In the early fall of 2003, Taavo Somer was looking for a place to host an underground Halloween party. A friend recommended a forgotten lot at the end of Freeman Alley. Part of the space was filled with dirty needles and a beat-up Saab. A year later, Taavo, along with partner William Tigertt, opened Freemans with its taxidermy covered walls, a minuscule kitchen, and plans to make it an institution in the New York restaurant scene. They've done just that.
Now, on the occasion of the restaurant's 10th birthday, William and Taavo share how one of them almost got arrested working on the floor, how they made do with just a hot plate and an oven for more than a year, and that paddle boat casino Taavo's always dreamed of launching in the Hudson.
So, how did this originally start? Who thought of what?
William Tigertt: Taavo was trying to find a place to do a party.
Taavo Somer: Originally I was doing rock and roll parties downtown and we were supposed to be doing a Halloween party in Brooklyn, and the space fell through. A friend of mine recommended coming here. I saw the space, talked to the landlord and he was like 'Sure you can do this big Halloween party for a thousand people, but use the alley as the entrance.' I saw the alley and was like, 'Wait a minute, this is crazy.' I said, 'Instead of doing a party would you be open to doing a bar?' He said, 'No, I live upstairs, but you can do a café.'
We didn't just want to open up a restaurant. We wanted to open up a place that was an institution...
What was here before?
TS: It was a halfway house...6,000 square feet just totally open. Upstairs it looked like a high school cafeteria. Originally, when the landlord showed me the back alley entrance it was all bricked in. It was just a little door, we opened it up and it was full of crap like hypodermic needles and leaves, and his old beat-up Saab was in the back. That was the alley.
WT: We were pushing junkies out for a while. Especially during the construction.
What sort of restaurant did you want to open?
WT: We didn't want to just open up a restaurant, we wanted to open up a place that was an institution that could be used throughout the day by the whole neighborhood and by the whole city. And I think the most fun thing is that's what we've been able to accomplish. We didn't just want to open up a restaurant and we don't just serve food. There's deeper things that people get out of this place and that's why we're still here after 10 years.
There's all these rooms, so a lot of times people use this if they don't have living rooms. Or if they aren't able to have a dinner party, they can have one here.
TS: Like the way people in Paris use restaurants or cafes. And people use it for business meetings, they kind of just use it as an extension of their own private space. I think a lot of regulars feel ownership, like 'Oh, you know Freemans? That's my place.'
Where did the name come from?
TS: I was coming up with all these names for the restaurant — like The Raven's Claw, Stormy Night...
That's really Edgar Allan Poe.
TS: It was just like all of these moody names, like The Talon's Beak or whatever. And I was reading all of these names to Serge Becker, to my girlfriend, to anyone who would listen. One day, Serge was just so fed up, he was like 'Wait. Wait. What are you talking about, where's the restaurant?' I was like 'It's at Freemans Alley.' He was like 'Just call it Freemans and shut up already.' And I was like, 'Oh, you're probably right.'
When you guys opened 10 years ago. Very realistically, 10 years is a long time for any restaurant in New York City. Did you think you would be here 10 years later?
WT: Well we had a lease that was that long.
TS: My goal is 99 years.
You'll be running it from the grave?
TS: I think I'll be alive. But, a lot of the other restaurants we looked at that are kind of New York...I looked at Keens or I looked at really older classic restaurants that have been around for a long time. Why not try to be like one of those restaurants?
What was it like in the beginning? How many people did the original seat?
TS: 45....in the beginning we had the one hot plate, and the one oven, and one convection oven. We were so busy that we were burning out the actual ovens.
WT: Every three months we need to buy new ovens.
That's kind of an accomplishment. And probably really expensive.
TS: Well it was really hard on the kitchen staff and it was really hard on our chef Chloe.
So what was on the original menu? Was the artichoke dip on that menu?
WT: Yeah that. There are four or five things that are still on the menu.
TS: The trout, the filet, the mac 'n cheese.
People talk about that artichoke dip like there is crack in it. Where did that dish come from? What is actually in it?
TS: I went to architecture school in Minneapolis, and there's a bar that I would frequent there and they had an artichoke dip on their menu. The origin of it is from the back of a Hellmann's Mayonnaise jar. So, it's sort of an old, classic 1950s recipe. We were originally trying to do that version with Chloe. She was trying to make it much more gourmet and put more artichoke into it, and make it more fancy. I was like, 'No, no, no, you need to make it with tons more mayo, tons more cheese.' It took six versions or more to get it.
Do you have any idea the number of artichokes you go through in a month?
TS: You don't want to know....We tried to calculate it once by figuring out how many pounds of dip we sell per month and it was verging on...I think it was a large truck-full.
We gained a lot of soft buzz and this was all before blogs. We were one of the last stealth openings.
How did you guys originally build your following?
WT: Well, we built the restaurant ourselves. We had a plumber and an electrician that did some work, but other than that Taavo and I, and a bunch of friends from the neighborhood, built it. All of our friends in the neighborhood knew we were here because we were hiring them to paint and we were hanging out here long before it opened just drinking beer after doing carpentry all day. So we gained a lot of soft buzz and this was all before blogs. We were one of the last stealth openings.
You guys designed this place yourselves, so what made you decide to go with the taxidermy motif? I think at the time it was a really unusual choice in New York City.
TS: The taxidermy kind of happened by accident. I lived above an antique store and I started collecting — I bought one piece from this old guy, Ralph. Nobody was buying taxidermy so as soon as I bought that one piece he was like, 'Oh my god. This guy buys taxidermy.' I lived upstairs, so every time I walked by, he was like, 'Hey Taavo here's another piece,' and I was like 'Oh great. Now I'm buying all of these things from Ralph.' At the time it was easy, it was like 20 bucks, 30 bucks, about 100 dollars for everything. Nowadays, a good deer mount is over a grand.
One of your old employees made this pretty cool video of almost seven years of people at Freemans. It looks like you had some crazy moments. Any personal favorites?
WT: Yeah, he's still here, he's upstairs right now. It's funny now, but at the time it was really traumatic with the Bush twins and what not. It was right after George Bush won the first time and everyone in New York was really depressed because of the whole recount. And we just opened and it was super busy. They came up and we didn't recognize them and they asked for the table. We were like, 'We're full for the night.' Some people saw and were really happy. Someone at the bar said something about 'Come back in four years.'
For three or four days we got so much hate mail. We had to post a statement on our website welcoming them to come back anytime they want.
Have they taken you up on that?
WT: Yeah they've been here half a dozen times. When they were living in New York they were here a lot. It was just one of those funny things. I guess it was the zeitgeist of the time because New York was so bummed out about how the election went. It was pretty stressful for a couple weeks.
Any other personal favorites? Other awesome nights or awesomely bad nights?
TS: I kept imagining the restaurant was going to have a pool table and it was going to have a game room. The chef at the time, Chloe was like, 'You need a walk-in, you need storage, you need plates.' And I was like, 'No, I think we should really have a pool table back here.'
One night there's this mob of people in the back storage space eating dinner on cardboard boxes because there was no room in the restaurant... and there's this drum kit. All the sudden there's like a marching band of us going up and down the alley at midnight playing drums.
WT: And Taavo's appendix burst while he was working on the floor on a Friday night. He's like, 'I don't feel so good.' He's just lying down in front in the alley. And people were like, 'You look kind of green.'
TS: And I was almost arrested for being mistaken for another maitre d'.
Wait, why was that maitre d' going to be arrested?
WT: He allegedly got in a bar fight. I don't know.
TS: I think about the beginning and the naiveté that we had. I don't think we could open Freemans now, and we couldn't even open Freemans five years ago.
In which sense?
WT: Well, part of its not even talking about the trends, but just the money and how it evolved pre-blog era. I don't think it's possible to open this type of restaurant right now.
TS: It seems like the public's awareness happens so fast. There isn't this sort of incubation time of freedom of being naive and of exploring and making mistakes, and having this organic process happen.
There was an article late last year in the Times noting how important 2004 was for New York restaurants. Many of them were started by now name brand chefs, which isn't the route you guys went. Was that a conscious decision?
WT: A lot of restaurants at the time weren't chef driven and I think that the people we looked up to were more the Keith McNallys, Josh Pickards, people that were restaurateurs [of restaurants] that weren't really chef driven. Plus we had a hot plate...
That's still really impressive to me that you managed to open a restaurant on a hot plate. How do you cook dinner for 45 people on a hot plate?
WT: You use the oven.
TS: And we didn't have a freezer, we didn't have a walk-in, we had one refrigerator. But Chloe is like a little jigsaw puzzle master of the small kitchen. She was the wizard of that.
I don't think we could open Freemans now, and we couldn't even open Freemans five years ago.
WT: That was only for a year and a half. After that we had full gas.
How much do you guys feel like the alley determined what type of restaurant it was going to be. Do you feel like you would have opened this restaurant in the Peels space?
TS: Well there wasn't even an idea for the restaurant really until we saw the alley and then the alley kind of cancelled the Halloween party.
So the Halloween party never happened?
TS: We literally started working on Freemans instead.
Do you think you guys will try and keep it the same going forward? Would you ever want to change it?
TS: We tinker. We're always tinkering with it and trying to make it better but the classic stuff that works you kind of don't mess with.
Anything else on the horizon or dream projects you haven't gotten to, but would like to get to at some point?
TS: For me it's the paddle boat casino that I've always wanted to plan on the Hudson. We could potentially take it into international waters.
This interview has been edited for length and style.