The almost-immediate implosion of the new Tavern on the Green is a true spectacle. The major critics’ reviews were one kidney punch after another, waiters and other FOH staffers still act as though it’s their very first night in a dining room, and now, less than six months since the vast restaurant reopened, opening chef Katy Sparks is already gone. It’s got all the elements of a classic shitshow, but it’s one we should all be rooting to see fixed, because in a way, it’s our shitshow. Tangled up in this mess is one element that doesn’t usually accompany other restaurant tragedies: millions of dollars of taxpayer money.
If you haven’t been following, here’s where the situation stands now: After 76 years of operation, the original Tavern on the Green closed in 2011 after the city, which owns the restaurant, declined to renew the concession agreement with the family of Warner LeRoy. For a brief period, it looked like Dean Poll, who runs the Central Park Boathouse, among other spots, would take over. That deal eventually fell through, and in 2012, the city awarded the concession license to the Emerald Green Group, a company belonging to Jim Caiola and David Salama, two restaurateurs whose largest operation up to that point was a crêperie on South 6th Street in Philadelphia that had 70 seats. Tavern, on the other hand, has 700 seats.
The deal was structured so that the city would shoulder nearly $20 million to renovate the Tavern while Emerald Green would pay for an additional $18 million of renovations and capital improvements. In return, the city has a 20-year agreement with the operators that requires them to pay either 6 percent of their annual gross receipts or $1 million (whichever is higher) the first year. The amount increases each year after that. As The New York Times Magazine reported, the overall deal is worth at least $38.7 million, and in 2033, Tavern’s operators will owe the city $3.3 million, or 15.5 percent of sales. That money then goes into the city’s general fund, which pays for things like cops and libraries.
In short, the idea is that the restaurant will make money for the city. But that only works if the restaurant is successful. When asked whether the group is hitting the projections needed to turn a profit, Caiola simply responded, “We have total faith that harmony will abound!” But faith isn’t a business plan, so what happens if harmony doesn’t abound and the Tavern goes belly-up? According to one city official, if the contract is terminated, either by the city or the concessionaire, New York loses out on all that projected revenue and also becomes responsible for maintaining the site until a new concessionaire is in place. (In addition to assuming responsibility for any remaining capital improvements Emerald Green doesn’t get around to.)
Finding a new concessionaire could be tricky and time-consuming — there’s a reason why it took years to find Emerald Green. It’s difficult to imagine an experienced restaurateur would want to assume such an onerous financial burden. The current business plan reportedly banks on 600 people per day dining there (1,200 on weekends), yet when the Parks Department knocked down the restaurant’s famous Crystal Room, it also eliminated a space that housed countless corporate lunches and banquets — a vital revenue stream. Gone, too, is the sweetheart deal that was originally cut with Robert Moses where the Tavern’s operators paid a paltry 3 percent of gross receipts and the city paid for upkeep and improvements. All those ornate topiaries and the over-the-top Christmas light decorations that were hallmarks of the former Tavern? We paid for them.
The best solution, in other words, is for the current operators to continue on. As the fall restaurant season really kicks into gear, it’s possible that the bad reviews and chef shuffle won’t concern the tourists and the place will be fine. It certainly seems more dire than that, though, and if this version of the Tavern collapses, it won’t just be a shitshow. It will be a shitshow that winds up costing New York City’s taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. That’s why we should all hope that Emerald Green finds a fantastic new chef and fixes all the other issues that continue to plague the restaurant, so that harmony, and profits, can indeed abound at the Tavern on the Green.