How I Built a Barbecue Restaurant in Brooklyn: What Happens When a Restaurant Dies

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

There are many reasons why a restaurant can die. The building's structure is unsafe. The Department of Health closes you down. Storms damage your equipment, crippling your cash flow. The IRS comes after you because you're behind on sales taxes.

The most depressing reason is a rent hike after the lease expires. There's nothing sadder than a beloved restaurant that people love, that's survived all the slings and arrows of the hospitality industry, simply disappearing. Yet it happens all the time.

Over 85 restaurants shuttered in New York City last year. What happens after those doors close for the last time?

Circling Vultures

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On a cold Monday morning I was sitting at the counter of a diner. It was buzzing; Omelets, French toast, and eggs Benedict flew by. And as I sipped on my coffee, my eyes were darting all over, putting price tags on every fixture, every chair, every packet of ketchup.

I knew a secret through the grapevine that employees and customers didn't. Seven hours from now, this restaurant was going to die. And I was going to pick over the remains.

In my short life as an entrepreneur, this is the third restaurant closing I've pounced on like a hungry hyena, picking the bones clean. A restaurant "dying" is almost too literal to call a metaphor: You feel the absence of life as you walk through an empty room, with the heat shut off and the stink of old grease and rotting food.

Here's what happens. The restaurant closes. You talk to both the landlord and the restaurant owner and get permission to scavenge. There's so much stuff to get rid of when a restaurant closes that both the owner and landlord just want it out, and the former is willing to sell it at garage sale prices.

In a perverse way, it's a win-win. The owner gets some money out of it and the convenience of someone else hauling things away; the landlord gets an empty space for when demolition crews come in. Most scavengers do this to sell equipment off at auctions, but I was looking for things to bring back to my own place.

Like a mortician, I needed to work quickly. There's always a dispute with the landlord and the restaurant over when the keys need to be turned in and a new lock is placed on the door. It's always shorter than the restaurant owner thinks.

I target the mid-level utility items such as pans and blenders, knowing that the staff will take all the high-end stuff (anything that's not bolted down) the minute they realize their bosses have left them in the lurch during the hardest month of the year to find a job.

The first things to go are usually the mixers and electrical appliances. Then the metal tools and food-safe plastic tubs. Those tubs are really helpful for my catering business, as I go through a ton and they cost about $40 each. I saved $3,000 in containers alone by picking over the restaurant's bones.

So valuable are these containers that I had hundreds of pounds of food thrown in the garbage just to salvage them from the walk-in fridge. Food donations are extremely complicated in New York, so even though most of the fresh produce in that fridge would have been completely safe to feed to the needy, it can't be donated; only canned and dry goods are allowed.

But that doesn't mean I can't snag them. Cases of fresh butter, cheese, milk, carrots, and potatoes got packed deep into my truck like supermarket Jenga. A few items made their way into specials, like the tomatillos I smoked in the pit for some smoky salsa verde to serve with chicken. Much of the food went to staff meals, including a lovely case of avocados and a half dozen frozen lobsters, the latter of which I turned into some lobster ravioli.

Swimming With the Sharks

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Why couldn't a popular restaurant like this diner make it? You have to ask the sharks.

The hospitality industry is a rough one. Bureaucracies and bloggers are ready to gut you at every turn. But both are nothing compared to the real estate business—that's where the sharks swim.

This restaurant I was picking clean used to reside on the bottom of a Midtown Manhattan hotel, some of the most prized real estate in the country. They paid a bargain $8,000 a month for an indoor/outdoor space that was over 3,000 square feet. To give you some contrast, the Dunkin' Donuts two doors over, at half the size, is currently paying over $19,000 a month. So the restaurant's landlord wasn't too pleased about this rate, which was negotiated 15 years ago. They wanted the restaurant out.

First came an offer to buy out the lease from the restaurant. Once the restaurant dismissed that, the hotel's strategy changed: Starve 'em out. They cut off its room service business, then started renovations on the building during the summer (tourist season), obscuring the restaurant from public view. When that failed to drive the restaurant out, mysterious complaints to the Department of Health started coming on a weekly basis; the restaurant was shut down by the DOH no fewer than three times.

Finally, after months of struggles and eventually litigation, the owner, who was also recovering from two hip surgeries, caved. The hotel bought out the remainder of his lease.

New York restaurants have always had these underbellies. Some are fronts for organized crime, or labor refuges for illegal immigrants, or the last resort of employment for those struggling with addiction or legal compliance. I've always known this and I've seen plenty of shady stuff first hand, but this particular restaurant death was a completely different level of nasty. This wasn't a gentlemen's agreement exercise in pugilism; it was a no-holds-barred, if-you're-not-cheating-you're-not-trying, hit job.

New York City real estate is a frightening world.

The Human Cost

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When a restaurant closes, there are often a few people who cackle about it. You'll see blog comments like, "They took an hour and a half to deliver me my food, I'm so glad they're gone," or, "I asked if I can get my wings grilled instead of fried and they wouldn't do it, so I'm posting this so that everyone avoids this place and they shut down." I've seen some internet commenters gleefully look forward to my own restaurant closing.

I wish those people could see a restaurant closing in action. I want them to look into the eyes of staff members who've just realized their paycheck isn't coming when the rent is due. Before anyone posts any more comments about restaurant closings, watch a grown man break down in public as he recounts how 12 years ago he hung up the very pictures he now has to take off the walls.

On the public side of hospitality, we talk about gracious, photo-ready chefs giving their all to provide unforgettable experiences to guests. But the public doesn't see much of how deep that pride in one's work goes. Much of New York's restaurant workforce is new immigrants far from home, family, and friends. They don't have much, so they often take pride in the small stuff.

Talk to a superstar short order cook. He might make $9 an hour (without tips) and live with four other guys in abject squalor, but when he throws down a Saturday brunch he is a champion, cooking plate after plate of eggs with pride. Talk to the devoted porter who spends some of his paycheck on buying new air fresheners for the bathrooms because they smell better than what the owner buys.

That's the pride that caring employees have to swallow when their workplace collapses all around them.

I knew a month ahead of time that this restaurant was closing, and I implored the owner to clue his staff in; some of them had been there for over a decade. They needed time to find jobs, prepare their finances for the hurt that was going to come, and begin a steady breakdown of the shop. Sadly they didn't get that chance. The owner was afraid that if they knew, they'd abandon the shop before closing day.

Final Rites

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When I was 11, my parents bought a house. Our family of five had been living in a one-bedroom apartment in the immigrant-heavy section of Flushing, Queens. As a child you don't know enough to realize what poverty is. We were moving to a large three-family house where my siblings and I finally had rooms to ourselves, a giant yard to play in, and residential zoning for some of the best schools in New York, but it didn't make the move feel less sad.

That Flushing apartment was, after all, the only home I'd ever known. I stared at our then-empty apartment, the same four walls where I ate my meals, did my homework, and watched cartoons. I was going to miss the place and, by some childhood sentiment, believed it would miss me too. The people who work or eat in a restaurant for years feel the same way when a restaurant dies.

This bone-picking was the third time I've stood in the empty room of a dead restaurant. After my first I started doing final rites. Because in a few days, the shelving would get torn off the walls and demolition crews would storm in. Electric saws and sledgehammers would start turning sheetrock into dust.

Restaurants that die deserve proper goodbyes. I gave this one a short prayer as a final rite, then took my spoils and walked out.

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