On the House is our regular column written by the owners and operators of the great food and beverage establishments of New York. Today, your proprietor is Albert Capsouto who is celebrating the 28th anniversary of his restaurant Capsouto Freres.
In the mid-seventies, I was studying Engineering and Architecture and earning money waiting tables while my two brothers, then living in Soho, were restaurant managers. Wanting a restaurant of our own, we found, in 1979, the ground floor of the Fleming Smith Warehouse, a landmark building [at 451 Washington Street in Tribeca].
At that time, Manhattan, like the rest of the country, was in dire financial straits; inflation was at an all-time high, gas was rationed, and if you were lucky enough to qualify for a loan, rates hovered at 20%.
Still, my brothers and I were determined to open our restaurant though we were on a shoe-string budget. We designed the space ourselves and took on the bulk of the renovations, including the plumbing, electrical and carpentry work. We bought materials and equipment, much of it secondhand, and scouted for antiques, picking up fixtures like our antique bar, to complement the gracefulness of the original brick and wood interior. Once the renovations were complete the Small Business Administration (SBA) gave us a loan for which we are forever grateful.
In October 1980, we opened our French Bistro, a casual, comfortable place that attracted a mostly downtown crowd, though we also drew a slew of adventurous uptowners as well as out-of-towners.
During the 80s, the economy grew, and with it, came a proliferation of restaurants. To capitalize on the demand for Nouvelle Cuisine, we expanded our menu and made the restaurant more formal. But we met with only limited success.
1987 brought the market crash and recession. Again, we pivoted, editing our menu and shedding the formality. We presented fine bistro food in an atmosphere that was casual yet elegant and with an eye on service. We focused on a few signature dishes...
September 11, 2001. By sheer luck, none of our staff was hurt, nor did our restaurant suffer major damage. Naturally, my brothers and I felt compelled to help. During those awful six weeks following the attack, we kept our restaurant open nearly around the clock, turning Capsouto Freres into a virtual “soup kitchen.” Besides food and beverages we also provided refuge and sanctuary for rescue workers, both uniformed and civilian; our restaurant became a meeting place, a “safe haven” for distraught neighbors and our community at-large.
Although we incurred staggering financial losses after the attack, SBA disaster loans and grants helped us re-coup. Those funds allowed us to keep our loyal and devoted staff. We also used the money to draw people back with our modestly priced prix fixe meals. Having built, and been blessed with, a wide base of loyal customers, we were able to weather it.
Now, seven years later, even as the recovery downtown is far from complete, we find ourselves again in a maelstrom of financial instability, bracing for new economic woes.
But we have faith—in ourselves, our staff, our product, and in our clientele. This, we believe, will allow us not only to keep going, but also to evolve and to contribute in even larger ways to this great city we call ‘home.’—Albert Capsouto