Corey Samuels, Co-Owner of Kashkaval Garden and Leisa Arndt, General Manager of Kashkaval Garden

This is Corey Samuels, the co-owner of Kashkaval Garden, and Leisa Arndt, the general manager. Corey and his business partner, Daniel Assaf, have been friends since they were 13 years old and both moved from Montreal, Canada to New York in the late 90’s after finishing university. After working in New York for a few years, Corey and Daniel began looking for a passion project to focus on outside of work. But apart from being avid customers of restaurants and gourmet food stores, they had no knowledge of the food industry or food service (Corey is a software engineer and Daniel is a gemologist) until they met an older gentleman they now fondly refer to as the “cheese man”. He owned a cheese shop in their Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood and they became friendly with him from frequently visiting his store. It was during this time that they realized that there were no bars or restaurants in the area that focused on serving wine and small plates (cheese, Mediterranean tapas, etc) and started speaking with him about this concept. They thought that it was a unique idea and something that they themselves would like as customers. The “cheese man” agreed and offered them another storefront location that he owned in Hell’s Kitchen to open the operation with him. In 2004, they opened Kashkaval Cheese Market and Wine Bar, which acted as a gourmet deli in front, where they sold their tapas and cheeses to go, and in the back had a wine and fondue room with a long bar and waiter service. And although Kashkaval has changed over the years to focus more on their Mediterranean influences, it has remained a staple in the Hell’s Kitchen community for the last 15 years due to their high-quality food and their ability to understand their customer and create a cozy, inviting environment that customers continue to want to return to.

When they opened their market and wine bar in 2004, Corey says that there was nothing like the concept in their neighborhood and that the idea of a “wine bar” had just started making it’s way into New York’s food scene and becoming popular. They knew it would be risky getting into the food business but were hoping that other consumers, like themselves, would enjoy a new way to eat out. It did take a couple of years for the idea to catch on but once it did, it became very popular and allowed them to expand to a second location two doors down. They opened Kashkaval Garden, a more elevated dining experience, in 2013 and operated both locations for about a year before losing the lease in their original space and consolidating everything into their new location. They decided to get rid of the market aspect of the business because it didn’t make sense in the new space and to focus their menu on more healthy, flavorful, Mediterranean-inspired dishes. They added some new items to the menu but unfortunately, due to spacing issues, had cut back on their cheeses and tapas. Corey admits that he does miss the market from the original location because he loved the local feel that it gave him to see neighborhood residents coming in and out of the shop throughout the day and he was also very proud of the large variety of cheeses that they would stock (40 or 50 different types), sourced both internationally and domestically. But they made it a point during their transition from market to restaurant to keep their cheese and tapas programs, although limited, on the menu as well as their fondue, which remains a popular item. They also were able to incorporate the intimate feeling of their back wine and fondue room with a back dining room in their new space, which took them three years to construct and opened in 2016. It was originally the backyard of the building but Corey and Daniel hired an architect to build the room from scratch because they wanted a room that was more cozy and hidden and they love the “wow” factor that customers get when they see the room for the first time. Although they weren’t able to stay in both locations, they made sure to keep aspects of the market and wine bar that they loved so that they never lose their neighborhood feeling.

Wall at Kashkaval

Corey believes that the most unique thing about Kashkaval Garden is their ability to use healthy ingredients to consistently create an authentic and flavorful meal. They classify themselves as a Mediterranean restaurant but try to be really creative with what they offer and use a lot of spices that aren’t “typical” for Mediterranean food but make sense for the dish. Since Corey and Daniel don’t have any background in food, the recipes on their menu were created by two chefs who have worked with them over the years. The first chef, who created most of their recipes, is originally from Turkey and doesn’t have any formal culinary training. He was taught how to cook by his mother and grandmother so he created a lot of authentic, homemade recipes, which Corey attributes their unique flavor and spice to. Their second chef was also their first general manager, who came from a culinary background and had a more modern approach to their dishes. Their menu today is a combination of both chefs: the authenticity and earthiness from Turkey and the presentation skills and level of service expected from New York. And the creativity that both contributed to the menu works well for them. Of course they do seasonal changes and they’re open to adding to the menu if they go out and see a dish that they like. They’ll create it for their team then try it out as a special and see what the customer feedback is before adding it to the menu. They want their dishes to be filling but not make people feel heavy so they always challenge themselves to use the healthiest ingredients possible, bending towards organic and sustainable items. In order to stay on top of food trends, they do a lot of research on what’s popular and what the best things are to be offering health-wise. Focusing on healthier, yet tasty, options was always something that was important to them, especially when opening Kashkaval Garden. But in the last two years, Corey says that they’ve been challenging themselves even more so to find better quality ingredients for their dishes as well as packaging for delivery orders to reduce plastic waste, which is a personal value that Corey and Daniel both feel strongly about.

Corey and Daniel both still work full-time so they really rely on their managers to run the show at the restaurant. They’re usually there at night and on the weekends so Leisa, their general manager, takes care of operations on a daily basis. She has a background in management and hospitality was something that she got into during school but stuck with over the years because she loves it. She’s been working in the food industry for 10 years and met Corey and Daniel at a bar that she was working at at the time before moving over to work at Kashkaval Garden once it opened. She worked at the restaurant on and off for five years before taking over the general manager position this past fall. Now, as a leader at the restaurant, Leisa says that she stays motivated because every day is a new day and since she’s been in the industry for so long, she’s able to deal with issues that come up and let things roll off her back pretty easily. Not only does this allow her to keep a positive work environment, it also allows her to motivate her team by being a resource for them and making sure that the the staff has both the physical things that they need and the knowledge that they need to carry out their jobs. She believes that fostering a positive work environment means showing everyone how their contribution matters and how each person works together to create success because they’re working as a cohesive team rather than individuals. Creating this environment among employees helps to provide a positive experience for the guest and makes it easier for each person to do their job knowing that they’re all working towards the same goal and what they do has a direct impact on their coworkers. For both Leisa and Corey, one of the most rewarding parts of the business is the team that they work with. Although it’s generally a continual challenge for vendors to find good employees, they have really great people on their team and they love working with them because they’re good people that work really hard. For Leisa, it’s nice coming to work every day because they’re like a little family and even when the restaurant is packed and things get crazy, they still have fun with each other.

Corey believes that food is love. So if he can have a team that enjoys coming to work, produces good food and shares that food/love with customers who arrive happy and leave happy, then he’s done his job as a business owner. He works to cultivate a positive environment for both staff and clients because he believes that positive energy extends to the customers and back to the staff. So it’s all about creating positive energy to be circulating throughout your entire restaurant so that people feel comfortable at all times. For Corey, a positive review, either in person or online, is the best reward that he can get for the work he’s put into his business. However, he warns others who are looking to get into the food industry to be prepared because there’s a lot you don’t know and there’s a lot that you need to learn, which will only happen over time as the experiences comes up. In those situations, he advises to learn from your mistakes so that when it happens again (because it will) you’re better able to deal with it. Leisa’s advice to others looking to work in management, like her, is to develop a thick skin for the issues that will arise and if you want to succeed, be ready to put your whole soul into what you’re doing- don’t show up just to show up.


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