How I Built a Barbecue Restaurant in Brooklyn: My 18-Hour Work Day

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

It was 5 p.m. on a Friday back in my old corporate job. On Friday evenings I loved walking from my office near Wall Street in lower Manhattan up to Penn Station in midtown, where I grabbed the Long Island Railroad home. All week I'd look forward to this two- to three-hour mind-clearing stroll. With it came the weekend and smoking ribs, frying chicken, and catching a mixed martial arts championship match on pay-per-view. Glorious.

Then the client called. A global investment bank found a glaring error in our database while on deadline to finish presentations by Monday evening. Of course the rest of my New York team has gone home for the day, all my interns are gone, and I can't access my crew in Budapest or Hong Kong. Fan-freakin'-tastic. Nice being the boss, right?

The only way to fix the error would be to manually open a file, click on a specific box, and change an "N" to a "Y." I ran a search to see how many boxes needed the fix: 6,267. So I began changing Ns to Ys. At my average rate of 100 boxes an hour, fixing the database would take up my entire weekend. At 1 a.m. I called it quits. By Saturday I was cursing loudly, and by Sunday at 9 p.m. (Monday 9 a.m. halfway around the world), the Hong Kong team was finally able to help. We fired an email off to the client that the project was done—at 2 a.m. Monday morning.

Shortly after sending that I email I came to the realization that my only contribution to this earth was sitting with a spreadsheet converting 6,267 Ns to Ys. I've had bad work days. Been deservedly fired with extreme prejudice. Been reamed out by clients. Taken a few more trips to the Human Resources office than I'd like. Life is about peaks and valleys, but if you just spent the entire weekend manually converting N to Y, somewhere along God's mission for your existence, you fucked up.

Now that I'm working on a restaurant, I can have great days and awful days. But even on my most awful days, I'm able to do something more than convert N to Y.

Not every day is busy. I spend a good number of days sitting around twiddling my thumbs, waiting for yet another of my no-show contractors to call me and say why they aren't coming. But if you've wondered what a day of restaurant-building looks like, here's a timeline.

6:30 a.m.: Since I'm running around most of the day and not in front of a desk, I basically need to bang out most of computer work now. That includes emails, catering quotes, press communications, and this series you're currently reading.

7:45: The refrigeration guy calls and tells me they want to start at 8 a.m. They told me yesterday they wanted to start at 10. So I need to rush to Bushwick to open the doors for them.

Doughnuts are a major part of my diet these days. Robyn Lee

8:00: I make my trek towards Bushwick from my home in Flushing, Queens. The highways are always packed, so I take the local route, driving past the rows of Korean signs in Flushing, cutting through the Soviet silos of Rego Park, heading past the graveyards of Middle Village, and grabbing a Polish doughnut in Ridgewood before hitting my little corner of industrial Brooklyn.

8:30: The metal shop across the street starts banging huge sheets of steel for all their duct orders. The plastic bag manufacturer next to me already has their conveyor belts running packing and stamping thousands of bags an hour. The massive auto parts warehouse across the street is a hive of activity with delivery drivers zipping in and out. I let the refrigeration guys in.

9:00: The electricians arrive, but the plumber is nowhere to be found (again). One doesn't schedule work with the plumber so much as pray and hope he decides to show. Nothing much I can do at this point other than water the plants.

9:30: The architect stops in to discuss the amendments to our construction plans and pick up checks for the myriad New York City departments aiming to milk us for money. The Department of Environmental Protection rejected my check because it was stained with barbecue sauce (long story).

10:00: It's time for the lightning round of phone calls! There's a conference call with my landlord's lawyer on the paperwork for tax abatement due to our infrastructure investment in an industrial zone. I call the plumber who never ever picks up. Then I call the metal fabricator about finishing my smokers and figuring out when they're bringing in my converted shipping containers. I chat with my pig distributor—I have a special working relationship with a farm in North Carolina, but we need to work out the logistics of getting delivery. Then time to contact the construction contractor to see what he needs for the evening shift. I check in with the liquor attorney on my application.

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

11:30: Make yet another run to my mistress Home Depot to pick up eight- and twelve-foot wood boards for the construction guy. We use a lot of wood as decor, so I actually need to pick out specific boards rather than grab a large stack. I almost pull my back out (again) lifting cement to my truck. Then I realize that Home Depot doesn't have the very specific construction mesh that the contractor needs, so I need to run to another construction supply shop to grab it.

1:00 p.m.: I meet with winemaker Allie Shaper and my bar manager at Brooklyn Oeonology to discuss putting some wine on tap at the Swine. (I wasn't too keen on having wine on the menu—who wants to drink wine with barbecue? But from our general survey, it turns out the answer is a lot.) I was worried that we couldn't offer much, so our list would be found wanting. But having Brooklyn Oeonology on board at least gives the list some character and lets customers get to know a local company.

We sampled their reds, rosés, and whites, along with some fantastic New York state whiskeys. The thinking goes that serving wine on tap, instead of from a bottle, means that we don't have to worry much about wine going bad—the gasses in our tap system should act like an invisible "cork," preventing oxidation. The reds, however, will probably need to served from bottles—they'd be too cold poured from the tap.

2:00: Back at the Swine! I leave yet another message for the plumber, then it's time to haul out the garbage. Construction produces a lot of trash: cut pieces of pipe, sheet rock, wires, cardboard boxes, leftover used cement, tile scraps, drink bottles, roofing material, etc. Normally you just pile all this somewhere and then eventually call for a dumpster to haul it all away. But with all the stuff piling up inside it's hard for the guys to finish their work, and when you have your own business, you're also your own garbage man.

My first trip is bringing metal to the scrap yard, which is nice because they actually give you money for your garbage: a whopping $28 for 350 pounds. The next round is less fun, as I haul the remaining trash to the transfer station. A transfer station is 20,000 square feet of rotting garbage, with a stench so thick you could chew it. You drive in, weigh your truck, dump your trash,and head back out $85 dollars poorer.

Another major part of my diet. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

3:00: Did I even eat today? Normally it's around 4 that I remember my day's nutrition came entirely from coffee, tobacco, and doughnuts. I stop off at the culinary cathedral McDonald's to grab some food. I catch some flack for eating so much fast food, but when you're busy and broke, the dollar menu is your best friend.

4:00: Seth Giurato, Brooklyn manager for SKI Beer, stops by with the rep from Hofbrau. SKI is the distributor of Founder's beer, which sponsored my event series last year. To me, Hofbrau is the iconic Munich beer, and I have a hard time picturing a proper beer hall without liter glasses filled with their products. We start talking about collaborations for fall events. I adore throwing large events. I rarely make any money on them, but the good will they generate is invaluable.

Unlike most other vendors, like point-of-sale systems and the logoed paper product guy, the beer/spirits reps are welcome faces. They usually have free products for us to taste, and it pays to be nice to your beer rep. In the craft beer world there are limited releases coveted by all, and you want those beers on your tap. I have 20 taps to fill so we have lots of room to be creative. Be nice to your beer rep and he'll be nice to you.

4:30: The plumber finally calls back. "My guy will be in tomorrow," he says, which is the same thing he's been saying for the past two weeks. "Make sure the equipment is there for him to install," he reminds me. The kitchen and bar equipment has been sitting in our site for the past week or so, waiting for the plumber. It's been getting in everyone's way.

5:00: My buddy Joe Ficalora, a curator for the Bushwick Collective, brings by well known street artist Mr. PRVT (pronounced "pervert") to check out my walls and see if there's anything he'd like to paint. (Bushwick is a graffiti mecca, and if you'd like, you can offer your walls up as canvases for artists to paint, which I've done with the Swine.) What could be more fun than spending the afternoon talking with a guy named Mr. Pervert?

Max Falkowitz

6:00: My neighbor Max Haot, CEO of the tech company Livestream, stops by to check in on my progress. His 70-member team is just dying for us to open so they have an easy place to drink after work. I'm dying to open for them. The construction guys come in. They like working the evenings because it's cooler. It seems like they need more wood than they estimated, so I make yet another run to Home Depot.

7:00: I head to my catering client's office to plan out their wedding. While I consider myself a barbecue guy, most people hire me for pig roasts. So I've been doing a decent deal of business in weddings. At weddings, I get to do a few items which will never make the menu of the Swine because they don't fit the genre. Classical French training doesn't really mean much in a barbecue joint, but it works wonders when dealing with weddings. Passed canapes of eggplant caviar, scallop brochettes, smoked salmon tartare. Sides like sourdough panzanella, vegetable gratin with onion jam and sherry vinegar. The non-pork main: pit-smoked cornish hen with orange-tarragon "vierge" sauce.

8:00: My friend, the Lower East Side legend Dr. Dave, holds a biker meet-and-greet at the Swine on a weekly basis. ("Hogs" and bikers seem to go hand in hand.) Our industrial area is deserted at night with lots of parking and privacy, a perfect hangout for motorcycle aficionados. It's also a great way for me to chat with some of my future clientele in a relaxed setting and hear what they'd love to see in a joint.

10:00: My construction guys are preparing to go home. We go over what else needs to be done and what supplies they're gonna need tomorrow and I lock up the shop.

10:30: Chinese take-out for dinner. My voice has become so familiar to the take-out lady that the minute I call, she's already screaming my order to the back. I need some diversity in my life.

11:30: Back to the computer to respond to any emails I received during the day. I actually get emails from all over asking me for whole-hog-cooking advice. Emails from Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, even Canada and Germany. I respond to some press inquiries—not only about my opening, but also about the New York City barbecue landscape. I feel awful that we're not open yet, that we missed the projected summer opening date I promised to many a journalist. But I'm sure they're used to seeing delayed openings by now.

12:15 a.m.: Dr. Dave, a fellow cigar fan, gave me a Padron, a refined and elegant smoke. Without a steady income, I don't get to enjoy these luxuries often. There's magic to lighting a cigar; the leap of the flame and the toasted smell of tobacco have a way of distinguishing life from living. So I sit there puffing away and make a list of what to do tomorrow while chatting with my cat.

It's been a busy day. There's the usual frustration with the plumber. I'm hoping the electrician finishes another section tomorrow. I'm still paranoid about the wood-burning issue with the Department of Buildings that my architect's trying to resolve. We have very little income coming in and we're already paying rent on the space. Two staffers haven't confirmed yet for this Saturday's catering. Summer is basically over, and things are not going the way I'd like them go.

But at least I'm not changing 6,267 Ns to Ys.