A New York restaurateur weighs options for his cheese-focused wine bar.
“I've definitely been up, down, and all around,“ says Brian Keyser, describing the last 10 weeks
His restaurant, the massively popular Casellula in Hell’s Kitchen, celebrated its 13th anniversary on May 11, but he couldn’t throw a party – it had already been closed for almost 2 months. “Thirteen years is a long time,” he says. “When Casellula opened up on W52nd St in May 2007, there wasn't much in the way of good food and wine in the area. We've grown with the neighborhood and we've got great regulars, some of whom have been coming in since the beginning. There's a couple who were in Casellula the night we opened and they were in Casellula the night we closed, on March 14. I miss seeing all those people. I've got a great staff. There's not a single one of them that I wouldn't want to rehire.“
That couple – Marvin Adler and Barbara Soo Hoo – have lived in Hell’s Kitchen for 30 years, through power blackouts, 9/11, and Sandy. Marvin describes the current crisis as “the toughest one.”
“We were watching Brian build the place,” he says. “We just walked by when they were opening for friends and family. So we said ‘Hey, can we come in?’”
They were made welcome from the start. And, as things were closing down in March, they figured: “This is probably the last night the city will be open. We decided to go to what Barbara calls our second home. We always go there to relax and feel that we’re among friends, almost like a Cheers-type place. It’s got that great, homey, comfortable feeling, as well as wonderful cheeses and wine.”
Brian had no idea that, when he furloughed his staff, two months later, he'd be facing the heartbreaking decision to close his beloved restaurant – his baby – for good.
“I was like, ‘See you in a few weeks guys,’” he recalls. “Like most Americans, I didn’t realize how bad it could get. But I was wrong.
“Right now, the smart financial decision for me is the one that’s bad for my community. Take the PPP money, pay off my landlord, and peace out. Jobs lost, tax dollars lost, New York lost.”
Landing in Hell’s Kitchen was a “happy accident” for Brian: “I was born in California, but I believe that I was always a New Yorker. New Yorkers are born all over the world – we just need to get home. So this is my home.
“And when I first came up with the idea of opening a cheese bar, there were three neighborhoods that I thought we could do well in. They were the Lower East Side, Williamsburg, and Hell's Kitchen. We found this little space that was being used as storage for halaal carts, measured it, and figured that we could get nine tables in there.”
A theater geek as a kid, he stopped performing after high school, but still loves the stage. And now he has theater on the doorstep (and in his restaurant). On a slow night, he can say: “Hey, you guys don't need me,” and at 7.45pm walk over to TKTS to grab a ticket and see a Broadway show.
Broadway has been the lifeblood of his trade from the beginning. He says: “In the first weeks, Spring Awakening had just opened. The musical director, Kimberly Grigsby, walked by, saw us, came in, and loved it. She started bringing all the other people from her show in. I remember a bunch of the cast of Spring Awakening celebrated their 21st birthdays at the restaurant. Then Kimberly went on to do Grease. So then all the Grease folks started coming in. There would be nights when it was the Pink Ladies at one table and the Spring Awakening kids at another table.
“Kim's probably the reason we survived our first year. She recruited half of our customers.”
Like many Hell’s Kitchen restaurants and bars, the staff are often actors who are in between shows on Broadway. “When Shrek was open, the cast would come in a lot, and one of the actresses, Haven Burton, said, ‘Oh my God, I love this place so much. I love the cheese here. If you ever need to hire somebody and I'm not working, I would love to work here.’ I don't think she really meant it. I think it was just a fun thing to say... And then one of my fromagers, Liv Rooth, gave notice because she got cast in a play.
“So I went to the theater where Shrek was and left a note at the stage door for Haven saying, ‘If you're serious about coming to work for me, I have an opening.’”
Shrek on Broadway wrapped and Haven was all set to do the tour, but there was a three-month break in between, which was the exact three months that Liv was away, so Haven filled in.
Since closing Casellula, Brian has been “busier than when the restaurant was open.” He’s filling his time working with groups like New York City Hospitality Alliance and ROAR (Relief Opportunities for All Restaurants) – as well as being President of the American Cheese Education Foundation. This month is American Cheese Month - and he’s active in that.
But he has some tough decisions to make. Even before the pandemic struck, he says: “It's not like I was getting rich when we were open. We did really well for the first eight years but, the more restaurants that opened in the neighborhood, the less business we did. We were still mostly full, but people used to wait an hour and a half standing in our crowded bar, drinking wine, waiting for a table. In the last few years, people don't wait. We say, ‘10 minutes,’ they walk across the street. It was already a business that was just making it. And that's true of almost every restaurant in New York.”
He adds: “If the only reasons for reopening are sentimental, maybe I can't afford to open it again. I know there are people who are going to reopen their restaurants just because that's what they do. That's their identity and that's their life. And I get that. I just have to question, ‘Is this my identity or should I be moving to a next chapter with a different identity?’”
ROAR is leading the charge on gaining relief for New York restaurants. It estimates that 865,800 people are employed by the industry, more than any other line of work in New York.
Its starkest observation, and the one that Brian is tussling with, is this: “Our industry is dark now, and the question we are all facing is: not when to reopen but why reopen?”
It is lobbying New York State in Albany, while NYC Hospitality Alliance is campaigning the cause in the city, but the clock ticks, the rent clicks up, and decisions loom.
Brian doesn’t believe restaurants will be allowed to have full capacity until there's a vaccine. He says: “Casellula is so tiny that you couldn't put six feet between customers. We’d end up with only two tables, and there's certainly no way that our staff could work six feet apart from each other. So I really don't think we're going to open for customers until the vaccine happens or we have herd immunity.”
He stresses that he doesn’t have an issue with his landlord. “My landlord has been great. What most restaurants are doing is asking the landlord to switch from a fixed rent to a percent of sales rent. We all know that our sales are going to be dramatically lower. I don't know a single restaurant in New York City that could pay their current rent doing half the business.”
His choices: “This week, I am running the numbers on my three options. One: stay where I am. Two: leave the physical restaurant, but try to do delivery. Or three: just leave entirely.”
Option three seems the most logical, but heart wrenching: “City Hall just passed a law that says ‘good guy guaranties’ are not enforceable through September. So theoretically, if I'm caught up on my rent, I can just hand over the keys and walk away, which breaks my heart. But it might be the best business decision.
“It's a lot,” he says. “This is my baby. This is what I built. I don't have kids. This is my family.”
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