News of the pending investment has led some of the restaurant's staff to leave, with former staffers (who wish to remain anonymous in order not to violate nondisclosure agreements) telling Eater that 20 or more employees have left in the past few months, fearing a change away from the familial work environment and the company's culture of creativity, independence, and partying. Reached by phone, Roberta's chef and co-owner Carlo Mirarchi says that employee revelry has in the past come at the expense of guest enjoyment — which he says should never happen. Still, he insists that the investment will be strictly a financial relationship, without operational or creative involvement, and that the "bizarre, quirky, nonsensical" soul of the restaurant will remain — pointing out that just this week, he threw a party for one of the departing staff members that involved "a kiddie pool filled with spaghetti."
"I can’t even tell you how many hours of conversation about this, and about how important the culture was of this place, and how important it was to us personally, and how this is my life," Mirarchi says. "This place is my life. And it’s my legacy. And I’m never ever going to let anything tarnish that."
Mirarchi was unable to specify the size of the investment or terms of the deal, as details are still being negotiated, but what is known is that the influx of capital will come from Michael Tisch, grandson of billionaire patriarch Laurence Tisch, through his recently-formed company Chorus Hospitality. Tisch describes Chorus Hospitality on his LinkedIn page as "a service-focused management partner" with a focus on building "quality upscale experiences" in the culinary world. He's partnered in the company with Ben Grieff, a nightlife and restaurant veteran who has worked with the failed Crown Hospitality Group (he was involved in the now-closed Windsor) and the Meatpacking District club Provocateur. (Chorus did not respond to an email from Eater; shortly after Eater reached out for comment, the company's website went offline.) The exact amount of Chorus's investment is unavailable, but based on accounts of Tisch’s and Mirarchi’s plans (and valuations of the current company, as outlined in court documents), it seems probable that it's a significant amount, likely in the millions.
Tisch's interest in Roberta's began six to eight months ago, Mirarchi says, after the two men met at a friend's birthday party. Small talk about New York University, where Tisch's family is the named benefactor of the art school, eventually turned to business. "Essentially the way he presented it was, 'Let me know what it is you want to achieve,'" Mirarchi says. "'How can I help you as a chef realize different concepts if you want to do something other than pizza?'"
Mirarchi says he does want to grow, primarily as a way to provide new creative and professional outlets for talented team members. One area he'd like to focus on is an expansion of Roberta's wholesale bakery operation, with the goal of items like croissants and sticky buns popping up in places like Williamsburg's new Whole Foods. But he reports that so far, preliminary conversations have revolved around developing new standalone restaurant concepts. Despite a history of reports speculating on Roberta's opening in California or the Ace hotel, Mirarchi is reluctant to expand the core brand, citing its unique space and identity as near-impossible to replicate. He says that specifics on new restaurant openings are "all kind of up in the air," though he's particularly interested in exploring an interpretation of a steakhouse: "The city has a enough steakhouses, but our spin on it and our version could be really, really interesting."
"They were aware that they do not fit the mold."
On the surface, Tisch and Grieff's backgrounds don't seem to be in line with Roberta's quirky-grungy reputation. The registered names of the restaurant group's limited liability corporations include Severed Heads LLC (which runs Blanca), So Goth, and Unlimited Darkness. Court documents also show that one of the company's servers is known as Skynet, a reference to the autonomous artificial intelligence system that launches thermonuclear war against humanity in the Terminator franchise. The straight-laced Tisch, in contrast, is a graduate of Harvard business school and the University of Pennsylvania, used to work at a private equity firm and as a mergers and acquisitions attorney, and was most recently in the press for suing an aquarium company for a faulty custom-made predator fish tank. Grieff is known for opening clubs that cater to rich kids; the New York Times Styles section once quoted his opinions about dress codes for Hamptons club-goers.
This difference in attitude wasn't lost on the Roberta's staff — or on Tisch, according to reports from former employees and from Mirarchi himself. Mirarchi says that Tisch has made an effort to tell the Roberta's team that he wants to keep the culture. Former employees say Tisch actively tried to befriend people and report that in one conversation, he even made a point to say that he and his team wouldn't show up at the restaurant wearing suits. "They were aware that they do not fit the mold," one manager says.
Tisch and his team also started showing up to the restaurant regularly to dine with friends, talking openly about their ideas for the restaurant and potential plans, say former staffers. It was confusing and uncomfortable for staff, who didn't know what was happening with the deal, one former manager notes. Grieff was overheard talking about Roberta's backyard tiki bar as "not a real bar." The ramshackle space, built by the staff, is decked out with photos of past and present employees. "It's part of the dynamic," says one former manager. Hearing Grieff talk dismissively about it gave her the impression that the Tisch team "really want[s] to run the whole place over."
The investment from Chorus Hospitality comes at a key moment for Roberta's. Money woes and legal issues have been rampant, with staffers reporting that checks to both employees and vendors have bounced several times in the last year. Two of Roberta's founders, Mirarchi and Brandon Hoy, are engulfed in a contentious public and legal battle (which is ongoing) to buy out Chris Parachini, the third founder and co-owner. And the restaurant is facing a Fair Labor Standards Act class-action lawsuit over allegations that it didn't pay overtime to certain back-of-the-house staffers.
Mirarchi denies that Roberta's has had notable money troubles, saying that many businesses have ebbs and flows in revenue. "I don't know of any restaurant in New York or the world where they haven't bounced a check," he says, adding that the decision to bring in outside investors is not related to the ongoing litigation. "We definitely had a soft year last year," he continues, but says that the restaurant is "not in any way, shape, or form in a position where we had to go out and start looking for money."
Mirarchi also disagrees that upgrading equipment means the end of the Roberta's spirit. The tiki bar's set up was "built by by us, and we built it poorly," he says with a laugh. It doesn't offer soda guns or enough cold storage, and on a busy night, the setup makes it difficult to get a drink. Similarly, the abnormally small and "inefficient" kitchen space needs an upgrade, he says. "We have done such minimal improvements to this place because we've kind of just done it so haphazardly," Mirarchi says. "So there are certain things we're excited about improving. All these things are going to make this place better. I don't see how adding another Rational oven to the kitchen is a loss of character."
At the same time, Mirarchi acknowledged that employees getting nervous about the transition makes sense, though he disputes that the rate of staff churn has been influenced by the news. "Unfortunately, a lot of people just like doing the things the way they want to do them," he says. "We were getting to a point where we just weren't the best restaurant we could be." In the end, the changes may not be visible to the diners. But Tisch's involvement and the departure of staff still changes the core of what the restaurant is, says one former employee. "There are a lot of positives for the restaurant as a business," the source says. "But don’t be fooled. It’s phony now."
"We were getting to a point where we just weren't the best restaurant we could be."
But the Roberta's fanbase and allure has already changed from its early 2008 days, when it was more of an alternative outpost in a part of Brooklyn that few Manhattanites visited. Since then, the Clintons have dined in the outdoor garden; Beyonce and Jay-Z have dropped by for dinner; weddings are a regular occurrence; and the owners have expanded at both the low end — they operate a frozen pizza business and a Midtown takeout spot — as well the high. At the two Michelin-starred Blanca, the tasting-menu counter tucked in the back of the restaurant complex, dinner for two can approach $750 after wine pairings, tax, and tip.
In this latest iteration, Mirarchi says he's not only confident that Roberta's will still be Roberta's, but he thinks the culture of the restaurant will become "dramatically" better. "Ultimately, the people here who are creative are going to have the financial backing to really do the things they want to do," he says. "The people who make the place what it is — who make the food and serve the food — are all still here."