Beechers, Via Tribunali test the waters in NYC
Cheese floor at Beecher's Cheese in New York
"A brand new start of it in old New York" was lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green's promise in the 1944 musical On The Town.
The lure of the Big Apple, the city that never sleeps. The notion that "making it" is up to New York itself. Well, so be it.
Starbucks has been in Manhattan since 1974 with a long-term love-hate relationship with its customers just like on its home turf. Nordstrom's has two dozen outposts in the New York suburbs, and there's a Rack outlet near Union Square. Amazon, of course, doesn't need bricks and mortar.
But what about some newcomers? Here's a look at four popular Seattle restaurants and their luck beating Seattle's "little town blues": Beecher's, Via Tribunali, Fonté Café and Wild Ginger.
The most successful of the recent emigrés has been cheese entrepreneur Kurt Beecher Dammeier. And what a handsome building he found, at Broadway and E. 20th, in New York's famous Flatiron District, when he expanded his Beecher's Handmade Cheese operation from Seattle to the Big Apple a bit over a year ago. It's on the same street as Gramercy Tavern, three blocks from Eataly, two blocks from James Beard's "Restaurant of the Year" ABC Kitchen. "We didn't realize that the Flatiron District was going to be such a big part of the foodification of Manhattan," Dammeier told me earlier this month, "but we're loving it."
The New York Beecher's has 8,500 square feet of space, more than double the footprint of the store at Seattle's Pike Place Market. There's room for Beecher's signature cheese-making "factory," along with a cheese counter and a cafe. There's additional seating on the mezzanine, and a cheese cellar and cocktail bar in the basement.
"We get a lot of business from foodie tourists who've heard about Beecher's because of the national awards we've won," Dammeier said, "and we're a touchstone for Seattle visitors."
In June, 2011, Beecher's opened to good reviews and "got even better," Dammeier said. "But I didn't realize how really slow things are in Manhattan in summer, especially on weekends. I'd thought of New York as this beehive with 7 million people, but in fact it's a whole bunch of neighborhoods, even more insular than Seattle."
Via Tribunali has had a harder row to hoe. Mike McConnell, who started with Caffè Vita in 1995 and expanded to a chain of pizzerias in 2004, found a storefront on Ludlow Street a couple of seasons back. “New York seemed like an obvious next move, and the neighborhood fits our audience perfectly,” he told a New York reporter. His fiancée and business partner, Elizabeth Weber, said that the lower East Side reminded her of Seattle's Capitol Hill. “We’ve very much found a sense of home here,” she said.
Via Tribunali in New York features the same sort of handmade ovens as the Seattle stores — fashioned by hand from Vesuvius bricks, which crank up to a blazing 1,000 degrees and can flash-bake pizzas in under a minute. There's room for 40 diners on site plus take-out and, coming soon, neighborhood delivery. There's also a Caffè Vita outpost next door. Early reviews were mixed, with Yelpers, especially, complaining about the sauces. "Don't go out of your way for this," was one comment on Eater.com.
The Tribunali organization has matured since its early days, with a new Seattle-based operations manager, Deborah Hermansen, taking charge of the four Seattle pizzerias and the new ones in Portland and Manhattan. McConnell himself spends every other week in the Big Apple, according to New York GM, Mario Franck (who worked at How to Cook a Wolf and Osteria La Spiga in Seattle). "Now that the slow season, summer, is over, we look forward to being busy again," he said.
Meanwhile, a 20-year-old Fonté Café & Bar is getting increasingly serious about expanding into the Big Apple. Paul Odom, whose family owned Seattle's Coca Cola franchise, was in his early 20s back in 1992 when he launched a coffee company named Fonté. The timing was perfect. Although Starbucks had been around for a while, the specialty coffee phenomenon had not yet taken wing. He hired a full-time Master Roaster, Steve Smith, and committed Fonté to serving a variety of exacting clients (top hotels, famous chefs and restaurants worldwide) with small-batch, custom-roasted coffee beans.
Along the way, Odom built a sales organization to serve his trade customers, then a website for retail orders. A couple of years ago he added an ambitious downtown café on the First Avenue side of the Four Seasons Hotel.
Odom has had a sales team in New York for the past four years. One additional assignment, he tells Eater, is to find a spot for a Fonté Café and Wine Bar in the Big Apple. He's not discouraged by the relative lack of success encountered by Via Tribunali on the Lower East Side. He won't comment, on the record, about what he believes Tribunali did wrong, but said, "We're going to do it right. There's so much more we can do."
You can imagine that a 2,000-square-foot space in New York would be pretty expensive, and that there's almost no way to make the rent pulling lattes, no matter how good. So what to do? Odom's already set a precedent in his First Avenue space: Add a wine bar and pay as close attention to your selection of wines as you would to single-origin coffees. Then add a garde-manger of cured meats and cheeses. Since there's not enough room for a full kitchen, keep the rest of the menu simple but of high quality.
"Nobody does a café like this," Odom said recently in his Seattle cafe, glass of Prosecco in hand to celebrate his company's 20th birthday. "But you can't pay the rent if all you serve is coffee." He's particularly thrilled with his specialized selection of charcuterie. "We needed to look at this space as more than just a coffee roaster."
The buzz about ambitious local restaurants setting up outposts in Manhattan doesn't faze Rick Yoder, owner of the 450-seat Wild Ginger in downtown Seattle and its 300-seat sibling at the Bravern in Bellevue.
"I do get calls almost every day," he confirmed last week, "inviting me to open in Orange County, Chicago, New York." So far, he's been telling them no. Not never-ever, he said, but no for now. In the meantime, night after night, he continues to work the floor, shyly offering guidance to cooks and servers, happy to see virtually every seat filled — even midweek.
Getting a toehold in another market could be tough. Wild Ginger's chefs crack their own coconuts, grind their own spices, blend their own sambal. It's a very labor-intensive kitchen, very dependent on the freshest ingredients. Yet the average check at Wild Ginger is under $40, only slightly more than the $30 tab in most Seattle restaurants (Canlis excepted, of course.)
It's doubtful that Yoder's eager out-of-state investors would let him get away with so little in Los Angeles or, God forbid, New York.
Another good reason to stay put.