Empire Building

Why One of New York’s Most Successful Restaurateurs Is Rethinking His Empire

“I have fucking heart palpitations at times. But I work with great people.” Photo: Melissa Hom

Within less than a month, Gabriel Stulman has announced plans to close one restaurant (Montmartre), relocate another (Perla), and eliminate tipping at a third (Fedora). Even for Stulman, a restauranteur who has made significant changes to concepts before, that’s a lot. What gives? Is all not well in the Happy Cooking empire? Grub sat down with Stulman to discuss what urged him to make these big decisions, how he fiercely protects his vision for each of his concepts — despite how they naturally evolve — and why he thinks operating a restaurant (or, in his case, five restaurants) in New York is harder than ever.

Was there a moment when you sat down and thought about all of these decisions together, as a cohesive shift for your company, or were they made independently?
One hundred percent independently. I had no control over the timing of events, other than one of them. Fedora going no tipping I have complete control over. But the fact that the opportunity of the lease at 234 West 4th Street presented itself … Ever since I saw that there was an auction for the furniture, I was like, “That’s a sign that the Windsor is never coming back.” So I kept sending emails and inquiries to the landlord. And then finally, after a few months of that, I got a response, and I was like, “Oh fuck, I’m dealing with something else right now.” And you know, that’s the nature of life and business, when you have more than one thing going on.

I’d been trying for a while to help Montmartre become a flourishing business. It’s one of those things that you fight and fight, and then at a point, I needed to make a decision. I could stay in business for another 10 or 12 years, but the reality was that I was going to be fighting to break even, or I’d make $10,000 a year. We were putting in 1,000 hours a week collectively — for what? To make $0? To sometimes lose $1,000? To sometimes make $1,000? And you’ve got to ask yourself: Do I want to live the next 12 years like that? Busting ass day in and day out and not feeling any return on that time?

What were the issues that made you feel so confident that things wouldn’t improve at Montmartre?
We’ve been open for three years. We’ve made a lot of changes and tweaks to make Montmartre better. We’ve changed chefs, GMs, graphics, number of services … we have made changes to the physical layout of the room, the art, and the décor. And the reality is that everything that we do has a little uptake. But at the end of the day — no matter how many changes we made — it was minimal improvement, and we just weren’t having enough people walk through the door enough of the nights. It was enough to have the business tread water.

I think that one huge realization that happened over the last three years is, when I first saw that space, I fell in love with the garden. Then I saw the inside and I was like, “There’s a ton of charm.” There was this cute restaurant Gascogne that was here for 25 years. Love to see a restaurant that has long history in a place before you. I hoped that Montmartre would have a bustling 45 seats inside for six months of the year, and then for six months of the year it’d be a 100-seat restaurant that’s cranking. What the end result has actually proven is that for fall and winter, when the garden is closed, it’s a bustling 45-seat restaurant. And then for six months, when the garden is open, no one wants to sit inside — and then it’s a 45-seat restaurant again. People come into Montmartre in June and they’ll say, “What’s the wait for the garden?” I’ll say, “Two hours, but I’ve got a table inside where I can seat you right now.” “No, it’s all right. I’ll wait for the garden.” I don’t blame them because it’s beautiful out there, but, like, shit. So we were always a 45-seat restaurant, and that wasn’t something that I expected.

And when the garden is open, we have more labor. You need more food runners and more bussers, like you need more everything. I need two bartenders, because you can’t walk into Montmartre and see the front bar empty … At a certain point, I came to the decision that I don’t think there’s any more we can do to the concept to make Montmartre a better restaurant than what we’ve already done. So the one question that remained is: Do I want to close Montmartre and reopen it as something entirely different?

Which you’ve done with success, with Bar Sardine.
Not really — I haven’t really done that. Sardine was more of an evolution. I didn’t close it and turn it into, like, Jimmy’s. It was the same chef and the same team, and we held on to a few elements of the spirit that was always Sardine.

So I thought, Is there a new concept, something that I am passionate about and itching to build in that space? And the answer is no, there’s not. Could I find something? Could I come up with something? Sure. Absolutely. But I don’t think that should ever be the seed in which I start a business.

… I think another factor is that a lot of people’s first impressions of Montmartre were that they weren’t as impressed as they were at our other five restaurants. I know that. People walked out and were not into it.

Since you have so many customers who frequent your restaurants, do you ever feel like you become your own competition when introducing something new?
To some extent, but a very small one … If you’re still Montmartre, and you’re still French, and you’re still in the same location — unless you read Grub Street and Eater and the New York Times, and you’re on my mailing list, you don’t know that we made changes. There was a bigger percentage of our audience that was like, “Yeah, I ate there. Eh.” Those people don’t even know that we’ve gone through two chefs, fixed the problem with the front door, opened up the windows, fixed the AC, changed the paint to make it airier and lighter, rearranged the tables so the flow was better. They don’t even pay attention, because you got one shot at these things, often. Another challenge is location. And by location I mean Eighth Avenue — mid-block.

Where Momofuku Nishi has just opened, with lines down the block.
Which is going to defy everything that I say, because they’re going to crush. He’s actually been doing that his whole career: opening on main avenues, mid-block. His business concept totally works because there is so much inherent value seen, in addition to the exceptional quality of the food that he produces. Look, I think we made really strong food — but no, nobody’s comparing us to David Chang.

Well, you’re also going for a neighborhood feel. Chang has said that Nishi isn’t really a neighborhood restaurant — it’s more of a destination place. Your ethos couldn’t be more different.
I didn’t even know he said that. Yeah, our ethoses are completely the opposite. What I have discovered in the last few years is that people walk down Eighth Avenue differently than they walk down West 14th and Waverley. They have a focus — “I’m going to the subway or home.” Like, it’s not, “Oh hey! That looks cute!” — you don’t walk down Eighth Avenue that way. You’ll walk down Bank Street that way; you’ll walk down Charles Street that way. So we would see people just walk by Montmartre and not even notice. And then people would come in and ask, “How long have you guys been here?” and I would say, “Almost three years.” … All this connects to why I couldn’t pass up a West Village corner. There are few things that are more charming, and with more heart and soul in real estate, than a West Village corner.

So you get this space, and then the question becomes what to do with it. You could move Montmartre or Perla. Or you could open something new — you’ve talked about opening a Cuban restaurant.
That is still going to happen. That is a fact … I thought about if I wanted to put Cuban in the Perla space on Minetta Lane. And I didn’t think it was the right layout. I think the right Cuban restaurant, when I build it, it’s not going to be long and rectangular. It’s going to be more square and rocking and rolling with that Latin energy. So when I got this new space, I thought, Why build something new when you have two visions — Montmartre and Perla — that are not yet fully realized? If I’m a musician, why start a new album when I haven’t finished working on one?

But is there concern about a stigma of failure — these concepts looking like flops?
No, they’re both great restaurants. I think they’re more challenged by location than anything. Maybe one day we’ll resurrect Montmartre. One example is John Dory Oyster Bar: It was in the Meatpacking District, and it didn’t work out, and then years later it reopened and worked.

Let’s talk about Perla, which you ended up choosing to move. Why?
To me, Perla is an amazing restaurant. And it has been since day one. Wonderfully well received. Totally different circumstances than Montmartre. It’s a busy, working, profitable restaurant. But it’s not my realized vision of it. It took off in one direction of being a fancier destination restaurant, and I never stopped it because everyone loved it … I was watching it taking off and thinking, It was supposed to be the perfect neighborhood Italian restaurant. It was becoming, in most people’s minds, an expensive, rich, and meaty restaurant. Two things that I have always said that are very distinct and different: being a great restaurant in a neighborhood, and being a great neighborhood restaurant. This is something that I experienced back at the Little Owl, which was opened to be a great neighborhood restaurant, and it became a great restaurant in a neighborhood. And how do things shift when it becomes less accessible to neighbors?

And then you made some significant changes to Perla 1.0.
I love how it looks now. I love how it feels. I’ve built a whole new team there. The other thing that’s amazing is that six months after we met, we’ve reduced our check average by 30 percent. It’s way more affordable to eat there. And we’re doing the same sales, which means we’re feeding more people. If everyone is spending less and I’m doing the same sales, I’m so happy. But I think the same thing that we talked about earlier, in relation to Montmartre — unless you read and follow food sites, then you don’t even know what happened. There are so many people that come into Perla every day now, and they’re like, “You changed some things.” I changed things seven months ago. If every night, people come in thinking they’re going to the Perla from two and a half years ago, how many people still think it’s expensive?

To me, this was an opportunity to fully realize what I always wanted Perla to be and what it is becoming. But put it into the sixth gear. This is going to be the most perfect Italian version of Joseph Leonard. It is going to be what it was meant to be. And we want to hold on to everything that everyone has loved about Perla for the past four years — same chef, all the same handmade pastas, same staff, and all the art that I just purchased. Let’s put it on a corner with French windows and flood it with light.

Now all of your restaurants will be super close to each other. What power do you see in proximity? As we touched on before, do you ever worry about pitting your restaurants against each other?
Here’s the thing: If I didn’t sign the lease at 234 West 4th Street, somebody else would. That would be my competition and take diners away from me. So I might as well take diners away from myself. Or better yet, instead of looking at it that way, providing more hospitality and dining options to our current diners. So the person who goes to Sardine right now and is told it’s a 45-minute wait can be told to go next door. Also, a chef is able to cross the street and borrow eggs. For my staff, [they could be] going to the other person’s restaurant and hanging out after work.

Bar Sardine — my neighborhood bar — has changed a lot since it opened. It’s less of a bar now and more of a restaurant. When you walk in, you’re immediately asked if you’re going to eat or only drink. If you say “just drink,” seating is limited. I don’t love being forced to make that decision when I’m not sure how I want my night to evolve. What’s up with the rule?
If you go to Joseph Leonard and Jeffrey’s, you’d hear the same thing. We don’t seat people just for drinks at the bar. So unfortunately, you need to pick one side or the other, and you just need to pick the lesser of the two evils.

But wasn’t Bar Sardine supposed to be a true bar?
When we first transitioned into Bar Sardine, we didn’t have that rule. You could sit anywhere, whether you were eating or not. And if you wanted to sit at the bar and just drink, that was fine. It was first-come, first-served. What ended up happening over a period of six to eight months is it turned into a super bar. Like, frat-style. There was an aha moment when I walked in after a movie with Gina [Stulman, his wife] on a Thursday, and the place was packed to the fucking gills. We got pushed up against the front door. Gina was holding her glass of wine to her chest. Everyone was screaming. And I looked into the open kitchen, and I saw cooks leaning on the stove with their arms crossed. There wasn’t a single ticket. I’m listening to some guy tell a story to his friends, and, like Thor, he slams his fists on the bar and it rattles. Gina’s wine spills, and she says, “Let’s go somewhere else, this really isn’t my scene.” And I look around and I go, “This really isn’t my scene either.” Holy shit. I own the place and it’s not my scene. That’s a problem.

I started to ask myself a few questions. Are people in here because they love Bar Sardine? Because they love Happy Cooking? Or are they in here because we have four walls and we have alcohol? Now, if I only wanted Sardine to be a bar, I would’ve cut out the kitchen completely and added another 15 seats. I clearly wanted to serve food — I made an open kitchen. We were packed, and we were making money, but if I didn’t make rules, it would have been madness. I wouldn’t hang out at my own establishment.

It’s similar to what you described with Perla: How much do you let a kid just grow up naturally, and how much do you parent?
As a parent, you parent. So I realized, Wait a second: We can control Bar Sardine. You still like to go — you don’t like this rule, but you still go — and I’m going to tell you from an operational standpoint, whether you realize it or not, I am 100 percent positive that you enjoy it because we control the crowds. I don’t let it get too deep. You can have a conversation and be heard. That takes rules. You can’t have one without the other. You have to have some rules to have something you love. And now I dedicate 33 percent of my room to people who don’t want to eat. That’s not the case at any of my restaurants. That’s why I was the maître d’ — I spent five months at the door changing the culture. It was me saying “no” to everybody.

The golden rule of hospitality is to always say “yes.” How do you say “no” in a way that’s not offensive?
You say, “I’m so sorry. We’ve got a space for drinkers. It’s full right now. I’d love to take your name and number and give you a call as soon as we’ve got some room. In the meantime, let me make some suggestions. Check out Wilfie & Nell.” And then explain the reason we do this is because we have a lot of people that come for our food, and we want to cook! We love cooking.

As you bring your restaurants closer together, do you see yourself stepping outside of the neighborhood again?
Absolutely. I definitely want to step outside the neighborhood. This re-centering is purely by coincidence. I definitely want to do something outside of the neighborhood. I think I’ve learned a lot more about what I look for in a location.

Do you think it’s become harder to run a restaurant in New York? We’re seeing so many people jump ship.
Definitely. I think the reasons it’s becoming increasingly difficult to run a restaurant in New York — I don’t know if they are new reasons, but rent just keeps getting higher and higher and higher, and that is a real problem. That’s why we’re looking at so many empty storefronts in our neighborhood. Landlords would rather let a place sit empty for three years and hold out until one person gives them obscene rent, so we all lose. And that is no longer a Manhattan problem. That’s a problem that exists all throughout Brooklyn. I get presented lease spaces in Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens and Williamsburg, and I’m like, “You’re suggesting a rent that is consistent with the West Village.”

… I think another challenge is that obviously this industry has gained such popularity in the last decade. More and more people are wanting to come into it, with or without restaurant backgrounds. Like, “Oh, I used to be in this industry, and I want to do a restaurant now.” There’s this false sense of perception that it’s something that anyone can jump into and do.

Well, people like you have made it look cool. And it is cool! But it’s also really, really hard.
It’s really fucking hard. If I’m making it look cool, it’s certainly not my plan. And when you have a lot more people doing this, you have a limited supply of talented people in the workforce. And now they’re stretched out. People are being promoted through the ranks perhaps faster than maybe their skill sets suggest. If there are always 50 places opening, a waiter could become a beverage director and skip three steps. A line cook becomes an executive chef because he worked a station at Eleven Madison Park. I don’t understand how making that dish means you know how to manage people, control food costs, control labor, and be a leader. But somebody else wants to open a restaurant, and they want your cachet.

I think you add the government onto that, whether it’s labor laws or all the money that the Department of Buildings takes out of you, and all the expediters and the cost of contractors, architects, and engineers. Then you add onto that all the hurdles that the Department of Health adds. How many reports have you written or read about Con Edison? And it’s just like, “Oh my God! There are lawyers that are suing restaurants right and left and seeking out one busboy to make a class-action suit. When Danny Meyer got sued, I was just like, “That’s bullshit.” I’m sorry — he’s a moral and honorable operator. I have worked with dozens of people that have worked for his company. He’s not fucking stealing. People are finding loopholes. Let’s take it easy.

We’re dealing with crazy rents, increased labor, less talent, and paying people more because everybody is willing to steal your staff. Right? I’m dealing with so much extra expense at every governmental level. It’s like, you’re making opening a restaurant like a punishing boxing match. I have to take a beating to get the doors open, and then what? I’ve got to listen to 40 different critics, many of which are self-ordained qualified people. Okay — great! Why don’t you judge me because you’ve deemed that you should judge me? And you have how many thousands of people read your shit? Fuck, great. Glad you took a photo and said, “Not good,” and 40,000 people saw it. What is that? That’s not an easy set of circumstances to exist in. But, like life, there’s a lot of great.

It’s clear that you’ve created a real sense of community through your restaurants, which is rare in New York.
I love what I do. But I am stressed. I struggle. I have anxiety. I have fucking heart palpitations at times. But I work with great people. I get to work on a shared vision. I get to collaborate. We get to be creative. It is so rewarding when you see somebody come in and find an extension of their home in our restaurants. We fight tirelessly. It’s amazing to put so much effort into creating such amazing moments for people.

How do you cope with the stress?
Boxing helps. And I’m very fortunate I have an amazing wife and son and friends. I talk to Gina. I deal with stress by hugging my son. I deal with my stress by punching a bag. I deal with my stress by hanging out with my friends and doing beautiful things that the city has to offer.

It’s also how you frame the challenges: Many would see this as a moment of crisis, but you view it as an opportunity to rebuild.
It’s all part of the process. Not everything is smooth and easy. You know, we’ve never been shy about making changes. Jeffrey’s Grocery used to be a grocery store; it’s a better restaurant because we made changes. Bar Sardine used to be an izakaya; it’s a better place, and it’s got longevity for decades now. Perla is a great restaurant, and we’re going to evolve it and move it, and I hope people love it as much. Part of the process.

Gabriel Stulman Rethinks His Empire