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At Paul's Da Burger Joint, Matt Wardrop Keeps the Family Business Rolling

Welcome to a Burger Week edition of Lifers, a feature in which Eater interviews the men and women who have worked in the restaurant industry for the better part of their lives. Here, Matt Wardrop reflects on taking over the family business, and keeping it going in the wake of the East Village explosion.

Nick Solares

Matt Wardrop took over Paul's Da Burger Joint, the 25-year-old East Village institution, from his cousin, Paul himself, in 2007. He dove in with little restaurant experience besides the occasional shift at Paul's, but now spends his days running the busy burger counter, with no intention of ever doing anything else.

Like all the businesses on its block, Paul's was shuttered for several days by the East Village building explosion, which took place just a few storefronts away. When Eater spoke with Waldrop, nearly two weeks later, business was still a little quiet, due to the construction blocking foot traffic from much of its side of the street. But inside, while burgers sizzled on the flat top behind him, Waldrop fielded a steady stream of phone calls and customers trickling in. In between making change and calling out the occasional order, Waldrop told Eater about the moments after the explosion, the challenges of jumping into the burger business, the secret to sticking around, and his hopes for future expansion.

You took this over from your cousin, Paul. Why did Paul decide to give it up?

Matt Wardrop: He had been there 18 years. He wanted to spend some more years on a second place in Florida. I think there were some family issues at the time on his end, so he was just like, "I've been here all this time, I got some issues to take care of, You'll take the place." And it kind of worked out, you know?

Were you working here before then?

I'd come hang out, come and eat once in a while. And I'd help out briefly, on different shifts if someone was missing, that kind of thing. But never really the full, on-the-line work.

What were you doing before?

A couple different things. I was in the automotive repair business for a long time. My partner and I had a shop in Queens. Completely different feel from here. I mean, it's still a retail business, but a completely different thing. So I didn't have any hardcore restaurant experience when I came here. I just got thrown in and learned quickly.

Do you remember what it was like back at the beginning?

I mean, the neighborhood was different. You used to have street vendors up and down, illegal guys with carts selling stuff. They would break into a car while you were in a store, steal your radio, and you'd come back out, they wanted to sell you the radio. We opened in '89, so it was right after we had all the Tompkins Square riots. It was a much different entity. You couldn't walk down to Avenue A or B. Now people don't think twice about going out, walking around. It's became a very desirable spot. Like after 2000, everyone wanted to live in the East Village. Of course, all the rents went up, apartment prices went up, so it became a little harder for businesses too, now they were in this hot zone. But, the neighborhood's definitely improved.

Why did you decide to take over?

Paul started in ‘89. It was 18 years old when he wanted to get out. It was doing good, it was well-known in the community, and it was too good of a place to let go and sell to a stranger. We wanted to keep it kind of like what it was: a family-started and family-run business. My two cousins, Paul's sisters, are still here as waitresses. Most of our guys have been here 15, 20 years, almost from the beginning. I don't like to have staff turn over. Customers like to see the same faces, get to know the same people.

When you took over, what was the learning curve like? What were the hardest things to wrap your head around?

There were days when I'd be here for 12 hours and not eat anything.Getting used to working a retail counter when it's very busy. You know, like people handing you money, the phone ringing, the fax machine ringing, talking to a customer who's eating. Multitasking. Just getting to know the business: every night what to order for the next day, every morning checking the orders. And learning who's qualified for what position – one cook is better than another, one guy is better on the fries than another, somebody's a better server than another. After two or three months, I kinda got a really good hang of it, but I still learn things to this day, and you get better every day. But I pretty much have been through the roughest times over here as far as craziness. Right now it's fairly slow, but when it's jumping, it's a different animal.There were days when I'd be here for 12 hours and not eat anything, because you just couldn't stop. I can't feed me before I feed you.

Do you remember any particularly hard moments when you were first taking over?

Getting used to the busy days, Friday, Saturday, Sunday particularly. And then if somebody was late or missing, trying to work what should be a three-man job with two, or having a delivery boy who was late, and leaving here to run up and down the block with deliveries. I did it all, but there were some very trying days, as any restaurant owner will tell you.

On your busiest day, what does it look like? How many people? How many burgers?

On your busiest day you could serve 500 people. So you got one guy standing here all these hours cooking. It's very tiring. Your head is going, your back is going, then the phone is ringing to confirm the fax order while someone else is calling on the other phone for an order. While you're trying to pay me, someone's saying, "Hey, I didn't order yet!" You learn to really multitask and get things done and keep rolling. It's unlike any other position I've done. In the car business, they come in, you say "What's the problem? Leave it with me, I'll check it out," then you call them back, "Hey, your car needs this, be ready tomorrow." That's the extent of the customer service until you come back tomorrow. This is all one circus at one time.

How has Paul's stuck around so long?

People just consider us like a neighborhood institution. Like you have John's Pizzeria, you have Mamoun's Falafel. You have certain places in Little Italy, certain places in Chinatown. Staple places, a casual place to come in, hang out, get a big meal, a good meal, and the price is still considered a good value. For a full deluxe meal with a soda, you're spending $11 to $12. And you're full, you're not thinking about another meal until well into the night. It's not like you come, get a little sushi roll and a few things, and it's 20 bucks. It's a value place.

Do you worry about rents here going up?

We still have some time on our lease. The rents do go up automatically on a per annum basis anyway, but thank God we've been pretty consistent with our business. We have a loyal customer base, and I don't want to give us accolades, but we're fairly well known in the city. Now, even though the traffic hasn't been restored yet, we still had a good flow of people today. All the ConEd guys know us, the police, the firemen, all the blue collar guys, and we've always had that. We're the working man's burger place.

What does an average day look like for you? When do you get here? What do you do? When do you leave?

I tend to come in, open the place up. I usually get in around 10, do my thing, get the whole store set up, and typically hang around till like three, four o'clock. Get the lunch done, make sure we're set up for the night. Make sure nothing's broken, nothing's missing, everyone's showed up. We have good people here, people who have been here for a long, long time, so it's not like I have to sit here and babysit.

Do you eat here a lot?

I would say I have two burgers a week. Maybe one chicken sandwich, eggs one day. I try to break it up, I can't have a burger every day. You would think that if you worked here, you'd have a burger every day. But then after a couple weeks, you'd be like, "Yeah, I'll have a couple a week."

Will you ever do anything else?

We've looked for second and third's just a matter of finding the right neighborhood.We've looked for second and third locations, to be honest. It's just a matter of finding the right neighborhood that has the right demographic for us. And then once we find that, finding the right location, the right block, the right avenue. How big do we want it? What's the rent like? There's so many variables to finding a second location. It could be hit or miss, and you don't want to have your second store, which is like your first step to growing, not turn out well.

So, is that something that's still far away?

It's hard to say. I speak to many brokers, looking in the West Village, even in Brooklyn – Williamsburg, Greenpoint. We looked at all different areas. Now certain parts of Queens – Astoria, Long Island City – are starting to come up. We don't know whether to try to go into an emerging neighborhood or something that's a little established already. It could be a little dicey, so it's something we're taking very cautiously, but we do look.

Do you have any particularly notable or memorable regulars?

We have a bunch of people who we don't even make tickets for. We just go, "The usual?" These guys all know what that is, we bring them their drinks, make them their food, bring them their checks, and they just leave the money. Like Cheers, you know? We have quite a few people like that. If we've lost any, it's because they've moved away or stopped working in this neighborhood. Not usually because we've done something wrong and lost them.

It's a real neighborhood place, a real casual place. As long as you don't come in and cause trouble, come sit and eat, take as long as you want, I won't rush you out – unless it's jammed, then I might give you the hint and give you a check. But if it's not, people will sit and read or go on the internet for a long time.

Do you have any crazy stories from your time here? Any particularly memorable moments?

We've had our share of people who came in a little inebriated, or got a little inebriated while they were here, start throwing little things around. Just getting sloppy, putting sauces all over the place, throwing spitballs from one table to another. A number of little things like that, nothing particularly memorable, where someone went through the window or something. I won't allow it if it comes to the point where someone's bothering you. If he can't even pay his bill, just get rid of him, you don't want anyone disrupting your other customers.

What are the most important things for making a good burger?

You have to start with a good meat, a fresh meat. We get fresh meat delivered every morning. Nothing is frozen, everything is made to your order. We've been working with the same butcher for all this time now. He has our meat down to what we want it to be. Then you don't want your meat to be overly spiced or overly salted, because you can't go back on that. Then cooking it to temperature, whether it's rare, medium rare, well-done, whatever you want. And then if it's a burger with any sort of dressings, making sure that we've matched them well. If it's a cheeseburger you want the cheese fully melted. Your condiments as well, lettuce, tomato, onions, everything has to be fresh. We cut those everyday. You can't use soggy tomatoes, you can't use crumpled lettuce. If you start with fresh ingredients, you take your time and you prepare them properly, and try to suit them to exactly what the customer wants, because every burger's different, those are the most important points.

If someone leaves hungry, I didn't do my job. I mean I've gone to high end restaurants with my wife and spent a hundred and some dollars a person, and come out like, "Where's McDonald's?" I go out to eat I wanna eat, I wanna feel full. And I don't wanna feel like I got hit on the head at the register. I want to feel like my overall experience was a quality, value experience.

Let's talk about the day of the explosion. Were you here when that happened?

I had left about an hour before, about 2:00 that day, and it happened about 3:00, 3:15.

Did you hear about it immediately?

I got a phone call from one of my guys, and he said something's happened outside. I said, "send me a picture or a video," and he sent me the video, and you just saw the smoke and everything. By that time, I was able to get to a TV, and every station had it on for like three hours straight. I'm looking at my neighbors, wondering how this is gonna end. I come back that Thursday night, and was only able to get as far as the corner, and I could just see, they were still spraying water at midnight. No buildings left. I could see our gate was open, because I think they cut the lock just to look inside the store and make sure we were okay. And they had actually cut the basement open to go shut the gas off, which is understood. It didn't matter that they left it open, nobody could walk there, and there were police everywhere So, that was Thursday. I was able to get the gas back on Sunday, and Monday morning, I came, and we opened. I started doing deliveries again. Traffic was very limited out here, foot traffic, so we were a little slow. But we were starting to get back up. People were aware we were open, and I didn't want to stay closed too long because then you get out of people's mind. You go to order on Seamless and you keep seeing "closed," and you don't realize we're on this block with this explosion, you might think they closed. My guys wanted to come back to work. Everyone's calling me, saying "When are we getting open?" So, it was just time. It was a slow, very slow beginning, but thank God we're picking up a little bit now with the people being allowed to come, and feeding the workers.

Have you talked to other businesses in this area? How are they doing?

It's not like if GM got shut down for a week.Yeah, we know everybody. We're friends with the gentleman at Stage, who has no gas at the moment. Our friends down the block at B&H Dairy, they're trying to get their gas turned back on as well. They're coming up on two weeks this Thursday [ed. note: This interview was conducted Monday, April 6], that's very hard for a small business. Would you want to retain your employees? Do you pay them while they're sitting home? Do you not pay them, and they look for another job? It's a tough call. It's not like if GM got shut down for a week. They have the funds to float it. Small businesses, they kinda live with two weeks sometimes, you know?

What were your first thoughts when you knew that this was going on? Did you worry about the situation?

At first I wanted to make sure that all of our guys were okay, because we could have had a guy on delivery. Our guys could have been anywhere at any time. So once I knew we were all accounted for and nobody got hurt, that was great. I knew our immediate neighbors were okay. I didn't know at that point that people had been killed. So it was just a matter of, "Look guys, go home, shut the doors." Every night I would try to find out something and let the guys know.

How does this compare to something like Hurricane Sandy, for example?

I lost a week during Sandy. We had to shut Sunday at 6:00 because they were shutting the trains down. My guys had to go home on the train, so I had no choice. We didn't open until that Saturday, because we had no power, so it was a whole week we were down.

So compared to that, this seems a little bit better.

It's a little bit better in terms of my downtime, but I don't know the long-term effects. After Sandy, everybody came home to the neighborhood and life went on. This, those people aren't coming home. Those businesses aren't coming back, so I don't know what that's done to the economic demographic on the block. I can't answer that until we've gone on a little bit. But Sandy was kinda like: it happened, you lost this, and you moved on.

Has the city given you any sort of sense of when things will be back to normal?

I had a customer this morning from OEM, the management office. He said they're trying to find one last meter or one last connection below the ground to conclude their investigation. When they do that, they can get rid of the heavy equipment and move back the plywood to make it look like a normal construction zone and let people start walking again. Hopefully that will happen in the next day or two. But when it's really gonna end, as far as having all this equipment gone and appearing as if it never happened, I don't know how long that's gonna be. The sooner the better.

Paul's "Da Burger Joint"

131 2nd Ave, New York, NY 10003 (212) 529-3033 Visit Website