A Focus on Food and Family

How Carlos Suarez‘s Casa Nela restaurant group got through the pandemic

| 04 Jun 2021 | 05:01

Opening up a restaurant during a pandemic is bound to garner some buzz. Even just staying open warrants such. So when Carlos Suarez did both these things, and is now gearing up to re-open his flagship location that started it all ... well, that definitely justifies a dab of ink.

Suarez was born in London, but grew up in Florida, from a young enough age that only the faintest telltale hint of an English accent remains. He moved to New York in 2001 after being fired from a hedge fund after just eleven months. But hey, when your heart isn’t in the game, it’s tough to perform. So in 2003 he followed it where he thought he should have been all along, joining the BR Guest restaurant group that was at that point still under the guidance of the iconic Steven Hansen.

Not long after, he decided to venture out on his own, opening up the charming Bobo in the West Village in 2007. An American farm-to-table riff on a whimsical Parisian bistro, it was an immediate hit, and spawned the expansion of Rosemary’s just around the corner in 2012, and a little further east, Claudette in 2014. In 2019 he branched off Rosemary’s with Roey’s, a rustic Italian cafe focused on pizza. Each restaurant has its own undeniable identity, so in order to consolidate the enterprises, Suarez formed Casa Nela as the restaurant group under which they all function, named after his family farm back in Cuba where his father is originally from.

Maternal Mentor

Family, it might be said, it central to the entire operation. Nela comes from Manuela, his great-grandmother. Rosemary is Carlos’ mother, and Roey a diminutive of such. Claudette wasn’t a blood relation, but instead Claudette Sammut, Tunisian-French chef and restaurateur that inspired Mr. Suarez after experiencing her extraordinary cooking and hospitality, and becoming a maternal mentor of sorts.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Suarez was driven to expand Rosemary’s (he already franchised the name to Tokyo in 2016), and had planned opening up a location adjacent to Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, just as the pandemic was doubling down in its intensity. The landlord was gracious enough to postpone the opening, and they pinched where they could and pivoted with the best of them, focusing on takeout and delivery where it was feasible, and taking any governmental assistance where they could get it.

The death of beloved chef Floyd Cardoz, a personal friend and icon in the industry, shook Suarez particularly hard. For the safety of all of his staff he terminated operations until he felt they could open up in limited capacities specific to each restaurant, expanding outdoor dining where possible and doubling down on off-site orders. Bobo was the only restaurant that closed entirely, and now that the new Rosemary’s is getting its footing, they are gearing up to open it back up again as well.

As for Rosemary’s East, the spacious lawns surrounding the address give it a comparatively bucolic feel, at least in terms of New York City real estate, although the new one does not sport the rooftop garden of the West Village location. That garden, to note, provides herbs and greenery for the restaurants, although not nearly enough to accommodate the entire group, so all the restaurants in are close cahoots with the best of local farms: Eckerton Hill and Sweet Mountain Berry, to name a couple.

Community Garden

They are, however, working with the Parks Department on potentially creating a community garden that could be utilized by both the residents of Peter Cooper Village, Stuyvesant Town and the restaurant itself. Suarez emphasizes the desire to make his restaurants a part of the communities in which they serve, even offering frequent-diner type discount options.

After all, it is community that got them through the pandemic, when they relied on the support of the neighborhood to get them through, just as the neighborhood depends on them for their consistently exceptional and nourishing food, and warmly personal and affable service that is signature of all the Casa Nela locations.

Suarez also established the Casa Nela COVID Crisis Fund, of which 100% of donations goes to the most vulnerable staff members that have been most traumatically affected by the pandemic. Because you take care of your family, and they take care of you, a philosophy not only embraced by Suarez and his team, but celebrated. And whether you dine at the new Rosemary’s East, or any of their wonderful restaurants, you immediately become part of that family.