Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
[Elise Rosenberg, Tamer Hamawi, and Emelie Kihlstrom by Krieger]
Last year, Brooklyn restaurateurs Tamer Hamawi, Elise Rosenberg, and Emelie Kihlstrom opened Gran Electrica, a casual Mexican restaurant, and Governor, a chef-driven New American restaurant. Gran Electrica is still going strong, but sadly, the team had to say goodbye to Governor after Hurricane Sandy. Eater recently chatted with Elise, Tamer, and Emelie about how Gran Electrica has grown over the last year, and how their restaurant group has changed since the storm.
What was your original idea for this restaurant?
Tamer Hamawi: Well first of all, we had a great experience with Colonie and really discovered that there was a big market in this neighborhood that was relatively untapped. So after the success of Colonie, some of our investors were very eager to do another project. With [chef] Brad [McDonald] and Elise living in Dumbo, they confirmed that there was kind of a serious need for more places in the neighborhood. They were pleading with us to do a thing in Dumbo. There seemed to be a kind of general...lament of the loss of Hecho en Dumbo, and we thought that there was an extra reason to do a Mexican joint in Dumbo and give them back something that they missed.
Elise Rosenberg: We were also excited to take a greenmarket Mexican concept and make it really seasonal. We really wanted to take that Colonie philosophy with Mexican and combine it.
Tamer: Yeah, and so a couple of our investors at Colonie were really spear-heading this. They had a huge passion for food and wine and a huge passion, in particular, for Mexican things — they were most definitely pushing for a Mexican spot as well. A few years back, I had also personally been thinking about doing a Mexican restaurant in Melbourne, Australia, which is where I'm from. Although Melbourne is the food and wine capital of Australia, they never really had any quality Mexican. Their idea of Mexican was one step above Taco Bell.
Elise: And it was actually called Taco Bill.
Tamer: It was called Taco Bill. So, I sort of had this vision of building a Mexican restaurant empire in Australia, and I actually went back to do it. I wrote a plan, and was all sort of ready to take it on and moved from New York, and I really couldn't stand being back in Australia. I lived a few months there, and then came back to New York. So, I already had a business plan in hand, and I was ready to roll out this project. So with all of those things combined, it was kind of an obvious choice.
Did you always plan to open Governor and Gran Electrica at the same time?
Emelie Kihlstrom: Yes, by accident. It was Governor when we partnered up with Brad, almost two years ago. He had already started the Governor project. So we thought the timing would be completely perfect.
Elise: Little did we know that Governor was going to take a year and a half and Gran Electrica was going to take two months.
Tamer: Governor was already in motion when we took Brad on way back in May of 2011, and so we were already kind of rolling with that and the idea to do a Mexican spot kind of came in the middle there. And we thought Governor would be open well into the time that Gran Electrica was ready to start up.
Elise: With Governor, we had to build from the ground up, whereas here, it was a functioning restaurant when we took it over. It had a kitchen in place, and the bar was here. All we really had to do was a cosmetic makeover, and we re-did the kitchen and we just made it pretty.[Krieger, 03/27/11]
What was this restaurant before you took it over?
Tamer: It's been five different restaurants. Most recently it was called Pub 1, and it was very much a pub-like atmosphere. We actually pulled down 23 TV sets.
Emelie: Yeah, one in every single corner. Plus, this is one of the oldest office buildings in Brooklyn.
Tamer: It's technically the oldest office building in New York. 1827, it was built. So actually Grimaldi's next door was the bank, and this building was the insurance office attached to the bank.
How did the opening go?
Elise: The opening was awesome. We learned some lessons from our Colonie opening, where we opened the doors on Friday night, with no practice run and no friends and family. We decided to do it differently this year, so we did a really nice friends and family, and we opened the doors on a Monday. Super-smart move. Lesson for all restaurateurs. So by the time Friday came around and we were really busy, we had some services under our belt. It was a young, green sort of team, but a bunch of really enthusiastic young kids, and we got to mold them and train them from the ground up, which was really lovely to see.
Did your version of Mexican food click with diners? Did you have to compromise your original vision to appeal to your customers?
Tamer: I think, you know, as far as the concept goes, we didn't want to be so specific to any one region of Mexico. We wanted to be very regional. So we did a bit of research in Mexico, traveled around, sent our chefs to spend a month there really going through all the regions and picking up the most authentic recipes from that region, and we structured the menu in that way. We didn't have guacamole on the menu from the beginning.
Elise: There was a big uproar from the community.
Tamer: Not necessarily an uproar, but people were requesting it consistently, and after a while of hearing that, we decided to compromise. We didn't want to be the Mexican food you get everywhere. We wanted to be a little bit more unique, and really tune into those recipes that are really unique to those regions, that aren't necessarily as a common or popular as you see around. Guacamole is one of those dishes that is authentically Mexican, absolutely, but it's on every menu in the city. We hoped to avoid going down that path, but we just couldn't, so we decided to make the best guacamole we could make.
Besides the guacomole, has the menu changed since the opening?
Elise: I think the biggest thing is that we're very proud of is our in-house masa program, where we get the masa from Nixtamal. The original concept was to make the masa in house, which was too much of an undertaking and too expensive, unfortunately.
Emelie: Yeah, the equipment is so expensive, and actually wasn't even functioning in the beginning. We had to send it back. It was just a nightmare, and logistically and financially, it wouldn't have been worth it.
By the time you opened Governor, was this place running on its own two feet?
Elise: It felt like we opened two restaurants back-to-back within this one restaurant because we opened on March 26, and then right around six weeks later, we opened our garden and opened for brunch and it truly was like we opened a restaurant, then we opened another restaurant, and then six weeks later we opened Governor or eight weeks after. So, it was intense to say the least.
Tamer: That's sort of been the big logistical learning curve, which is sort of managing this restaurant that doubles in size each year. So there's obviously a big hiring progress that happens around now, and then it's summer, and then comes September, October, and November, and you kind of have to pare it down again. It's challenging in that sense.
Emelie: Coming up on the year, we've learned so much, and it is very much a seasonal restaurant. We were shocked coming into winter — our revenue slides pretty dramatically after coming off of such a big summer. So we had to adjust to that, and it's been very good learning. It was great learning what we did from this restaurant, and being able to implement certain things at Colonie and Governor. Finding out certain structures, and putting systems in place to run more efficiently.
Did the closing of Governor affect your other two restaurants or change how you operate them?
Tamer: I think, you know, we took on a lot, trying to open three restaurants in a year and a half. We knew that we were taking on a lot, and we knew that it was going to be a huge challenge, and one that would be difficult to pull off. But at the same time, we wanted to take on that challenge and not regret taking it on, so we went for it. And, for the most part, we were pulling through.
It was most definitely a very difficult period of time for us, and we were stretched thin, and we were working our asses off. But at the end of the day, we were really starting to see the light, and we'd come off the back of the two-star New York Times review, and we'd done a bunch of industry events that were very high-profile with some great chefs and food media present, and we were doing so well...
Emelie: And getting into a busy season, coming off, you know, summer.
Tamer: And it seemed like we were getting through it and that we were sort of on track. And then of course, the storm came through, and losing Governor has sort of enabled us to definitely spend more time focusing on Colonie and Gran Electrica and giving them more attention, which was difficult to do with a brand new restaurant. In that sense, there is a feeling that having two for right now — it was much more manageable.
Emelie: Especially since they're both so young, that really helped to refocus and tune in. In that sense, it's a little bit like...there's a glimpse of the light, in that sad story.
Were you guys able to keep the staff from Governor in the restaurant group?
Elise: It was difficult, and obviously the ideal would be to keep everybody, which wasn't feasible. But we were able to save a lot of jobs, which felt amazing. That was what we felt the worst about, was that we had 35 people out of jobs when the storm hit. But we were able...I feel like at least half work in the group.
Tamer: Yeah, I mean, we were trying to place everyone that wanted to stick around. We couldn't please everyone in the group. We definitely tried to give everyone a job, and we succeeded, for the most part.
Are you guys still dealing with Governor on any sort of business end, or is it just a clean break, and you guys are done?
Elise: We're still very much dealing with it. It's incredible how the closing of a restaurant is still a full time job. But there's light at the end of the tunnel, and I feel like we will be drawing to a close shortly, and, sadly, have Governor put to rest. It's been overwhelming how much work it's been, actually. We're...I could not have imagined how much work it is to close a business.
Tamer: Especially one that closed so suddenly. The expenses didn't stop the day of the hurricane, but the revenue did. So, with that in mind, it put us in a very challenging position, and we've been battling our way through it ever since, but we're very close to kind of putting it to rest, and being able to move on.
Do you guys have any ideas for other restaurants? Do you think you'll do more restaurant in the next few years?
Tamer: The brakes are most definitely on, now.
Elise: For 2013.
Tamer: But I can't imagine us not ever doing something else in the future.
Do you still like working together?
Tamer: Yeah, I would have to say that our partnership couldn't be any tighter, and we love working together. We know each other incredibly well, and there's a lot of love and respect there. And honestly, the whole Governor experience, as difficult as it was, it brought us even closer together.
Emelie: Yeah, if we'll make it through that — we'll make it through anything.
Does it feel like it's been a year for you guys at this restaurant?
Elise: It feels like it's been five.
Tamer: Yeah, in some ways it feels like we've been around for a while, and in other ways it feels like we opened yesterday.