Until a year ago, the far West Side in the 40's was one of the last remaining areas in Manhattan without decent food. But then Gotham West Market brought major talent to the area from the hipper regions of downtown and Brooklyn, opening one of the city's first upscale food halls. But, things haven't always gone perfectly smoothly. In less than 12 months, the market lost two major vendors, The Brooklyn Kitchen and Saltie offshoot, Little Chef. Now, Ivan Orkin who owns Slurp Shop, Ken Priest who manages Genuine Roadside, Seamus Mullen of El Colmado, and Christopher Jaskiewicz, President of Gotham West Market, sit down to talk about their first year, how they are changing the idea of communal dining in New York, and what's next.
How did you all end up as part of the market?
Chris: We have about 1,250 apartments in Gotham West and we wanted to do something spectacular for the tenants. And also create a free-standing business that would be a destination. So, we set out to attract the best chefs, and that's what lead us to people like Ivan and Ken and Seamus.
Ivan, you were already working on your Lower East Side restaurant when you heard about this, but you were still in Tokyo. Were you concerned about doing two projects in New York at once?
Ivan: I really didn't want to do this project because I had already signed a lease on another project and I just had this terrible feeling they were both going to open at the same time, which kind of happened....the restaurant business follows Murphy's Law almost down to a tee.
But, I had an opportunity to be an anchor in the market....so it was hard to say no. The ramen shop downtown is much more of a flagship restaurant, and it's a very chef-y restaurant. I really felt like here at the Slurp Shop I was going to have a chance to see what the feel of a really fast-casual Tokyo-like shop would be like in the States. I just couldn't pass on that opportunity.
And Ken, how did Genuine Roadside end up here?
Ken: I'm from the West Coast so I was involved in markets there. It's a very good way to get your name out there and be part of something new with a lot of different operators. So, us being a new concept, it was great to be able to get on board with somebody like Ivan or Seamus, because [the people who come here] might not be our customers today, but they'll be our customers tomorrow. And we might bring somebody else through the market. So, it's good for everybody. The success of everybody is on everybody. It's not just one operator. Everybody's got to hold their own to keep people coming in.
Eating in a communal environment had such a negative stigma attached to it.
Seamus: I was always meant to be in a market. When I lived in Barcelona I was cooking at a restaurant called Alkimia. I lived about two miles from the restaurant, and I would walk to work almost every day through the Boqueria Market, and I kind of fell in love with that idea of having a restaurant in a market. It was something I always wanted to do, but the opportunity never really presented itself in New York. I think a lot of that was just because for so long the notion of eating in a communal environment had such a negative stigma attached to it. We thought of it as a food court, like a Sbarro's and all that horse crap.
When I first heard about this, it was really what we were looking for: an opportunity to do our tapas bar concept, which we figured we would do in a communal environment, and also to really change the notion of what it means to eat in a food hall. It was really a chance for us to do what we wanted to do in an environment that had yet to be proven, which was also nice, having a bit of a challenge. And I think just the fact that it's serving an underserved neighborhood, that this is probably one of the last few emerging real estate markets in New York really appealed to us. I think if we can become a cornerstone of this community as it develops around us, it'll really set us up for longevity.
What does a day look like at the market for all of you? What time does everyone arrive? When is it busiest?
Ivan: At the beginning we were working 18 hours a day, seven days a week, and everybody was on hand all the time. And now, I can pass through here on my way to my other place. I pop my head in a lot and check in. We start at 11:30, so by 8:00 in the morning we're prepping and getting ready.
Ken: There's a buzz in here from 7:00 in the morning on. With Blue Bottle, Court Street doing breakfast, and ourselves. Cannibal is doing really nice late-night business as well. It works for everybody.
The idea of a food court and of communal dining, in the States at least, had this really horrible reputation up until about a year ago. How is this project different?
We have the opportunity to shift the way people see food halls.
Ivan: I think what Seamus said is really apropos. We have the opportunity to shift the way people see food halls. We're not at the mall in Westchester where there's, you know, a McDonald's or a Sbarro. Nothing wrong with those places, but it's not what we do. Just because it's an open space where you grab different things on a tray and then join your friends doesn't mean that the quality is any less. Our food cost is the same here as it is downtown. I spend the same amount of money on our product, spend the same amount of money on training my staff and paying my staff, it's just not an inexpensive proposition. We pay real money to make real food and ultimately I want people to see that's what they're really getting is this curated atmosphere.
The upscale food hall is something that's been going on around the world for a really long time. It's just that Americans are coming late to the party. I hope people can get past this old food hall image that doesn't do justice to what we do.
Where's everything being made?
Chris: One of the things we did is keep the back of the house sections, the storage and food prep, out of the public eye, downstairs. Each operator has their own facility downstairs. I personally took a page out of the Walt Disney World book by proposing that, because Disney World has tunnels under the Magic Kingdom, so that the guests don't see the back of house. People here can look around and experience what we want them to experience.
All of you guys operate other restaurants, so how is it different to run a restaurant that's in a communal space?
Seamus: Physically, one of the main differences is there isn't a clear definition of where your space ends and where someone else's space begins. So, you can populate your space and create as much of a vibe within your space, but ultimately it needs to jive with what else is going on within the rest of the space. You're not a solo entity. I mean, it's the first time for me as an operator that I haven't had the final word on decisions. It's really easy when you're running a stand-alone restaurant to say, "This is the way it's going to be, because that's ultimately the way I think it should be." This requires a different level of communication.
I've been a boss for a long time and now, there are eight bosses.
Ivan: There are compromises, always. It's also about being a grown up. You've got to know that there's pluses and minuses. I go downtown and, like Seamus says, I'm more of a master. I could say "Let's paint the place purple," and it's purple. That's cool, but it's also nice to know I got everybody and we all got each other's back.
I've been the boss for a long time and now there's eight bosses and everybody has to be willing to step off a little bit.
Some things have changed since you guys opened, namely Little Chef and the Brooklyn Kitchen are no longer here. Do you feel like this space only works with very specific vendors?
Chris: We're fortunate to have a terrific core group of operators that are here doing well. You know, we watch their sales every day. Because it's a market we're going to make some changes sometimes, we're going to keep things fresh, we're going to try new venues, we're going to be creative. Becoming stale is the enemy, and we don't want anything to become stale. One of the ways to do that is to introduce new people, new concepts occasionally into the market.
Do you guys have anything in the works coming?
Chris: Yes, we are going to use the old Brooklyn Kitchen space creatively, for holidays [and] for events. We have several offers now on my desk for other locations within the market.
Everybody who's here also does a lot of stuff outside of this market. What's on everybody's plates and radars at the moments outside of the market? Chris, would you guys do another market?
Chris: We are actually exploring putting a market in another building we're developing in Brooklyn. We're developing a 50-story building at 250 Ashland. We might put a market at the bottom of that building.
Ken: We're working on a Genuine in Nolita.
Ivan: I also have a lot of new businesses down the pipe, I'm just not decided what exactly they're going to look like.
New York? Tokyo?
Ivan: Somewhere in the States, possibly New York. I'll know by the end of the year or so. I want it to be good, and I tend to stew on things until I'm sure.
Seamus: We're opening in the Meatpacking District later this month, early December, pending permits. And I just opened in London and then later in 2015 we're opening a bigger, full-service, stand-alone restaurant in 1 Hotel in Brooklyn Bridge Park. So that'll be towards the end of 2015. And we'll see what happens with the market in Brooklyn because that's certainly something that we want to continue to do. The thing we like about the tapas bars is that we can expand it or collapse it depending on the size. It works really well in the market environment, but also works as a stand-alone.