Photo: Deborah Fenker
It seems every day another restaurant closes in Chelsea, some perhaps deservedly but more frequently a casualty. New York eateries are susceptible to so many obstacles: strenuous heath code regulations, a staggering level of competition, vicissitudes of taste, economic shifts, and, not in the least, the untenable rent hikes. Landlords seem to rule the layout of commercial Manhattan.
It is the rare circumstance that a restaurant goes under on its own volition, such as it did recently with The Red Cat, an iconic, rustic new American known for its hyper-seasonality and celebration of local purveyors. Owner Jimmy Bradley, after nearly twenty years in the neighborhood, decided to close his beloved eatery to pursue new avenues. But thoughtful and responsible business owner that he is, he vowed to help his displaced employees find new occupations.
This is not the case with restaurants that close because “the rent is too damned high.” Rouge Tomate on 18th Street shuttered last month with much less fanfare (this time, at least), perhaps trying to slip away unnoticed, but left a trail of indebted purveyors and jobless staff. The savvy ones got out before the implosion, perhaps contributing to its demise. Some of those who remained have filed suit against the management for stealing tips, skimped overtime and shirked wages.
Andrew Cote, a local beekeeper who provided Rouge Tomate with their supply of honey, was left jilted with not only an immense outstanding bill (over $6,000) for the honey, but for the installation and maintenance costs of the hive they had him install on their roof. Despite myriad promises to reimburse him, they ultimately just stopped answering him, according to Cote, and now have a notice of bankruptcy and consequent termination of business posted on their front door. While the owner continues to tend to his other global business engagements, the staff, from the hostess to the dishwashers, are now left to procure new employment, and the purveyors like Andrew, footing the loss. And one more vacant, unattended address joins the growing ranks of New York’s empty storefronts.
This kind of surrender is common, and will probably intensify. Landlords have little motivation to fill vacant storefronts: they are eligible to receive tax breaks for non-income generating properties, and are subsequently able to sit on them indefinitely, neglected, until some generic behemoth that can afford sky-high rent swoops in. It is worse for restaurants sites, whose leases are typically quite long, necessitated by the customization of interiors and the intent by management for longevity, despite dismal odds for survival. By some estimates, 20 percent of potential retail addresses are listed as vacant, as landlords hold out for a deep-pocketed lessee, too often knocking smaller players out of the playing field.
Community conversations like the ones on Nextdoor.com bemoan the demise of neighborhood favorites, even if some of them probably had little culinary merit. Some places to which I would just as soon bid good riddance have some nostalgic value to some long time neighborhooders, and perhaps more crucially, were affordable, even if not necessarily value in terms of relative deliciousness, a factor which is so subjective. Still, losses such as The Half King illustrated more than just a forfeiture of a serviceable Shepherd’s Pie — there was history, opportunity and community woven into the fiber of it. Inarguably less iconic are some other recent surrenders, like The Cottage and Sushi Choshi, but they still had their fans. If the trend of skyrocketing rents continues, none of the joints that provide comparably low-priced food will survive.
The high-end ones struggle too. The super-affordable, carb-tastically good Pasta Flyer from Michelin-pedigreed Mark Ladner is slated to find a new home, most likely out of shooting range of the Chelsea vicinity (its prior location was just one block south of 14th Street on Sixth Avenue). My absolute favorite Italian, dell’anima, had to find a new home due north at Gotham Market. The Highline Ballroom, too, un-welcomed the New Year in with notification that its landlord was not interested in renewing its rent.
As it with so many issues today, laissez-faire isn’t gonna cut it. The only legislation that has apparently been proposed to tackle the issue, the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, first introduced in 1987, then again in 2010 and once more in 2018, has failed to gain any traction in the New York City Council. One might hope that landlords would enjoy a good meal as much as any of us, and start offering some concessions towards more reasonable leases. This seems unlikely, however, since most seem to have reached a level of financial comfort that allow them to eat wherever they please, economics be damned.
Education is founded on the three Rs: reading, writing and arithmetic. Manhattan thrives on the diversity of its own Rs: retail, residences, real estate and restaurants. We need to learn how to manage and retain a wide spectrum of these entities to ensure that all its residents can afford a nice meal out once in a while.