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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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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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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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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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. 

Distilled Chef

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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