More tales from the restaurant industry
The Arrogant Swine, my barbecue restaurant to be, needed a home. I had finished my Hog Days of Summer events, a series of pop-ups where I cooked up whole hogs Carolina-style and got feedback from guests. I had turned in my two weeks' notice at work. It was time to find a retail space.
I gave myself until the end of the year to find a location. Three whole months! How difficult could it be?
I didn't have many criteria. The space had to be large so my barbecue restaurant could double as a "beer hall." I wanted to open in Astoria or Sunnyside, Queens, or Greenpoint, Brooklyn, residential neighborhoods where I spent the summer throwing events. I didn't really care how the place looked—after all, my events were set up in constructions zones and a landscaping warehouse. Just having a roof would be a major step up. Piece of cake.
Target rent: $7,000 a month.
Here are some highlights from my lease safari.
The Pizzeria Ghost Town
I'd been eyeballing this listing since the middle of the summer. It was a shuttered pizzeria with low rent and a kitchen included so I wouldn't have to build one. All I'd need to do was hang a North Carolina flag on the wall and tell everyone we're open.
Wiser folks than I have always said that you should scope out your location for a few days to get a feel for the flow of the 'hood. So I parked myself in front of the pizzeria with a long cigar and waited and watched the evening crowd unfold. I haven't seen a tumbleweed since my college days in west Texas, but if there was an appropriate time for one to roll past me, it would have been during my time camping out in Sunnyside. I asked the store owner next door about the location, and he explained that new restaurants kept taking it over and flopping. In fact he heard a rumor about some poor fool thinking of opening a barbecue joint in this spot...
Mosques Are Indeed Churches
I got a call from a real estate agent. "I got the perfect spot! You need to head there right now, here's the address!"
Like the pizzeria, this spot had all the internal infrastructure I needed for a kitchen. Everyone tells you the same thing: get an already-existing restaurant so you don't have to deal with a build-out. That's sage advice, but it's also pretty useless. Think of it like buying a liquor store. Liquor stores are basically money mints. So if you see one available for sale, that means it couldn't hack it selling booze to alcoholics.
As I pulled up to the "perfect spot," I noticed that it was directly across the street from a mosque. I was planning to open a restaurant that specialized in serving whole-smoked pig. Here's how the phone call went.
Agent: So what do you think? Looks amazing no?
Me: Are you fucking serious? It's directly across the street from a MOSQUE! Take aside the fact that my cuisine is a big fat middle finger to their faith and they'd have to look at it every day. It violates the 200 foot rule—I can't serve beer within 200 feet of a place of worship.
Agent: I thought that only applied to churches.
Me: Just because there's no cross doesn't mean you're in the clear. So long as some people are praying to someone we're violating the 200 foot rule.
Agent: So mosques are churches?
This spot broke my heart. After doing events all summer in Greenpoint (where the food scene is exploding) and walking down every single street in the area, I'd felt for months that this would be the perfect place for my new home.
The spot was an old laundromat that had shuttered for 30 years. Unlike the other spaces I'd seen, this one felt like it could be transformed into a beer hall. The space was a straight line with light pouring through the front and back. There was a tiny backyard with an odd rusty ship's steering wheel. What a great story this is gonna be when I hang that on the wall!
I could envision the 20-foot mahogany bar I'd set up in the back. We would serve barbecue in the front. This was where I could realize my dream of a restaurant and beer hall all in one place. I could take breaks during the day and enjoy some time by the water. Where do I sign?
There were competing offers, so I offered $1,000 more per month than anyone else. I wanted this space. I needed this space. And thank god: my bid was accepted.
I was already making trips down to the Department of Buildings to handle paperwork to change the use of the property. I drove by the space everyday too look at her. I had so many plans. I had a home. But then: silence.
After a week I called the agent. "The landlord is out of town." Another week went by, but still no word from the landlord. By the first week of the following month I started freaking out. The landlord had concerns and made a whole mess of stipulations: I couldn't smoke meat in the back. No staying open past 11 p.m. No loud music.
I didn't care. I agreed to them all. Just give me the keys. Let me in.
The third week into the month I called the agent again, and this time I got the real story. The landlord wanted a tenant that didn't serve food, but no one was willing to pay as much as I was. He didn't want to say yes, but he didn't want to say no.
My dream spot didn't want me. And nothing else in Greenpoint was the right fit. The neighborhood I fell in love with had no room for me.
Welcome to Bushwick
After the Greenpoint incident I was in a bit of a funk. I answered every Craigslist ad. Called up every number on the side of buildings. I travelled up and down every part of Brooklyn to any and every possible neighborhood. I did six to seven site viewings per day. Things were looking pretty desperate for Uncle Ho. Months of insomnia and daily panic attacks followed. I hated my former day job as a corporate middle manager, but at least I had a defined place in the world. Here I was nothing more than a flake. A loser.
The agents just got shadier. I looked at a space in Fort Greene where my foot fell through the floor. I found the one eager East Williamsburg landlord dying to get me in as quickly as possible, only to discover the building had more violations than bricks. Most spots were just plain bland, no personality, with all the inspiration of a greasy fortune cookie.
Two weeks before Christmas, I called up a number by a building in East Williamsburg. The space had been rented, but they did have a place in an industrial sector of Bushwick that I should see. It wasn't really moving so they just dropped the asking rent by a thousand dollars. The space, a warehouse, was in rough shape, but with a funny quirk. The certificate of occupancy zoned it as a diner.
I arrived to find a mid-sized warehouse in a completely industrial neighborhood. The welcome sign was the word "HELLBENT" spray painted on the wall over some palm trees. That wall was covered in cracks. The roof was rotting and leaking. The soaring 16-foot ceiling snowed lead paint flakes over the floor like a toxic winter storm. Dunes of sawdust and piles of industrial cleaning supplies filled the massive space. Outside was a parking lot pocked with craters two feet deep.
There was no plumbing, no bathrooms, no heat, no gas. My neighbors were the Frito-Lay factory, two plastic bag manufacturers, and a stainless steel fabricator. In the frozen tundra of industrial Bushwick, not a soul walked the streets. The only sounds were the loud rumblings of 18 wheelers as rolled over the cracked asphalt.
But there was 3,000 square feet to work with—enough space to actually replicate the feel of a Carolina-style pig picking. And neighbors that closed up shop at 4 p.m. so I wouldn't bother anyone. I could smoke hogs when and where I wanted.
I called the broker back. She's perfect. How quickly can we get started?
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