0 comments on “Brian Goldberg, Founder & CEO of Mr. Bing”

Brian Goldberg, Founder & CEO of Mr. Bing

This is Brian Goldberg, the Founder & CEO of Mr. Bing. Brian opened his first Mr. Bing location in Hong Kong in 2013 but the road that led him to Mr. Bing (and eventually back to the U.S.) is a very long and interesting one. Born and raised in Rockland County, New York, he says that his love for Chinese culture comes from a combination of relationships, food, language, film, music and literature. He grew up eating Chinese food once a week with his family. Whether it was ordering in on Friday night or going out to eat on Sunday, it was part of the culture in his community, so much so that his father taught him how to use chopsticks at age 7. In college he was required to take a language and, having grown tired of the Spanish classes that he’d taken all his life and that he’d also learned from his father (who was a Spanish teacher), he decided to take Mandarin because he was dating a girl whose family spoke Mandarin. During this time he got really into Chinese film and music and ended up majoring in Chinese. He was studying abroad in Beijing, China in 1998 when he was first introduced to the jianbing (pronounced jen-bing), a savory Chinese street crepe that a little, old lady would cook on the back of a bicycle cart outside his dorm room every morning. He had one every day when he was abroad and loved them so much that he told himself that he would bring them back to the U.S. one day. Although it would be years before he acted on this desire, it was during his time in China as a student that the idea for Mr. Bing was born. Today Brian has contributed to the food fabric of New York with his introduction of the jianbing and is committed to expanding the product’s capabilities to make bings a part of mainstream culture in the U.S. 

Brian was supposed to go to medical school after returning from China and receiving his undergraduate degree but decided to do a Masters in Chinese Studies at Columbia University instead. During this Masters program he was required to take a few classes at the business school, one of which was entrepreneurship. He was asked to write a business plan for anything he wanted, so he wrote one for Goldberg’s Chinese Crepes, a six page plan that focused on creating a chain of street carts around NYC, modeled after the hot dog stands that you can find on most corners and the bicycle carts that jianbings were traditionally sold off of in China. While completing his Masters degree, Brian was also competing as a professional athlete in luge, which was a huge passion of his. He competed for a few years and traveled around the world, simultaneously working as the translator for the Chinese and Taiwanese national teams. He retired after the 2002 Olympics and since he had no money or experience in the food industry to execute the plan for the bing business that he had worked on during his Masters program, he put the idea on hold and started working for NBC.

Brian worked as an NBC page and bilingual tour guide at 30 Rock, leading English and Chinese tours of the TV studios before moving over to CNBC and working as an assistant producer at the New York Stock Exchange. Next NBC moved him to Singapore to help cover Asian business news, which he did for a few years and then worked as a sports reporter for a few years as well. However, he really enjoyed his time at the New York Stock Exchange so he decided to leave the journalism industry and started working in finance for an investment bank. He spent ten years at this bank, first living in Taiwan and then Hong Kong. Although he enjoyed his time in finance and was learning a lot, he started getting tired of the industry and began thinking about what was next for him. He always knew that he wanted to start his own business one day but didn’t know what the business should be. Then, about six years ago while he was living in Hong Kong, he was in Beijing for a weekend trip and ate a jianbing and all of his earlier ideas came rushing back to his mind. He remembered his old business plan for Goldberg’s Chinese Crepes and figured it was time to put his plan into action. So he changed the business name to Mr. Bing, combined his money with some money from a friend and opened a little store in the financial district in Hong Kong. He ran this store for two years while also working in finance. And although they were the first restaurant making bings in Hong Kong, since they were mixed in with many other types of Asian food, they were forced to sell the food at really low prices and it was hard to make a profit. However, he noticed that most of his customers were from Northern China or were expats from the U.S., Australia and the U.K. He realized that Hong Kong wasn’t the right market for his bings and that they would do much better in the U.S. because there was no one else creating the product there. So he shut down his Hong Kong operation, quit his job in finance, sold his apartment and moved back to New York in 2015.

Mr. Bing Blog

Instead of opening a store front right away, Brian introduced Mr. Bing to the New York market by doing pop ups: the Garment District pop up, Broadway Bites, Madison Square Eats, Bryant Park Winter Village, etc. He did this circuit for about a year and won the Vendy Award for Best New Street Food in New York. During this time, he met the owners of Urbanspace who offered him his first permanent location at the Vanderbilt food hall. It opened in January 2017 and based on how well it was doing, they were able to raise enough capital from professional investors to open their second location in Times Square. This past year, Mr. Bing opened it’s first storefront in Chelsea, which doubles as their headquarters and also has a commissary kitchen for their catering business, which Brian says is doing very well. They’ve partnered with food service companies like Aramark and Compass Group to do institutional catering at companies like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Twitter and LinkedIn where they open Mr. Bing kiosks that rotate throughout the year. They’ve also expanded their menu to include dumplings, baos, bubble tea, egg drop soup and most recently, rice bowls. And although they’ve gotten some criticism from Chinese customers who say their bings aren’t authentic because they’re not the bings that they grew up eating (Mr. Bing offers a variety of meat fillings), Brian is committed to preserving the traditional bing that they started out creating. He admits that although their bings are very authentic to what you’ll find in China, Mr. Bing isn’t a 100% replica of the jianbing and he doesn’t want it to be. Their menu is more Westernized and is an evolving process that they’re always trying to improve. Being in New York, they have to listen to what customers want and develop their offerings to meet those demands. However, whether a customer loves the bings or thinks they’re just okay, he finds that most customers, Chinese customers especially, are just happy that they’re here.

Moving forward, Brian’s plan is to open more locations in New York and to continue to perfect the business model before expanding to other cities. He wants to improve their operations, streamline production and tell their story more, so that they can teach more people about where the food comes from. He would also like to incorporate more modern Chinese culture into their stores and kiosks with music and art but says that they’re not there yet. Right now the company’s mission is to introduce bings and other Northern Chinese street foods such as dumplings and baos to the Western world and in order to do so, they have to make sure that they do bings really well. For Brian, the most rewarding part of the business is seeing the impact that Mr. Bing has had on the New York food scene as he’s watched the gradual increase of people who know what bings are and love them as much as he does. It’s amazing to watch people realizing that bings exist and understand that there’s another type of Chinese food that they’ve never had before that Mr. Bing is bringing them. The growing knowledge of this unique and fun product is a testament to Brian that what he and his team are doing is meaningful and although he says he’s “only giving people good food”, he feels like he’s made his mark on the world.

 

 

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0 comments on “Steven Zhik, Operational Manager at Eight Turn Crepe”

Steven Zhik, Operational Manager at Eight Turn Crepe

This is Steven Zhik, the operational manager at Eight Turn Crepe. The concept for this Japanese creperie was brought to New York from Japan by Hiro Nishida in 2012. Hiro was born in Japan and has 20+ years of experience in the hospitality industry through his work in both Japan and New York. Although he currently lives in New York, through his travels back and forth to Japan, he noticed that street crepes were becoming more and more popular and that nothing like it existed in his food community in New York. Served in a cone, the crepe is eaten on the go, which Hiro thought made it perfect for the hustle and bustle that New York City is known for. So he decided to introduce it to the New York market and opened the first Eight Turn Crepe location in Soho with his business partner, Tanya Mirvis. The fast casual restaurant was the first Japanese creperie to open in NYC and presented a new meal concept to the NYC food scene. Steven joined the team in 2016 after being connected with Tanya through a mutual friend. A huge fan of the product, Steven was a regular customer at Eight Turn Crepe before meeting Tanya. After speaking with her about the business, he knew right away that he had to be part of their team. His focus now is understanding their customer on a deeper level (dietary preferences, food trends and spending habits) and using that knowledge to grow their business in the U.S. and internationally.

Steven was born in Ukraine and came to the U.S. when he was 10 years old. He graduated from Pace with a degree in finance and economics in 2001, just two months after the September 11th terrorist attacks, and due the economic and social climate at the time, it was very difficult to get a job. So he and a few friends decided to pause their job searches and travel the world. They traveled for about six months and during this time, Steven ended up meeting someone in Vietnam who was from Queens and who he shared some mutual connections with. He was running a tattoo business in the East Village and told Steven to reach out to him when got back to the U.S. if he was interested in helping him out with the business. When Steven got back to New York a few months later, he contacted him and began running their storefront. Two years later, they had opened up two other store locations and Steven had become a partner in the business. This launched Steven’s career in retail. He worked in the retail industry for 17 years, opening up clothing stores and gift shops until he decided that he wanted to invest in a new business and was introduced to Tanya at Eight Turn Crepe. He thought the rice crepe was very unique and already knew that it was high quality from his time as a customer there. Although he had no experience in the food industry, he felt compelled to join the business. So he left the retail industry and became a partner in Eight Turn Crepe.

Once Steven joined the team, he took over all business operations. His day to day now centers around running Eight Turn Crepe’s store operations and catering business. Unfortunately, they were forced to close their flagship Soho location in 2016 just as he was coming on board due to increasing rent. But luckily around the same time they were invited to open a location at the DeKalb Market Hall in Brooklyn, after being handpicked by management there to be a part of it’s innovative dining experience. DeKalb Market is where they currently operate from and so far they’ve been very successful there. There’s a lot of foot traffic during the week throughout the lunch hour because they’re surrounded by a lot of corporate offices and even more so on the weekends with the Market’s daily live programming. Although the industry is much more labor intensive than Steven is used to, he says he’s never regretted his decision to join the business. And after spending two and half years learning the business and the food industry itself, he’s much more comfortable coordinating the staff (which can vary anywhere from nine to fifteen people at a time), and their schedules and the dealing with the inevitable turnover that comes with most food businesses. Like all industries, there are pros and cons but for Steven it has always been more rewarding than challenging.

Steve + Employee from Eight Turn Crepe

Steven is usually at the store 3-5 days a week, which has allowed him to get to know their customer much better than he anticipated. He recognized that consumers are becoming much more health conscious (asking if their crepe batter contains eggs, milk or gluten), which led to their menu expansion to include vegan crepes and an overhaul of their store to make it more vegan-friendly: dedicating a crepe maker to make only vegan crepes, specifying certain utensils to be used and creating a new fridge and counter area where only vegan ingredients will be stored.  Although they are still in the process of rolling out their vegan crepes and finalizing the logistics of the menu change, Steven’s interactions with customers in DeKalb Market have allowed him to zero in on areas of the business that need to be developed and put his efforts into developing them. However, he recognizes that the traditional recipe that they started with is what attracts most of their customers, so they’ll always offer the rice crepes that they’re famous for. Steven sees their menu development as a way to keep up with changing food trends and expand the business as well as to continue to reach their varied clientele. Similar to the business itself, they don’t plan on changing their recipe, just adding to it.

Steven works very hard to make sure that their customer service is top notch, so the most rewarding part of the business for him is reading reviews about how friendly the staff was or hearing from a customer how much they loved their crepe. He’s put a lot of energy into building a team that cares about the business and that care shows in their satisfied customers and the positive energy that surrounds the location itself. He’s hoping to use their DeKalb Market location as a model for future locations as he concentrates on franchising the business in places like Texas and the Middle East. But for now he plans to continue to work on getting their store operations and catering business down to a science, while continuing to listen to the needs of their customers and providing a solution that fits with their brand.

 

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0 comments on “Dhanny and Joe Palma, Co-Owners of My Kitchen”

Dhanny and Joe Palma, Co-Owners of My Kitchen

This is Dhanny and Joe Palma, the co-owners of My Kitchen. Although they grew up in different environments- Dhanny was born and raised in Trinidad and Joe is a first generation Italian American who was raised in Brooklyn- both Dhanny and Joe had a passion for food and understood that meals were always an experience that you shared with family and friends. After meeting through a newspaper ad and building an extremely successful catering business which they ran together for almost 20 years, this husband and wife team decided to take on a a new endeavor: a restaurant/banquet hall, aptly named My Kitchen, where they decided they would serve customers as if they were having a dinner party at home and welcoming guests into their kitchen. Having been in the corporate food industry for many years, Dhanny and Joe wanted to create a relaxing and inviting space where the focus is on good food and good company and nothing else. Dhanny and Joe’s passion for food and love of entertaining has allowed them to build a business with the customer in mind every step of the way. Every facet of their restaurant centers around the question: “how would we want it done for us?” and is executed based on that answer. 

Dhanny and Joe met in 1993 after Joe put an ad in the newspaper looking for someone who was good with computers to help him run the catering business he had just started. Dhanny, who was working as a broker at the time, felt unmotivated in her position, worn down by her commute and was looking for a change when she happened to see the ad and reached out to Joe to say that she was interested and to set up a meeting. They quickly became the best of friends and started building their first business, Culinary Concepts. They worked out of a commissary kitchen in Astoria and although they struggled at first to pay the bills and themselves, they grew their reputation as a reliable vendor with delicious food and began working with corporate clients like Meals on Wheels and Delta. Together they grew the business into a multi-million dollar company with 25 employees, creating pre-packaged meals and catering corporate lunches, meetings and parties. However, over time they began to see changes, both in the food industry and outside it, that were effecting the business. Less people were ordering corporate catering and more were going out for lunch and dinner and renting out venues for holiday parties. Delta filed for bankruptcy in 2005 and their profit margin with Meals on Wheels was getting smaller. They were getting by but they weren’t making money and they knew the end of the business was coming. So in April 2012, they decided to make a change and close the business.

After closing Culinary Concepts, Dhanny and Joe weren’t sure what their next step would be so they floated around for a few months. They used commercial kitchens to cater for some of their corporate clients and Joe went on a few interviews for chef positions. But after being self-employed, Joe was frustrated at the idea of working under someone else and felt he would be moving backwards. So one day, after Joe came home from an interview feeling defeated, Dhanny said let’s just find a new place and start again, so they began looking at retail locations with a broker and were introduced to My Kitchen. It was an existing business that was being sold and when they walked into the location, Dhanny says, it immediately “felt like it was us”. However, unlike their corporate catering operation, they wanted this new business to be on their own terms. They felt that the food industry had been very difficult on their family life and general well-being in the past, so they set out to run a business that worked for them and allowed them time to see their children and granddaughter, take a vacation or take a mental health day whenever they wanted. With that in mind, they signed the lease for the space in November 2012 and re-opened My Kitchen.

Dhanny and Joe turned My Kitchen into an Italian-Caribbean fusion restaurant that also does corporate catering and events, such as weddings, baby showers, birthday parties and corporate events. Because it was extremely important to them that this business be more relaxed than other restaurants, where customers come in and eat their food, they strive to make customers feel like they’re dining in their home away from home. Every dish is made to order by Chef Joe and served by Dhanny. They have no wait staff, bartenders or line cooks other than a sous chef that helps Joe in the kitchen. There’s no rhyme or reason to their menu, it’s just good food that they would eat and the specials each day are inspired by the dishes that they’re in the mood to eat or create. There’s also no rush when you dine at My Kitchen. As Dhanny notes, they would rather have a handful of really happy, satisfied customers than crowds of customers that are annoyed that their server isn’t giving them enough attention or feel that they’re being rushed out so a table can be turned over. At My Kitchen “there’s more to life than the in and out” of customers. Their focus is to create a dining experience that demonstrates the passion and love that they have for food and for creating meals that their customers love. They run the business not to make money but because they genuinely enjoy working together and they love what they do. And they want to share that love with their customers; their business being successful is just an added bonus.

Since Dhanny and Joe have so much experience in the food industry and really understand it, they don’t have the same fear that many new business owners have, which is that if you’re not open, customers won’t come back. They know that the personal touch they add by cooking and serving the meals themselves has created a loyal customer base and guests continuously come back to dine with them. And with the different areas of their business (catering and on-site events) they always have something to do if the restaurant isn’t full. Both Dhanny and Joe know that they way they operate My Kitchen is way outside the norm but they’ve put their time in in the food industry and now want to enjoy their hard work by cooking and entertaining, which is what they love to do. For Dhanny, it feels like a lot of people have forgotten what it is to go out and dine. It used to be a special time when you would enjoy the company of one or more people, without focusing on your phone or worrying about anything beyond the food in front of you. With each meal, My Kitchen tries to bring back that significance and remind its customers that a meal is an experience to take part in.

Although Dhanny had it in her mind that they would only work for five more years when they signed the lease for My Kitchen, they’ve now been in business for six years and don’t have any plans to close. “Maybe next year we’ll stop”, Dhanny says as she laughs and even though she says that a part of her would love to, she doesn’t think she and Joe could ever stop working in the food industry altogether. They love meeting and hosting customers and a lot of their customers have become good friends. One couple they met even became the godparents to their daughter. Right now though, they’re enjoying what they do and wake up each day excited to see what it will bring. So they’ll keep working until they’re ready to move to the next chapter.

 

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0 comments on “Kristen Tomlan, Owner of DO, Cookie Dough Confections”

Kristen Tomlan, Owner of DO, Cookie Dough Confections

This is Kristen Tomlan, the owner of DO, Cookie Dough Confections. Food was always an important part of Kristen’s life growing up in Missouri. Her mom is a chef so she had firsthand experience of the intricacies of cooking and baking and the creativity that it requires, which spurred her love for both. However, as a teenager she didn’t see a way that her love of baking could translate into a career, so she channeled her creativity into design and continued baking as a hobby. Kristen was working in branding and design in New York when she came up with the idea for DO. An admitted weakness for cookie dough, she would always eat it raw while baking despite the warnings that it could make you sick. After doing this for years, one day (while indulging in cookie dough with friends) she thought, why can’t we make this safe to eat and still bake-able? This moment compelled Kristen to start doing some research and began her journey to reinvent how we see cookie dough.

Other than being a lifelong baker, Kristen had no experience in the food industry before she launched the DO website in December 2014. She decided to start it online first to test the market and see if there was interest in her edible cookie dough. In the beginning, Kristen was doing everything on her own: trying out different recipes, making the cookie dough, packaging it, shipping it out, doing the invoicing, everything from A to Z. And although she says that when she started the business she had “no idea what she was doing”, orders started coming in. The idea started gaining traction through word of mouth of friends and family and then even more so on social media. Since Kristen didn’t have money to invest in any marketing or advertising, she relied on the quality of the product and the uniqueness of the concept to stand out from her competition. And it did. Soon the product got popular enough that Kristen was no longer able to sustain her lifestyle; she was still working full-time at her brand consultant firm, which she loved, and working on DO as a side hustle. She had come to a crossroads and knew that something had to change. So she decided to pursue her passion project and see where it went. She felt that there would always be a job for her somewhere but if she didn’t take a chance now and commit herself to the business that she felt compelled to run, she would never do it. So she quit her job, moved to a commercial space and started building her team.

After finding success through online ordering and catering and bringing on a solid team, Kristen opened a store front in January 2017 and used her design background to create a brand that extended from her packaging to her store. She wanted DO to look different from the typical bakery or pastry shop and to be more graphic and fun. And keeping in mind the very visual way that her generation and younger generations consume experiences and food, she wanted it to be very picture and Instagram-friendly as well. So she incorporated six bright colors to be used in different ways throughout the store (a polka dot wall when you walk in, neon pink signs) but also made sure to include items like the stand up mixers and subway tiles to make it feel more like your kitchen at home and make customers feel more comfortable. The different colors were key to making both the packaging and the store bright and cheery but also to represent the fun and happiness Kristen wants her customers to feel when they eat her cookie dough. A lot of people who try the product connect it with nostalgia because it reminds them of baking cookies with their mom or grandma, which she loves, but she also wants people to associate it with joy and happiness. The joy and happiness that comes from that memory of your childhood or the joy that comes from simply treating yourself to a sweet. Kristen hopes that her cookie dough can give customers a moment of calm during a stressful day or comfort if they’re dealing with an issue in their personal life. Even if it’s a good day, Kristen says, “we’re trying to make it better and make you a tiny bit happier”.

DO sign

For Kristen the toughest part of the business is being responsible for so many different areas of the business at once. Like many small business owners, there are a lot of parts of the business that are out of your control and there’s no rule book that tells you how to deal with these issues as they arise. You just have to figure it out as you go, which gets challenging. She’s also felt that there have been challenges she’s faced as a female business owner that her male counterparts don’t always face. When she first started the business, she felt a lot of people wouldn’t take her seriously or tell her that her idea was “cute”. As a young, female business owner she felt that a lot of people doubted her but she stayed committed to her idea and as the business became more established, people started taking her more seriously.  However, the silver lining of her struggle and the struggle of other female business owners is the change that Kristen sees happening in the food industry. There’s becoming less of a stigma about who you have to be or what you have to look like to run a successful business and more of a focus on your product, your ambition and your passion.

Another amazing change that’s been happening is the willingness of other business owners, especially woman, to give advice to others and share their experience. Most of Kristen’s friends and mentors in the food industry are also in the dessert space but they all feel strongly that the “pie” (no pun intended) is big enough that everyone can take their own piece and still support each other. There is a growing realization that running a good business means doing good by others as well and continuing the cycle; even if you have similar goals, you can still work together to help each other out. The food industry today is much different than when Kristen started out and she’s hopeful that it will continue to improve. As a female business owner, she believes that the awareness and attention that she and other female business owners can bring to the industry as a whole is good for everyone.

 

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0 comments on “Yaya Ceesay, Co-Owner of The Soul Spot”

Yaya Ceesay, Co-Owner of The Soul Spot

This is Yaya Ceesay, the co-owner of The Soul Spot, a soul food restaurant with Caribbean and African influences. Although this combination may seem strange, this unique flavor sets The Soul Spot apart from other comfort food vendors and is inspired by Yaya’s personal experience. Yaya grew up in Gambia, West Africa but emigrated to the U.S. when he was 17 to attend college. As a source of income while he was in school, he began working at a Caribbean restaurant in Manhattan called Soul Fixins, delivering food and washing dishes. However, after a year of going to school and working in the food industry, Yaya realized just how passionate he was about food and decided to start working at Soul Fixins full time. His work ethic and desire to learn quickly became clear to the restaurant’s head chef who was planning to retire. He took Yaya under his wing and began training him to take over his position. Although he had no formal culinary training or background in hospitality, Yaya’s passion for food has always allowed him to excel in the food industry.

During his training at Soul Fixins, Yaya learned how to make Caribbean dishes as well as Southern dishes. He and the head chef spent almost every weekend traveling to different cities in then South, trying different foods, doing research on the recipes and understanding how each part of the meal was created. This training early on in his career really laid the groundwork for Yaya’s dedication to his craft. After the chef retired, Yaya became the head chef and started improving the restaurant operations at Soul Fixins. He started cutting out any unnecessary expenses and improving the food quality based off of the research he had done with his former boss. However, over the years Yaya had begun to feel like he was handling most of the business, as the owners who had used to work with him in the kitchen stopped coming to the restaurant and relied on him more and more. He felt unappreciated in his role and decided that if he could run a restaurant for someone else, he could do it for himself as well. He began saving his money and looking for his own restaurant space. He noticed that a lot of his customers in Manhattan were from Brooklyn and would travel to the city for the food at Soul Fixins. He felt that there was a demand for soul food and that he could combine his training in Southern and Caribbean cuisine with the African food that he grew up eating to satisfy it. So in 2001 he moved to Brooklyn to get familiar with the area and started looking for retail spaces.

Yaya and his business partner, his cousin, Banumu Turay, purchased the restaurant in August 2002 but it was almost a year before they were able to open. No bank would give them a loan so Yaya used all of his savings to purchase the space and fix it up. The Soul Spot officially opened on June 4th, 2003 and although he had no working capital or business experience, Yaya believed in his food. He knew that if he was supplying good food, the rest would take care of itself. At first some people wouldn’t even try the food because Yaya wasn’t from the South. They thought that there was no way he would know how to make the food and if he tried, it wouldn’t be good. But soon people started coming in to try it and calling to place catering orders for their office. They were the only soul food restaurant in the area and the unique cuisine set them apart from other restaurants. For the first six months Yaya worked sixteen hours a day to keep the business going, and eventually his hard work paid off. The business took off and formed a reputation for its delicious and varied cuisine. Even now, 15 years later,  word of mouth is still how they get most of their clients for catering orders because the food quality speaks for itself.

Team at The Soul Spot

A normal day for Yaya now usually begins at 4AM or 5AM, when he arrives at the restaurant to begin prepping catering orders for the day. Depending on the size of the order or orders that they have, sometimes he’ll work from 2AM-8AM getting everything ready before the restaurant opens at 11AM.  For Yaya the best part about owning his own restaurant is being in charge of his own kitchen. He loves what he does and is very hands on creating the food because he never wants the quality of the food to change. Which is why his co-owner, Banumu, handles most of the administrative side of the business while Yaya cooks and runs the business’s daily operations. He wants to continue to give his customers the consistent product that they’ve come to know and love and never wants to be a business owner that gives up his time in the kitchen. It’s this passion for the food and the preparation that goes into it that Yaya wants people to remember when they think of The Soul Spot. And despite the naysayers that doubted him when he first started the business, Yaya believes that the passion they sow into their food is what people are drawn to and trust.

Yaya’s next plan for The Soul Spot is to open up a commissary kitchen to handle all of their catering orders. Cooking out of one kitchen is no longer feasible because his team ends up getting in each other’s way and he wants the restaurant to be able to operate more smoothly. He’s also hoping that a kitchen dedicated to catering orders will allow them to handle any last minute requests that come in without interfering with restaurant’s food prep and purchasing. Speaking with him, it’s easy to tell that he’s excited to start this new project and has no qualms about potential issues that may arise. He will handle it the same way he dealt with the critics who doubted him when he first started the business: believing in himself and staying focused on the food.

 

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0 comments on “George Tenedios, CEO of Fresh&Co and Brad Grossman, Executive Chef”

George Tenedios, CEO of Fresh&Co and Brad Grossman, Executive Chef

This is George Tenedios, the CEO of Fresh&Co (pictured right), and Brad Grossman, the executive chef at Fresh&Co (pictured left). These men are two of the driving forces behind the fast casual concept that focuses on providing New Yorkers with chef-inspired organic food. Although this restaurant is already extremely well-known in NYC with 18 locations throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, Fresh&Co was created only 8 years ago, in 2010, as a branch of Cafe Metro. George’s father, Steve Tenedios, founded Cafe Metro in 1982, after moving from Midwest Ohio to Brooklyn to work with his brother-in-law making doughnuts. However, as a young boy who emigrated to the U.S. from a small Greek island at age 5 and then grew up in the food industry working as a bus boy and a server at a local restaurant, he always dreamed of owning his own business. So when he realized that there wasn’t much demand for doughnuts at that time, he quit and began working with a deli group for a few years before starting his own business. George now carries on his father’s legacy with their locally-sourced food concept that has made this family business a staple of the NYC food industry.

Cafe Metro was created to be a more traditional, classic New York style deli. However, in 2010, Steve, George, Brad and their team started recognizing that food trends were changing and that there was a lapse in the market for healthy, local, clean, organic food. They were finding that as the millennial population grew in NY, more consumers were becoming aware of the different food options available to them and were becoming more conscious about what they were putting into their bodies. It was a whole new demographic of customers whose needs were not being met. There were a handful of lunch concepts that were opening but they felt that there was a lack of high-quality dining where you could get a clean breakfast, a filling lunch and a satisfying dinner without comprising on ingredients. So they set out to be the solution. Brad, who has been with their team since day 1 and helped open the first Cafe Metro in 1982, became the mastermind behind Fresh&Co’s core menu and began creating recipes that included fresh vegetables, healthy dressings and popular food item like quinoa. They opened their first location, 729 Broadway, in 2010 and three days before the grand opening, decided to remove the pasta station they originally planned to be part of the store and replaced it with a quinoa bar. It was a risky move given the time crunch and the fact that quinoa bar had never been done in a fast casual setting anywhere in New York before. But it paid off. Their customers loved it, and after that the Fresh&Co concept took off.

Fresh & Co Blog

Although it’s still under the same management umbrella of Cafe Metro, Fresh&Co now runs as it’s own entity, with a unique brand, it’s own managing team, operations and menu. And the menu has changed a lot since they first started, but one major focus that hasn’t changed is continuing to use local food as much as possible. Most of the produce that they use in their stores comes from Satur Farms on Long Island because it’s extremely important to them to support their local community and cut their carbon footprint with sustainable farming practices that these vendors have in place. Local vendors also give them a lot of quality control and allow George and his team to ensure that their customers receive high-quality, consistent produce all year round. They keep a close relationship with their partners, visiting Satur Farms and Latham Farms (another local partner) a couple times a year to meet with the farmers, check out the operations and go over the production schedule. Their team has become so invested in sourcing local food that Fresh&Co purchased their own farm about two years ago on Long Island, which employs all local Long Island residents. The farm helps them to understand how different items are grown and the practices that need to be used to keep food clean and sustainable. However, Fresh&Co farms only generates about 25% of all the produce that the stores use, which is why they’ve established and developed their relationships with their local farmers who can contribute to the demand. Fresh&Co’s commitment to these farmers creates a wholesome and trusting relationship that benefits both parties. As food trends grow, so does Fresh&Co’s business and in turn, so does the local vendors’ business.

For George and Brad though, keeping up with the ever-changing food trends is proving to be the toughest part of the business. When Fresh&Co was first created, food trend patterns happened differently, new ideas seeped into the industry slowly. But now consumers are a lot more informed about their food and have opinions on it, which makes it harder to stay on top of what’s popular. However, it’s not a bad thing, George says, it “keeps them on their toes” and he, Brad and the rest of their team are always doing their research to see what’s in demand and make sure they’re on top of it. Their goal is always to provide the best possible service to the customer so whether that means using the freshest ingredients in their soup or creating a new menu item based off of a popular food, they’ll make it happen.

Their dedication to the customer, who they say is the reason why Fresh&Co exists, and their desire to continue to supply each customer with a healthy, authentic, sustainable meal is what sets Fresh&Co apart from other fast casual restaurants. Their team set out to create a concept that filled a hole they saw in the market and by doing so, created a mission-driven business that all food vendors can learn from.

 

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Kay Ch’ien, Owner of Hey Hey Canteen

This is Kay Ch’ien, the owner of Hey Hey Canteen. Born and raised in Hong Kong, Kay grew up in the food industry in a unique way. Her great-grandfather was a commodities trader who bought and sold food items such as cooking oil and flour mill in Singapore, a business that her grandfather eventually took over and stabilized, streamlining processes and building a brand around it. Growing up Kay’s parents worked for her grandfather’s business so she was always surrounded by food and its components. This saturation in the food industry gave Kay an appreciation for food and how it’s created, so when she was looking to make a change in her career, it seemed only natural to her that she would do something food-related. Kay opened 2 Duck Goose, a farm to table Cantonese BBQ concept, in 2014 but the long hours and late nights quickly became an issue for her. She wasn’t sleeping at all or seeing her husband and young son and realized that the business wasn’t sustainable for her lifestyle. So she bravely decided to close the business, re-group and take a look at what made sense for her. Which led to the opening of Hey Hey Canteen in 2016- a wholesome Chinese food concept that was born from Kay’s willingness to pivot and to create a new business that worked for her, rather than the other way around.

Kay originally moved to the U.S. to go to college. Her parents had met at grad school in the U.S. so she always had it in the back of her mind that if she was given the opportunity to go to college abroad, she would take it. After finishing college, Kay ended up loving her new home so much that she decided to stay. She went on to get her law degree and began working as a corporate lawyer. After 6 years of working at a law firm, Kay started feeling burnt out and wanted to do something more active that gave her more interpersonal interaction. Since food had always been a major part of her life, she decided to quit her job and open a food business. Although her first restaurant didn’t work out, it gave her the opportunity to figure out a model for a business that she could pursue long term and she was able to create Hey Hey Canteen, a fast casual Chinese concept that puts care and intention into it’s food.

Hey Hey Canteen differs from other Chinese restaurants because the dishes aren’t as heavy or as greasy. It was important to Kay that they produce food that, if you wanted to, would allow you to eat Asian food every day and not feel bad. Therefore, most of the recipes are ideas that Kay thought of and she did a lot of recipe testing to see what worked and what didn’t. Everything is made from scratch and a lot of thought is put into every recipe to make sure that each dish is more wholesome than other Chinese vendors. The added bonus of creating a Chinese restaurant with healthier, cleaner menu options is that Kay can appeal to a broader audience. Most of her dishes are made with Tamari, a gluten free substitute for soy sauce, so although it’s not a gluten free kitchen, she’s able to gear dishes towards those with dietary restrictions, such as gluten intolerance or vegetarians and vegans, which differentiates her from other Chinese restaurants throughout NYC.

Hey Hey Canteen Team

Right now, Hey Hey Canteen is only serving customers directly from their pop up location in Gotham Market in Fort Greene. Kay does have a storefront in Gowanus but had to close it in January 2018 due to the lack of foot traffic in the area and now runs it as a commissary kitchen for their catering orders. Kay is hoping to re-open it in the next few years but needs to see if the community picks up first, since the economic growth in Gowanus is currently going much slower than anticipated. However, Kay and her team are currently working on an expansion into Manhattan with a new location at Turnstyle Underground Market, which they are both excited and nervous for. Although they know the Manhattan scene due to their frequent lunch catering there, this is a big step for the business into a new market that is much more competitive.

Despite her anxiety, Kay is very excited to take the next step with a team of people that respect and care about one another and the business. The toughest part of the food industry for her has been building a team that she can trust and finding the people that are invested in the restaurant’s mission. For Kay, working with a team of people that you really like is the most rewarding part of the business because it creates a positive work environment where everyone is looking out for one another. Now that Kay has found this team, she’s able to think about next steps for the business and what their strategy should be to increase revenue in the coming months and years. No matter what though, she and her team are focused on continuing to create the delicious, thoughtful food that their customers love. And if food trends change and that stops working, Kay is always willing to start again to make sure that what she’s doing makes sense for her, her team and her customers.

 

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Alison Moskowitz, Owner of Food Trends Catering

This is Alison Moskowitz, the owner of Food Trends Catering, a family-run business that was inspired by a young girl’s dream to turn meals into events, similar to the celebrations that she grew up hosting with her family. Alison grew up in a big family and fondly remembers their tradition to throw big parties for holidays, birthdays, family dinners… every meal was an occasion in her home and family and friends would always comment how their house was so warm and inviting and that the food was always delicious. So when her family moved from Russia to the United States when she was 16, she saw an opportunity to create a business in a new community that combined her two biggest passions: food and family.

Unfortunately it would be years before Alison could act on her vision. First she focused on finishing her education, which was difficult considering that when she arrived in the U.S. she spoke no English, and then, years later, on raising her family. However, once her kids were old enough, Alison decided to go for it and began trying to convince her father to quit his job and start the business with her. Alison says that her father also had a passion for food, but was practical and worked as a nuclear engineer to support his family. He was the type of person who did what he had to do to make ends meet so he said no at first. But Alison was persistent and although many people said that she was crazy, she knew that that the food would speak for itself. Eventually her father agreed to open up a small restaurant with her. For the first year, they worked out of their shop on 3rd avenue where they sold “simple, good food”. It wasn’t easy but they were making enough to pay the bills and their employees and keep the business running.

However, Alison’s dream was to do catering. She knew food and understood that the key to good food is fresh ingredients but she knew nothing about the business side of it, so she started to educate herself. Slowly she began improving every aspect of the business: creating new recipes, developing food presentation and making their operations more efficient. She even became their first sales person, walking through buildings around the city, offering free samples of their food and asking if she could stop by another day with a tasting for their office. A lot of people who said yes and had the tasting started to order and she quickly built up a client list. Within 5-6 years they were doing so much catering that they had outgrown their store front. They decided to sell the store and focus solely on catering. They purchased a kitchen and two additional floors in the 41st street building that the business still resides in today and have expanded from there.

Group Shot 2

Alison attributes the business’s success to the people that work with her and says that she got very lucky with all of the good people around her. One of her chefs has been with her since day 1 at their original storefront on 3rd avenue and her children, Nina and David, joined the business in 2008 and 2011, respectively. Although David grew up working for the business during school breaks throughout middle school and high school, for both of the kids there was no expectation that they join the company. In fact, both were working in their own fields before their mother approached them to join the team. She saw skills in both of them that she though would be good for the business so she asked them to work there for 1 year and then leaved if they weren’t happy. Both have stayed and will be the third generation to run the business. 

Aside from her staff and her own children, since starting her business Alison’s family has expanded even farther, to include her clients. She has some clients that have been with her since her original tasting days and she’s seen them get married, have kids, have grand kids and has built a personal relationship with each of them. These people have stuck by her because she knows that the relationship with her clients is the most important part of the business and she goes out of her way to cultivate each and every one, even if it requires her to bend over backwards to do so. For Alison, it’s simple- whatever the client needs, they’re going to get, which is why it’s her job to always be “in the trenches” to make sure that every order a client receives looks and tastes right. She’s always in the kitchen with the chefs tasting food, checking on presentation, making sure deliveries are going out on time and then following up with clients to make sure that they’re happy. This is what she enjoys doing and takes pride in and she trains each of her staff to take pride in it as well. It’s her commitment to the client that has been instilled in every employee at Food Trends so that their service and dedication always stands out, creating a system of trust and loyalty that few caterers have.

Overall Alison says she’s very happy with her work day to day and takes pride in being an established, woman-owned business. She wants to see other women and girls succeed and believes that this country gives you the opportunity to be whatever you want if you’re willing to work for it. Even now, Alison is constantly coming up with new ways to generate business, creating new dishes and hiring new people to learn from. She says she never rests on her laurels because that’s when things go downhill. It’s important to always be looking for ways to improve and there’s always a chance to. The most important thing is to never doubt yourself. As Alison says, “If I can do it, anybody can do it. You just need to want it so much that you won’t stop”.

 

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Zeeshan Ali, Co-Owner of Salad Pangea

This is Zeeshan Ali, the co-owner of Salad Pangea. He’s been in the food industry for most of his life but only recently purchased his first food business with his brother, Shadman Saeed. He grew up working in his father’s restaurant, Kabab King, which his father opened after emigrating from Pakistan in 1993 and realizing that there was a huge Pakistani/Indian community in New York that wanted halal food but had nowhere to buy it. Although Zeeshan worked in the industry for years, he was never set on making it a career until he got the chance to purchase Salad Pangea. Now, although he’s young (just 23 years old), this eager entrepreneur is committed to doing everything possible to make sure that his business is a success and that he can use his expertise to improve previous standards and redefine halal food service.

Zeeshan began working at his father’s restaurant when he was 13 years old. Throughout the years he worked heavily in their catering business, helping to execute catering orders for groups of 75-1,000 people and dealing with every aspect of logistics and operations from outreach to food prep to delivery. He worked for his father until he was 20 years old and then decided to branch out on his own and pursue other interests. He tried going down a few different paths: a food distribution business, medical school, but nothing seemed to be a good fit and it was important to him that he enjoyed the work that he was doing. Then one day he received an offer to take over a family friend’s catering business, Salad Pangea. The owner had decided to leave the restaurant industry and approached Zeeshan and his brother because he believed that they had the skills to take the business to the next level. Zeeshan says that it wasn’t a hard decision because this gave him the opportunity to work at something that he already had experience in and that he had a passion for. He and his brother purchased the business and have been running it for the last 8 months.

Growing up working for his father has allowed Zeeshan to watch how the restaurant industry works from a young age, understand it and improve it for his own business. Once they took over Salad Pangea, he and Shadman immediately began looking over business costs and cutting out any unnecessary expenses to make it more efficient. They have a small team of employees, including themselves, that work out of a food incubator, Pilotworks, in Brooklyn. They rent kitchen space for a few hours each day to prepare the food and do their deliveries so they’re able to keep their price point low, compared to other vendors like Chop’t and Just Salad that are larger operations with retail locations. Because they focus solely on catering, they’re able to go into different fields and expand, which is exactly what Zeeshan plans to do. He’s starting culinary school at the Institute of Culinary Education at the end of October and is hoping to bring what he learns there into practice at Salad Pangea and eventually evolve the business into a full scale catering company that provides halal food from all different cuisines around the world. Taking over Salad Pangea has allowed him to realize that there are so many other ways to provide customers with food and that there are so many more communities that he can introduce halal food service to.

Through his work in the food industry, Zeeshan believes that most restaurants, like his father’s, were created to fill a need. But he has a different way of looking at things. He believes that this generation of consumers is interested in trying something new, specifically in the halal community, and he wants to be the solution for them. He wants to change the perception of halal food, creating a need for a cuisine that he doesn’t believe exists yet: high-end halal dining. And he’s focused on making it a reality.  But he knows that this evolution will take time, which is why culinary school is an important step for him to be able to more deeply understand food, expand his ideas and recipes and eventually teach them to others. Although going to culinary school and running a business at the same time will not be easy, he’s focused on making it work saying, “In order for me to understand this industry, I need to have those skills. If I can’t do it, how am I going to explain it to anybody else?” As is it, he says he only sleeps about 3 or 4 hours a night but he enjoys having a lot on his plate and thinks that free time is a waste. His experience in the restaurant industry has taught him to work hard and he’s ready to hustle as much as he needs to bring his musings to life.

Zeeshan says that since taking over Salad Pangea his mind has shifted on how he should be doing business and he’s taking the necessary steps to create a new concept in halal food service focused on differentiation, quality and customer service. He knows that it will be tough, since older generations of halal restaurant owners focus on providing the food that they know, but he’s up to the challenge. For Zeeshan, the best part of the job is being able to execute a business plan as you see fit and change the plan if needed. And he’s happy to do that as he continues on this journey, as long as he’s doing it his way.

 

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0 comments on “Xiu Chen: Owner of Rice K”

Xiu Chen: Owner of Rice K

This is Xiu Chen, the owner of Rice K, an Asian fusion restaurant that offers Chinese-American cuisine, Japanese cuisine and Thai cuisine that caters to the varied clientele that they serve in Astoria. Xiu’s family has owned a restaurant in the neighborhood for over 22 years. Her father began learning how to cook after emigrating from China with Xiu and her mother and became a chef in the Bronx, cooking Chinese-American food. As he honed his craft and started improving his cooking skills, he decided to start his own restaurant and thought Astoria was a nice neighborhood and a good place for him to build his business. 20 years later, Xiu is carrying on her father’s legacy by continuing the family business. She effortlessly blends their established reputation and authentic recipes with modern food trends, allowing the business to continue to grow, while also raising her daughter and running the business on her own.

Xiu grew up working in the restaurant business from a very young age. She used to stand on a box on the floor at her father’s restaurant so that she could work at the register, so she knows a lot of people in the area that have watched her grow up. Although she enjoyed working there, she says she never planned on taking over the business. She studied marketing in college and after meeting her husband, they moved to China for 6 years to see how they could get involved in China’s quickly growing economy. They ended up starting a construction business and began creating a home in China. However, Xiu’s father was getting older and she felt that it was time for him to retire. At the same time, her daughter, Audrey, was getting ready to start school and she wanted her to begin her education in the U.S. Therefore, it made sense to Xiu that she come back to the U.S., take over the restaurant and set up a home in New York as well. So 2 years ago, she returned to Astoria and took over the business.

Xiu and team from Rice K

Although she never saw herself taking the business over from her father, Xiu says she really does enjoy her job, mainly because of the staff that she works with and the customers that she gets to meet. She says hearing people’s stories and getting to know each person in the neighborhood that comes in is the most rewarding part of the business. These are the people that keep her going, especially when the business gets tough. Xiu’s husband still lives in China and handles their construction business so she runs the restaurant on her own, which she admits gets difficult when you have to be responsible for everything from staffing to food prep to accounting. Most days she’s at the restaurant from 11AM to 11PM or later so it’s hard to balance her time at work and her time with her daughter but she does her best to make sure neither one feels like they aren’t her top priority. Her daughter (now in 1st grade) will come to the restaurant after school a few days a week and Xiu does homework with her and goes through her lessons before Xiu’s parents take over. Luckily they are able to watch Audrey while Xiu works, since her father is now retired, and although they have a good system, Xiu says it’s not something she necessarily wants to pass onto her daughter. “It depends in the future if she likes cooking and if she likes the restaurant business because it’s so much to encompass” but if it’s something she chooses, Xiu will support her. In the mean time, she tries not to put any expectation on her daughter because she knows how hard the business can be. When she took over the business, she knew it would be tough and it was a hard decision for her to make, but now that she has taken it over, she isn’t looking back. As she says, “you only look forward”.

Xiu’s focus now is figuring out her plan for the future and what she needs to do to keep the business growing. She’s very aware that she’s responsible for the business’s success and how that impacts herself, her family and her staff. Which is why she’s made updates to keep the business relevant with the younger generations that have been moving into Astoria in recent years. She’s made changes to the restaurant, remodeling the layout and adding a kid’s menu and most recently, adding karaoke on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. She notes that they’re “probably one of the only restaurants that does that” with a laugh, but unique additions to the business are what have helped her bring in new customers and differentiate themselves from the numerous other restaurants that surround them. However, when adding in these changes, Xiu has been sure to keep the core of the restaurant the same: a family run business that cares about its community. Xiu and her staff take the business very personally, greeting people by name if they can and making sure that each customer feels welcomed and taken care of. It’s these simple gestures and the genuine care that she puts into the business that has allowed Rice K’s legacy to live on.

 

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0 comments on “Ashley Jaffe and Zach Israel: Co-Founders of Blank Slate Coffee + Kitchen and Blank Slate Tea”

Ashley Jaffe and Zach Israel: Co-Founders of Blank Slate Coffee + Kitchen and Blank Slate Tea

This is Ashley Jaffe and her husband, Zach Israel, the co-founders of Blank Slate Coffee + Kitchen and Blank Slate Tea. Ashley and Zach opened Blank Slate Coffee + Kitchen in November 2015 and took painstaking efforts in the layout, design and menu creation to make the café feel like an extension of the customer’s home or office. They wanted Blank Slate to be a place where guests could come to work, meet friends, relax; be the go-to spot for anything and everything. Hence the name, Blank Slate- a place for growth, creativity and unlimited possibilities, which is truly what this café has created for Ashley and her husband.

Unlike most restaurant owners, Ashley didn’t grow up in the food industry and she doesn’t have a culinary background. Ashley worked in Public Relations for 10 years, specifically covering celebrities and entertainment, but fell in love with food and beverage after landing on The Food Network account at her firm. She started doing food and beverage PR, covering restaurants, spirits and soft drinks, and met her husband, Zach, who had an extensive background in the hospitality industry. Both had a love for food and beverage and, at the time, saw a huge gap in the market for a café where you could get an awesome meal and a killer cup of coffee at the same place. After dreaming up this vision for an all-day café concept, where people could “just come in and hang” (a la Central Perk in Friends), Ashley decided to quit her job, become business partners with Zach and open Blank Slate.

Although Ashley says she had no idea how to run a restaurant when they started, she is now the key decision maker for the business and runs the day to day operations. She admits that she has run into one or two issues being a female business owner (mainly men asking her if she needs to consult with her husband before making a decision related to the business, which she laughs off as “silly”) but overall she has been extremely lucky with the support she has received, especially from other women, some of whom own their own business or come in specifically because it is a female-run business. For Ashley, it’s the relationships that she’s cultivated that have made the business so rewarding for her and that have also made the business so successful.

Blank Slate Group Photo

Ashley takes her time training each and every employee, personally sitting down with each person to explain how and why the business got started and allowing them to understand each part of the business and how it works. For her, it’s very important to take time with the onboarding process and “set each person up for success”. The personal touch is what makes her a unique and valued business owner- five of her staff members have been with her since day 1. Which is impressive in an industry with such high turnover. The solid relationships with her dedicated staff and regular customers allowed her to open Blank Slate Tea this past April, a passion project for her as an avid tea drinker. Ashley designed the space to be fun and girly and Instagram-friendly (which is where she says a huge chunk of her business comes from) as well as an event space, where they can host private events such as baby showers and bridal showers, without having to close down the café, which is just two doors down from the tea shop.

Being husband and wife as well as co-business owners is difficult for some people but Ashley says that she and Zach have varying strengths, which is actually an asset for the business. Zach is the “down and dirty operations guy” that can solve a problem without hesitation while her PR/Marketing/social media skills, attention to detail and charisma have allowed her to create a mission-driven business with its own unique personality. Coming from an extensive food and beverage background, Zach is also a great support system for her, since he’s more comfortable dealing with the ups and downs of the industry. He keeps her calm, even during insane periods of stress and anxiety, reminding her to trust the system she’s put in place and to just keep chugging along. In a business that relies on relationships with customers and staff that they seem to have mastered, it’s also the relationship between Ashley and Zach that makes Blank Slate a refreshing dining experience that fits every taste.

 

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0 comments on “Tom Birchard: Owner of Veselka”

Tom Birchard: Owner of Veselka

This is Tom Birchard, the owner of Veselka, and the son-in-law of Wolodymr Darmochwal, the original owner who founded the East Village landmark in 1954. Although their menu is now full of rich, authentic Ukrainian and Polish dishes, when the store was first purchased by Wolodymr, it operated as a candy store/newsstand with a small lunch counter and a limited menu of soup and sandwiches. It wasn’t until Wolodymr asked a few women from the neighborhood to come to the store at night and cook him some simple, homemade Ukrainian dishes that the newsstand began to evolve into a restaurant. These dishes were supposed to be for Wolodymr to eat as he worked but he began sharing them with customers and then, when he noticed how much they loved them, he began selling them. And the menu that Veselka is known for today was born.

Wolodymr always had an entrepreneurial spirit and an interest in the food industry. He was a middle manager at an agricultural co-op in Ukraine before World War II started and he and his wife were forced to flee to a displaced persons camp in Germany. After the war ended, they were re-settled in New York and moved to the East Village because it was a predominantly Ukrainian neighborhood. A lot of people from Ukraine and Poland had settled there after World War I and had established banks, churches, coffee shops, etc., creating a community reminiscent of the homes that they had lost. Both Wolodymr and his wife started working menial jobs when they arrived in New York but in this new home he saw an opportunity to become an entrepreneur. He had always wanted to own his own business and had management experience in food, so when he saw the small shop on 2nd Avenue for sale, he took the little money he had saved and bought it.

Tom was introduced to Wolodymr, Veselka and the East Village in 1966 by Wolodymr’s daughter, Marta, who he had met at a frat party at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and would later marry. Although he didn’t know anything about the East Village or Ukrainian food, he immediately fell in love with the neighborhood’s energy and diverse people as well as the ethnic food that was an intrinsic part of his new family. Tom began working for Wolodymr and saw the potential to turn Veselka into a larger operation. They purchased one of the adjoining storefronts on East 9th Street and made it into a dining room, working together closely before Wolodymr’s sudden passing in 1975. After his death, Tom took over the business and ran it as a diner/luncheonette until they were able to do a major expansion in 1996 and turned Veselka into the East Village institution it is today.

As Veselka has expanded over the years, Tom has made sure that they keep the traditional feel of the restaurant, keeping the original tin ceiling and wood paneling, so that customers don’t feel like the character of the establishment has been lost. For him, it’s been the most challenging part of the business but he understands the importance of balancing the old and the new, because so many customers can trace some part of their heritage back to Eastern Europe and have a strong emotional connection to Veselka and the style of food that they serve. Which is why it’s also important to him to be respectful to the original recipes that he says get more and more popular each year. The homemade, traditional Ukrainian and Polish dishes that his father-in-law started off serving (beef stroganoff, borscht, stuffed cabbage, pierogis) are still the best selling items on the menu, all of which are made from scratch. They have a team of 4 full time Polish and Ukrainian grandmas making pierogis by hand 5 or 6 days a week, making 1,500-2,000 pierogis a day and 2,500-3,000 a day during the holiday season. According to Tom, one of the best compliments that they consistently get is “your food reminds me of what my grandmother used to make”.

Veselka has become a refuge for many, for its inclusive atmosphere and for it’s simple, honest, filling, good food that they work very, very hard to create. And that is the charm of Veselka- it blends generations of people together, capturing the essence of Eastern Europe in a modern setting: the heart of New York City. It was founded to be a piece of home for a displaced, immigrant community and continues to be one today for customers that are looking for a connection to their ancestors. Even more so, it has become a melting pot, serving customers from all walks of life and employing an incredibly diverse staff of Ukrainian, Polish, Bangladeshi, American, Tibetan, Latin, Mexican and Ecuadorian men and women. With over 100 people working there around the clock (Veselka is open 24/7), it has become a big family, where, regardless of where you come from or what language you speak, everyone gets along, becomes friends and feels at home. 

 

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0 comments on “Adam Wile: Co-Founder and Director of Operations at Distilled NY”

Adam Wile: Co-Founder and Director of Operations at Distilled NY

This is Adam Wile, one of the co-founders of Distilled NY and the Director of Operations at the Tribeca restaurant. Distilled NY was the brainchild of CEO, Nick Iovacchini, and his cousin, Shane Lyons, who had spent years in the food industry and were ready to take a leap of faith and start their own restaurant. They wanted to “redefine the public house”, make every guest’s visit as enjoyable as possible and to create a place where you would feel surrounded by friends as soon as you walked in. So that’s exactly what they did. They reached out to friends who they knew had worked at other people’s restaurants and had an idea of how they could do it better, which is how Adam got involved.

Adam started his food career cooking meals for himself as he was growing up but really found his love for it in college when he realized that he liked to feed his friends and see their reactions to the food that he made. After college, he was planning to go to law school but still had the idea of being a chef in his head. So, prompted by his father to make sure that he knew what he was getting himself into and that was confident in his choice, he spent the summer working in a kitchen. Although he knew nothing, got yelled at constantly and ruined a lot of dishes, he absolutely loved it and decided to pursue his dream. It was while he was working as a cook at Momofuku Noodle Bar that he met Shane Lyons and Noah Millrod, one of the other original founders, and they all became friends. So when Shane and Nick came up with the idea for Distilled NY in 2012, both Noah and Adam came on board.

The group of friends immediately started raising capital and doing tastings to raise awareness about the business (they even did a pop up for Bravo TV, Top Chef Kitchen) but then Hurricane Sandy struck NYC and things got tough. They were flooded twice during the hurricane, the first time with 4 1/2 feet of water and 2 feet of water the second, causing them to have to move all of their kitchen equipment into their dining room and cutting a huge chunk out of their restaurant space. Rather than give up on the restaurant, they problem-solved and for the next few months during the holiday season, they operated as an event space to keep the business going and make sure that the lights stayed on. And it worked. 

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In June 2013 they officially opened their restaurant and they focused on differentiating themselves by creating a menu that was the best version of the items that their customers were familiar with: burgers, wings, steak, even popcorn. They concentrated on making a dish different from what you might be used to eating but just as delicious and enjoyable. And they’ve succeeded the past 5 years by learning to listen to customers about what works and what doesn’t and by recognizing when it’s time to reinvent their menu.

As Adam says they “gave it the old college try”, because none of them had opened their own place before Distilled NY. But this group of friends has created a space that’s exactly like what they envisioned: a comfortable place where you’re among friends; where you feel like you can just hang out and escape what’s going on in the outside world with some drinks, some laughs and some amazing food. And it’s not only due to their menu and their welcoming staff, it’s also due to the kitchen move that almost made them close their doors. The open kitchen and the general open layout of the restaurant makes it feel like you’re at a friend’s house and they’re throwing a dinner party where you can watch them cook from your seat. It’s a unique and memorable dining experience that has made Distilled NY a staple in their community and has also allowed a group of friends to accomplish what they set out to do: make people happy for a living.

 

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Alma Selmanaj: Owner of To Spiti

This is Alma Selmanaj, the owner of To Spiti, a restaurant that she opened with her husband in 2015 after emigrating from Greece to the United States. Alma grew up in the food industry, working in her family’s restaurant in Greece for most of her life. So it was only natural for her that after arriving in the U.S. she began working in a restaurant before deciding to open her own Greek restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, using the recipes that were passed down through both her and her husband’s families.

The business is family run. Alma and her husband are the only two full-time employees so their days are long. As Alma says, they work “two days in one”. They wake up at 5AM every day to begin cooking the food for that day’s catering orders, do deliveries until 12 or 1PM, rest for a few hours and then return to the store at 5PM to get ready for their dinner rush. From 7PM until 12:30AM they are constantly serving customers on their way home from work or on their way out to the bars nearby. Once the last customer is served, they clean up for 30-45 minutes and then drive 30 minutes to their home, usually getting home around 1/1:30AM.

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The most challenging part of running her own business is being responsible for every part of the business. She is the cook, the delivery person, the social media manager, the accountant.. the list goes on and on. She deals with so many different things on a daily basis that she says a lot of the time she forgets to eat, because she’s busy running from one delivery to another or back to the store to start prepping for that evening. Another tough part of being a restaurant owner? “You cannot sleep”. With so many different areas of the business to be in charge of, Alma says she doesn’t sleep more than 4 or 5 hours a night, even on a rare day that they close the store for a day off.

However, as much as being a restaurant owner is a “tired job” (as she says), she likes it too much to stop. She has always liked to work and is used to the fast pace of the food industry. And for Alma and her husband, all of their hard work pays off when a customer tells them how delicious the food is or how great the catering presentation looks. When that happens, she says, it erases how tired she is, because she loves making customers happy.

When asked if she would ever considering closing the storefront to focus on catering and give herself a break from the long days she works, Alma simply replied, “No, no, it’s my job, there is no other job. This is me.”

 

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