This is Avi Burnbaum, the co-owner of Pinks NYC. He’s pictured here (middle) with his business partner, Alex Sassaris (right) and their co-worker, Danny Murphy (left). Although Pinks started out as a restaurant serving American fare when it opened in 2014, over time the business began to shift into a bar/entertainment venue. “People sort of choose what you are”, says Avi. But he acknowledges that the programming they were running (live music, daily entertainment, late night events and parties) and the design of the space itself caused them to shift gears and lean into the bar atmosphere that was arising and away from the restaurant that they had originally planned to run. They got rid of their full kitchen and turned it into a private lounge area, moving their limited kitchen set up to a small storage room. Since they still wanted to maintain a food program, Avi began brainstorming about a food concept that they could execute in their downsized kitchen space with electrical equipment as they had removed their gas set up and large appliances. One concept he’d seen work and do very well in this small setting was Mexican food. So they created an efficient Mexican menu that relied solely on electrical appliances and could be pre-cooked and served out of warmers during service. This shift, although unexpected, would lay the groundwork for the creation of their Mexican catering business, Pinks Catering, and their soon-to-open, Pinks Cantina. Each extension of the Pinks brand that has grown from this pivot: Pinks Bar & Grill, Pinks Catering and Pinks Cantina, has it’s own core focus but operates towards the same two-part mission: providing a great experience to the customer and feeding people with genuine love.
Avi has been in the hospitality business since he took his first bartending job in 1998. He was a bartender for years and ended up sticking with the industry on different levels in a variety of venues: bartending, managing, beverage directing at bars, restaurants and night clubs and working at hospitality groups, elevated dining experiences, trendy dining experiences- he’s dipped his toes in every area of the hospitality industry. However, it seems that hospitality is in his blood. Growing up in New York City and then throughout the suburbs of Westchester and Rockland County as his family expanded, he says that his mother led a very hospitable household. There would always be travelers coming through their home and people would live with them for extended periods of time. They even had a refugee family from Russia living with them for a year during his childhood. He says he comes from a long line of wonderful cooks: Italian from his father’s side and Mediterranean/Spanish from his mother’s side, who is Sephardic Jewish. His father’s family was very into food and they had excellent cooks but on his mother’s side, cooking really was their life. His mother, grandmother and great-grandmother put a lot of attention and love into the kitchen and he grew up loving their food. On weekends, friends and family would be in and out of their house where there would always be a lot of cooking, serving and care taking going on. He believes that’s where his love of hospitality, and food, comes from. Food was a important part of his life growing up and continues to be in adulthood. He has a full kitchen at home that he uses pretty regularly and although he’s not a classically trained chef, he’s gotten better and better in the kitchen and has picked up skills from the places he’s worked and the coworkers he’s befriended throughout the years in various kitchens. He believes that you can learn a lot hanging around the kitchens and picking up little tricks. However, he also believes that to be a chef, you don’t necessarily need to be classically trained, you just need to know how to present a great product, which is his goal every day at Pinks.
Avi’s final job before taking a chance on Pinks was at the Gansevoort Park, where he worked as their rooftop manager. It was a huge operation so he had a lot of responsibility, but after a full career in hospitality, he felt that it was time to work for a well-established company where there was job security or do something on his own. But he saw the corporate hospitality experience being something he wasn’t going to be very happy doing. He felt that none of the people above him in the corporate environments he worked at were enjoying themselves. They all looked like they were just climbing a ladder, being pitted against each other trying to make it to the top and he didn’t like the ugliness of it. So he decided to take a shot and try it himself. He had some money saved up as well as people around him that were willing to invest in him so he started looking for locations. He found a place in Brooklyn and was in negotiations with the owner there when things hit a stand still and a place down the block from his apartment in the East Village popped up. The location was already a bar and restaurant and previous owner was ready to go so it only took about three months to come to a deal and remodel the space before they opened. Alex (who he met previously when they both were working at Hammerstein Ballroom) had come on as his business partner at this point and they designed the space around the hot rod culture from Southern California that they both loved. They wanted it to be themed around that lifestyle on the West Coast and decided to call the restaurant Pinks, referring to the term “racing for pink slips”. This theme turned out to be fortuitous once they transitioned to a smaller kitchen. Since Mexican food is very popular in Southern California, the menu they adopted tied in nicely with their theme and made sense with what they were already doing as a business concept. They were able to seamlessly transition into a cantina-style restaurant at Pinks Bar.
Once they had the Mexican concept to complement their smaller space, Avi began putting the menu together and doing research on restaurants that had similar operations. He also turned to friends he knew that were chefs for their advice on how to execute these items. They helped him determine portions, create and standardize recipes and figure out what was needed in the kitchen to prepare the items. They were able to set it up so that most of the cold items were pre-prepped (sauces, cheeses, chilies) and the meat was all braised beforehand and then cooked upon request. They didn’t need much equipment in order to execute the idea in an authentic way. Once their operations were running consistently and they felt they had a good handle on the food, they decided to expand into catering and run it as an entity separate from the bar. They were introduced to Felipe Pani, the friend of a friend, who worked in the neighborhood and would come into the bar as a patron but was familiar with catering operations. They started working with Felipe to learn the basics of catering and then brought him on as a catering partner. They officially launched their catering business, Pinks Catering, in 2016 and started out doing about 2 orders a week. For a while, they only did 2-5 orders a week until they got a better handle on the process and had things standardized. When they felt confident enough in doing it and more orders started coming in, they began hiring people solely for their catering team to help keep up with the demand. Now they have a full force of people that work on their catering team and come in every day, so it’s basically two separate operations under one roof. The catering team comes in at about 6:30AM and wraps up around 3PM (depending on how busy the day is) and then the bar staff will come in at 4PM and start the nightlife. Avi says the most challenging part of running these two operations out of a small space is the lack of storage available. Which is why his newest project has been opening Pinks Cantina, another branch of their business. This operation will be a taqueria up front that serves casual, but unique Mexican street food (Mexican poutine, mac & cheese burrito, etc.) and a catering kitchen in the back to house their catering team that has grown to seven people. Avi has been working on getting this location up and running for almost two years and is very eager to make it operational. This new space will have a lot of references to the original Pinks but will have it’s own design so that, like Pinks Bar, it can grow into itself.
As a business owner, Avi says that one of the biggest things that motivates him is his team. He loves that he’s been able to maintain his friendship with Alex, who he’s known for 15 years, and that they’ve been successful as business partners. He also loves that he employs as many people as he does and that they depend on him and this company for their livelihood. It keeps him accountable and makes his team feel even more like a growing family that he has to take care of. He’s also motivated by his own drive to succeed, which he believes is true of any business owner. However, his idea of success isn’t necessarily tied to a dollar amount that he’d like to reach. Accumulating wealth in the future would be great but for him, success is determined by accomplishments, which is why he’s so excited to get Pinks Cantina operational. He says that there are quite a few moments when he finds himself really enjoying the work he’s doing and getting the elusive “satisfaction” a lot of people are looking for in their careers. A lot of times this happens at food festivals because you have that direct interaction with the customer and get to see their reaction to the food right there, which is the most rewarding part for him. You get to see customers love your food and feed off of the energy that they give you, even though it’s hot and you’re in a makeshift kitchen. But moving the business forward, introducing it to new people and growing the company down new avenues is what drives him. Five years ago, he says, he never knew tacos would become his business. He thought he would be opening several bars and it’s turning out that he’s opening several taquerias, so he’s interested in continuing to grow the company and seeing how it evolves. But the fact that the company is moving forward at all feels successful to Avi.
Looking back, Avi believes that his job at Gansevoort Park was good training for him as a prelude to opening his own place, but he admits that nothing can truly prepare you for that undertaking. He says that starting his own business has been “an incredible experience” but warns other entrepreneurs that they should be ready to work really hard when getting into the food industry. It’s a full-time, seven days a week job that you always have to be ready for and that you have to have a lot of passion for. If you don’t love what you’re doing, that will come through to customers and the business won’t work if you don’t have the right intentions. You need to genuinely be interested in what you do for your operation to work so that when you’re working from 7AM to 1AM multiple days a week, you can still identify what you love about the business and share that enthusiasm with your employees. Luckily Avi has a solid team that loves creating a great experience as much as he does so they’re motivated to do the work that they enjoy. As for Avi, food, hospitality, entertainment are all things that he says he couldn’t live without in his career and he’s been able to create a business that includes all three. Although he laughs that tacos “fell out of the sky” for him, they’ve provided the gateway for growth that he never expected and is excited to keep building on.