On April 13, 2004, Francine Stephens and Andrew Feinberg opened a tiny wood-fired pizza restaurant, Franny's, in Prospect Heights. At the time, the couple was newly married, and they had just returned to New York after a failed attempt to open a restaurant in Massachusetts. Andrew, who had cooked under Peter Hoffman at Savoy, had only just taught himself how to make pizza, but his pies quickly earned rave reviews, and the crowds followed. They've since moved Franny's to a bigger space down the street where Johnathan Adler, a vet of both Per Se and the original Franny's, is at the helm. Now, as they near the tenth anniversary of Franny's and the first anniversary of the new space, Francine, Andrew, and John discuss their overwhelming beginning, learning to make pizza the hard way, and the new challenges still ahead.
How did Franny's start?
Andrew: It's kind of a long story.
Francine: Andrew was a chef at the time, and I was in the non-profit world doing various sorts of advocating for sustainable agriculture. We met, we got married, and we knew we were going to open a restaurant. We had many different ideas of what that restaurant would be. It was always going to be Italian, because Andrew's passion is Italian, but there were many different concepts. During this time we had many friends opening restaurants and everyone was struggling opening fine dining destination restaurants. We didn't want to struggle, so we wanted a place that was affordable, that our friends could frequent on a daily basis, a weekly basis, and so it was suddenly like, "Pizza! Oh my god, everyone loves pizza!" Everything just fell into place at that point.
Andrew: Actually the pizza idea wasn't our idea at all, that was our brother-in-law. We were talking to him about the restaurant and he was like, "It's so hard, why do you wanna open a restaurant? You're just gonna struggle, struggle, struggle." And then he's like, "You know what people in Brooklyn really love? What everyone wants is pizza." I never envisioned opening a pizzeria. But the more we thought about it, the more it really did make sense. And then we put our own spin on what Franny's is. It's not really a pizzeria, it's much more than that. But he should be credited with the idea, because it wasn't ours. And we struggled. We actually tried to open a restaurant in Great Barrington, in Massachusetts.
Franny: This was before the pizza idea.
Andrew: Yeah. We spent a lot of our own money in the pre-opening process. Legal fees and just things that you need to spend money on before you open, and it didn't work out. So we moved back to Brooklyn, and then just had this laser focus on "We have to open this restaurant." And we just started looking for spaces.
Franny: We didn't want to be on 7th Avenue, it felt very established to us. 5th Avenue was a little more up and coming, but Andrew's and my entire reason for being at that point was that we wanted to walk to work. And we lived on Flatbush at that time, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity to not be on 5th, which was all the new places.
Andrew: Yeah 5th was kinda saturated.
Franny: We thought it was saturated. It was far from saturated at that point. But we just wanted something a little different, I guess, so that's why we decided on Flatbush.
What was the neighborhood like when you first moved here?
Franny: What are the words? I wouldn't want to degrade it. It was far less commercial. I think it's safe to say that we are the gentrifiers of this neighborhood, for better and worse. We didn't necessarily mean to be—we lived on the block—but we are who we are.
Andrew: We actually got kicked out of our apartment for Barclays.
Franny: Yeah. The people who have moved here are much different. But that said, we have people who came to Franny's on day one 10 years ago who still continue to come. So we're super indebted to our neighborhood.
A lot of people would say that it's a risky move to open a restaurant as a couple. Was that something you thought about or worried about at all?
Andrew: I never did. I mean, we just get along really well, and we always did get along really well. I knew I was going to open a restaurant, so I think Franny thought, "Okay, my husband's going to open a restaurant, I'm never gonna see him unless I work with him." And that was a big part of it, right?
Franny: It was never a question. I understand, intellectually speaking, why a lot of people would never work with their spouses and that would be crazy, and there have been a multitude of divorces and family businesses that have been a huge sources of anxiety for people, but that is not us, and never has been.
Andrew: You know, and that said, it's not easy.
Franny: Well what is? I think of all those couples who in the morning one goes this way and the other goes that way and they have complete life experiences separate from each other. And I could never imagine that, I really can't, but that's me. That's my vantage point.
When the pizza idea came about, there weren't that many places in New York making pizza in the same style as you. Were there pizzerias you looked to for inspiration?
Andrew: Not in New York, no. I mean there was Pizzeria Bianco, which is in Phoenix, Arizona. People always talk about it as being the best or one of the best, but I had never been there. There was nothing really in New York at the time that we were modeling ourselves after. It was really just, "We're gonna build a brick oven, we're gonna make pizza, and we're gonna have really nice, fresh vegetables."
Franny: Yeah, in fact before this Andrew had never been to Naples. We have since been there. But there was no model. We had a lot of faith in Andrew's palate and him as a chef, and in retrospect it was very naïve. But we were just going on this passion, and that's what we did.
So then how did you learn how to make pizza?
Andrew: There was one book at the time that had just come out, by Peter Reinhardt. And it had a lot of pizza recipes in it from pizzerias around the country, and I just looked at it and I was like, "I can make that." You know, it's bread, it's not crazy.
Franny: Again, very naïve. Because Andrew spent the next eight years tinkering with the recipe.
Andrew: When we were building the restaurant, I just tested dough recipes in our apartment. But making pizza at home in your apartment is so much different than using a brick oven. So I kind of had this idea of what recipe I was going to use and how I was going to adapt it, but it wasn't until the restaurant was completely built that I got into the kitchen to try to actually make the recipes and know if it worked.
Franny: I think there was a period of one week before the restaurant opened that the brick oven was there. 24/7 we invited all of our friends, anyone we knew to come eat the pizza and give us feedback.
Andrew: Yeah, it was a very poor example of pizza at the beginning.
In what way? What were those first pizzas like?
Andrew: Originally, I didn't even know how to work with the dough and stretch it by hand. For at least three or four weeks we would roll out the dough with rolling pins. So it was pretty flat and much more cracker-y.
Franny: He's shredded every single photo of those original pizzas because he's so embarrassed by them. He can't even bear to look at them.
Andrew: I wouldn't say I'm embarrassed.
Franny: Well you have shredded them.
Andrew: It's just, we've come a long way. They were very flat and cracker-y and dry. I didn't even know how to use a brick oven. When you build a fire in a brick oven, you build it on the side. Originally we built the fire in the back. If you're cooking pizza, you can't see what's happening to the back side of the pizza, so they would burn a lot. Whereas if the fire's on the side, you can actually see the side of the pizza and know when to turn it.
Franny: And it was either two weeks or two months after we opened that New York Magazine reviewed us. We were completely blindsided, because we were totally new at the game. We knew nothing about the impact that press could have. They wrote an amazing review of us, put us in the category of Patsy's and Grimaldi's and Lombardi's, and we were so new and so young and suddenly inundated by business. Our business increased tenfold after that piece, and we were completely unprepared for that. That took us to a whole new level of understanding our business and how to deal with it.
What was that first month after the review like?
Franny: It was completely chaotic. It was Andrew and maybe two other cooks in the kitchen who were completely overwhelmed. Andrew and I fought a lot. I was managing the floor, we were completely understaffed.
Andrew: We were so concerned with, were we gonna be successful? Because it was all of our family's money. So we had this huge burden like, "Oh my God, our parents loaned us this money to open this restaurant. If we fail, they're fucked."
Franny: Well what we did was, we decided not to have a wedding. We took that money that our family was going to give us and in lieu of a wedding put it into opening a restaurant. Which was a very good decision. That was one good decision we made.
So when did things settle down? When did you start to say, "Okay, we're going to be here for a while."?
Franny: The first three years of the business were very, very difficult because Andrew and I were running service and running the business ourselves. I was the manager, Andrew was the kitchen manager. There were nights when I was behind the bar to be a bartender, but the toilet broke, but I had to be behind the bar. Various things like that. When you work in service it's very tunnel vision and there's one purpose, and when you're running a business there's a larger vision with multiple purposes. So the first three years were very stressful on us. But we got through them, and then we hired our first manager to take my place. I got pregnant, and getting pregnant forced me to hire someone to manage the restaurant. We went through many managers before we found someone with our vision, so that was a stressful process in and of itself, but it was liberating. And freedom came for Andrew in 2009, five years later, when we decided to open Bklyn Larder. Andrew realized he could not be in two places at once, and we had to hire people who we trusted to fulfill our vision. That was the beginning of a long process for us. Flash forward 10 years, we have this amazing core team that enables us to be where we are today.
Andrew: Yeah, absolutely. At this point in the life of Franny's, it's our vision, and we make sure the restaurant is headed in the right direction.
Franny: But we are a very small part of what happens here at this point.
[Andrew Feinberg, Francine Stephens, and Johnathan Adler by Krieger]
What is that vision for the restaurant?
Andrew: At the top it's Italian, and we wanted it to be accessible.That's why pizza fit really well. I mean I can eat pizza at least three times a week.
Franny: In a broader sense, our vision is to create a restaurant that is consistent in its service and in its product, and that people feel welcome in. To be part of the fabric of our community.
Andrew: And on the food side, we're always trying to choose the absolute best example of any ingredient that we can possibly use.
Franny: With the move to a bigger space a lot of people have questioned, "Are they still the same? Have they changed?" And Andrew and I have analyzed every single move that we have made, and I keep coming back to our core values. There's many tiny examples of the changes we've made to fit into the new space, but our vision and our values have stayed very much intact.
What identifies the food at Franny's?
John: Holding ourselves to a standard of locality and sourcing responsibly, and treating ingredients with respect and simplicity. There isn't a lot of waste, we aren't spending too much time trimming things down to certain sizes. And then the flavor profile is acidity, salt, and comfortable use of olive oil. I always joke that pickles, nuts, cheese, and then add a roasted vegetable, and you have a Franny's menu item. And very often that's true, but what those pickles are and how we make them, that's the interesting part.That's where we identify ourselves. And the brick oven, that's a flavor no one else can achieve. It's our umami, I guess you could say.
How long was the move to this bigger space in the works?
Franny: That was never the original idea. A number of years ago we had two amazing chefs in the kitchen, Danny Amend and John Adler. We knew that they were not going to be satisfied sharing the helm for too much longer, and we wanted them with us on this journey, so we decided to open another restaurant and have them each have their own place. Andrew always wanted a classic Italian trattoria, so we started looking for places for Marco's and I came across this space, which is now the home of the new Franny's. I kind of fell in love with it. Andrew saw it and said, "Franny, there's no way we can open a trattoria in such a large space." But I wouldn't let go. I was obsessed with the space and telling the landlord, "Just wait for us, just wait for us." And then Andrew woke up in the middle of the night, literally, and said, "I have it! We're going to move Franny's and open Marco's in the old space," At that time we were turning away a lot of business at Franny's, and suddenly it all made sense.
Andrew: We had grown out of that space three years before we actually moved.
Franny: I mean, the menu couldn't increase because the storage was too small. In all ways the space was just a mess.
Andrew: But yeah, the number one reason we decided to move was because we had this amazing team and everyone had reached the ceiling. We just couldn't grow there anymore.
When the idea of another restaurant started to come about, was there discussion about who would end up at the new place and who would stay with Franny's?
John: There wasn't a lot of discussion. There was a proposal from Francine and Andrew, and it was logical since Danny had been at Franny's for a year and a half before I'd gotten there. Danny was approached first about opening Marco's and me taking Franny's, and he was enthusiastic about it. I was approached after, and when we talked about the scope of the project, the idea that Franny's 2.0 would actually offer us a whole new opportunity, it was like someone handing you a huge Christmas present.
Did you ever cook pizza before you worked at Franny's?
John: Never. It's a fascinating process. I understand now why someone would devote their life to it. As a cook, you're always taught to control your heat, but the modernization of food has taken us away from direct interaction with heat. Now there's more of a move back to more primal, direct heat cooking, but for a long time the sous vide reigned supreme. Coming from a four star restaurant like Per Se, to suddenly cook with an open fire is a very challenging transition for a cook. I always tell people, "You wanna be humbled? Go try and cook at the pizza station for a week." Amazing cooks go stand in front of those pizza ovens for a week and they come out scratching their heads, going, "Okay, I don't know anything about cooking."
Did you worry when you moved that people would say "Oh, it's not the same."?
Andrew: Oh yeah, absolutely. Our transition here has been hard.
Franny: It was a very challenging year for us. It was a tough winter generally speaking, and the transition to the new space has been very rocky. I feel like we are almost at the point where we understand what the space is about, and how to utilize it and maximize it, but we're not there yet. For almost everything but the menu, it's a brand new restaurant.
Andrew: I was completely naïve because I thought it would be easy. I thought it would be like, okay, we have this restaurant down the street, we're gonna pick it up and we're gonna move it over here and it's gonna be bigger. But it didn't turn out that way at all. It's really opening a new restaurant. The only thing that stayed the same was the food, but even the menu got larger.
Franny: I think we've learned a couple things. The good things we've learned are that are core clientele still love us. And our new ovens make better pizza than our old ovens. But as amazing as our neighborhood and our core clientele is, it's not enough to support 100 seats. So we've been really working towards increasing our breadth. The neighborhood has changed so much with Barclays. It seems like it's happening a lot quicker now. So we're just trying to be valuable to the neighborhood. That's our entire mission.
How are the pizzas in these new ovens better?
John: The gentleman who built them for us is an expert in picking an oven for the type of pizza you make, so he actually sat in the restaurant and ate the pizza. He watched us make pizza for a night, watched how the dough tempered, and told us exactly what we needed. Also, because they're so responsive to temperature change, we can do things like smoke things, which we could never do before because it took us so long to get the oven hot, we couldn't run the risk of tamping the fire down. It's much more user-friendly, and we don't have this guessing game of, "When is the oven going to bite back?"
Having been around for so long, how do you balance staying consistent and staying who you are with being interesting and keeping people's attention?
Franny: The most important thing is that we're staying true to who we are, and not trying to be the myriad of other things we could be, or that trends might dictate. We constantly check ourselves to be truthful to who Franny's is at this point, and everyone works tirelessly to maintain quality and consistency. It's when people let go of that that they become mediocre.
Andrew: There's not a day that goes by that we're not always, always from the top down trying to be the best at what we do. I know that sounds corny but it's true. We eat here at least once or twice a week, and it's pleasurable but it's also work, it's quality control. There's just so much that goes on in the restaurant, so there's always something you can do better.
[The new Franny's by Krieger]
Franny and Andrew, is there anything you would have done differently, or any advice you would have wanted 10 years ago?
Andrew: It would have been a little easier on the two of us if we would have hired more staff and skilled staff earlier on. We were so afraid to have to pay someone to do the work, but when you're there six days a week and you're there from eight in the morning til one or two a.m., those last six hours in the day are not productive. It would have got us to where we are now a little sooner, a little quicker.
Franny: There's probably a multitude of things that we would've done differently, but the truth is we didn't and we're here and we're really trying to make our businesses the best they can be.
What are you most excited about going forward?
John: Being able to come back around and know what to expect. Not having as many uncertainties. I'm excited about having more cooks now who have been here a year and who are excited about the food and want to be more involved in every aspect of the restaurant. We're starting things in the kitchen where the cooks will have more of a chance to see the process. If you come to work at Franny's, you're going with the sous chef or myself to the farmer's market at least once every three weeks. It's important that they see it, and it's important that people get involved in the decision-making around the food. I'm excited about our continuing business in the private dining room. That's been a challenge, but incredibly exciting for us. Everyone just pours all their energy into really a one-time event. The best way I can describe it is that they're like kinda raucous dinner parties, with unique food and wine. So I'm just excited about fine tuning everything we've started, and just seeing what we can create now that we don't have the questions of "How do we do this?" or "Let's see what the fall is like." Hopefully just continuing to introduce people to Franny's, and to keep the people who have been our supporters and regulars coming back, and have them feel taken care of and loved and happy.
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