemina (with Pam Manela) will be released November 1st from Regan Books. Pre-order here.