Park Avenue Office
Christine O Neal
By CONSTANCE ROSENBLUM
FOR the past seven years, Brian Morgan has had a flourishing career as a broker for Citi Habitats, specializing in apartments in Flatiron, the Village and Gramercy, especially the Gramercy Starck, where he lives. But when his younger brother Joey decided to open a string of buzzy sports-themed bars, it was no surprise that Brian was the first person to climb on board.
“I would never have gotten involved if it were anyone else,” said Brian, who is 37. “But we’ve done everything together since Day 1.”
The first bar, called Traffic, opened in 2009 on the Upper East Side. A sister Traffic followed two years later in Hell’s Kitchen, and a third bar, called WashOut, opened in May in Montauk, on Long Island. While Joey runs the businesses, Brian, who describes himself as an investing partner “but also part of the vision,” helps shape everything from décor to ambience to the menu. If he sees something wrong, like a garbled order or food that’s cold, he’ll text his brother. “I could reprimand the person responsible,” Brian said, “but I know the chain of command.”
The brothers talk daily on the phone, and frequently consult on menu changes, like whether to add baked (not microwaved) nacho chips. Brian is also the major programmer of the flotilla of giant TV screens on which big games are broadcast, using lots of bells and whistles, especially when Indiana, Joey’s alma mater, is playing. (Go, Hoosiers!)
The synergy between the two parts of Brian’s life operates in multiple ways. Along with taking clients to Traffic and offering them vouchers for free drinks, he also organizes Citi Habitats events at the bars. And reciprocity works in reverse. “Half his clients are my friends,” Joey said.
Not everyone can wear these two particular hats at the same time. What with racing around the city for showings, masterminding nail-biting closings and being on call 24/7, most brokers have no time or energy for a second career. But a select few crave more than making deals, and for them running a restaurant holds a special allure.
That’s not surprising. Both feeding people and helping put a roof over their heads fall under the broad rubric of the hospitality industry. Both careers attract extroverts and offer flexible schedules. Plus, who knows a neighborhood’s needs better than the broker who sells properties in the area?
Some brokers are simply silent partners, writing checks and keeping out of the way. Frank Castelluccio, a Corcoran broker who is an investor in Sapori, his brother-in-law’s Italian restaurant in Kips Bay, is so busy that he has visited the restaurant only three times since it opened earlier this year. Other brokers are practically up to their elbows in flour, doing everything from buying china to busing tables.
Neither selling real estate nor running a restaurant is for the faint of heart. Yet the potential rewards of simultaneously doing both are great. When the real estate market slackens, a second stream of income can prove welcome. And as Brian Morgan has discovered, the opportunities for synergy are endless. A woman stops by for a meal and mentions that her nephew needs an apartment. A man who has checked out a brownstone becomes a lunchtime regular. And where better to celebrate a closing than at the broker’s very own restaurant?
Many brokers find their way to the restaurant business through a family member. For Christine O’Neal, the route worked in reverse. With her husband, Michael, and his actor brother, Patrick, she helped create such signature New York institutions as the Ginger Man, the Landmark Tavern and O’Neal’s Balloon, opposite Lincoln Center. But over time her family’s needs changed. “We had two young children, and we were running out of ready cash,” said Ms. O’Neal, who is 74. “Basically, I needed a job.” The city’s real estate business was booming, and in 1985 she became a broker, joining Halstead two years later.
Still, her first love never faded. Thirteen years ago she and her husband opened the West 79th Street Boat Basin Cafe, in a waterfront structure topped with a soaring Guastavino vault. The cafe is very much Ms. O’Neal’s baby. She was the one who found the space; cards on every table announce: “I found this great home for the Boat Basin Cafe. Now let me find a great home for you.” She does everything from cut tablecloths to paint clouds on room dividers.
From the real estate side of her life Ms. O’Neal has learned useful skills. “Halstead taught us about self-promotion,” she said. So she makes sure that the cafe aggressively uses social media to advertise itself and encourages waiters to Twitter — “200 people eating lobster rolls on the terrace right now!” And like many brokers who run restaurants, Ms. O’Neal sees parallels between the occupations, especially in New York. “What else do New Yorkers talk about except real estate and restaurants?”
Lauren Cangiano, who has spent 26 years as a broker with Halstead, also came to the world of restaurants through her family. Her husband, Louis, had been in the food business for decades, notably helping run an Italian specialty food business on Staten Island that his grandparents had started. “But by 2008, business at the Staten Island store was winding down,” Ms. Cangiano said, “and we were looking for the next phase of the food chain.” That turned out to be Tre Otto, a 42-table Italian restaurant that opened in 2009 on upper Madison Avenue.
Although the Cangianos are the owners, Mr. Cangiano’s entire family is involved. His sister is the manager for weekday lunches. His brother does the accounts. His 83-year-old father can sometimes be found atop a stepladder fixing the air-conditioner.
When the place is busy, Ms. Cangiano has tasks every day — buying dishes, ordering menus, ferreting out new recipes. “It’s nice to be involved with both,” said Ms. Cangiano, who has sold many properties in the neighborhood and often recognizes clients stopping by for pasta and a glass of wine. “In real estate, you’re with strangers so much of the time, it’s good to see familiar faces. Plus, people are happy eating and drinking. Real estate isn’t always so happy. You don’t go out for dinner to celebrate being outbid on an apartment.”
Gina O’Keefe, a broker with Brown Harris Stevens, was drawn to the world of restaurants partly because that world had such pleasurable associations. She grew up next door to the Plaza Hotel (“all those Eloise jokes”) and started going to great New York restaurants when she was a child. “The idea of being in a social venue, of being happy,” she said. “I loved that feeling.”
Ms. O’Keefe, who is 44, also had a taste for real estate. She and her husband, Brian O’Neill, a musician, bought their first property, a co-op, when she was 25; they flipped it two years later for double the purchase price. She joined Brown Harris Stevens in 2008. But with the sagging market and with two young children, a second career running a restaurant seemed increasingly appealing. The result was Taproom No. 307, a bar and restaurant specializing in craft beer that opened 18 months ago on lower Third Avenue.
In the bar Ms. O’Keefe can display facets of her personality that aren’t always apparent at the office. “People get to know you in a different environment, a comfortable environment,” she said. “It’s like being in someone’s home. People feel safe. And that’s something they’re looking for with a broker.”
When her life gets hectic, the financial benefits are an incentive to balance two sets of demands. “Having two streams of income is very nice,” Ms. O’Keefe said. “A high-end broker can average $250,000 a year, and with a successful restaurant, you can double your income.”
Having partners both in the restaurant and at the office helps. So do hours that, while demanding, dovetail nicely. “You never don’t have a lot to do,” she said. “But there’s definitely an adrenaline rush. Besides, I was never fond of downtime.”
Some brokers become involved in restaurants as a way to become involved in their community. That desire helped prompt Ari Harkov and Warner Lewis, two 30-something Halstead brokers, to invest in Donna, a Brooklyn bar that opened in April under the Williamsburg Bridge.
Mr. Harkov, who lives on Ainslie Street, in the neighborhood’s Italian section, has a master’s degree in business administration and is the moneyman. He negotiated the lease and keeps the accounts. Mr. Lewis, who lives at the Edge and whose high school nickname was Super Host, thanks to the skill with which he organized events even at a tender age, handles the marketing and social-media end of things, “basically getting the word out and bringing in the bodies,” he said.
Both are passionate Williamsburg boosters. “We wanted a footprint in the neighborhood,” said Mr. Lewis, who shows off pictures of the bar with the same pride as when he shows pictures of his new baby. And listening to him wax eloquent about Donna’s hand-plastered cathedral ceiling, etched glass and hand-carved wooden touches, he sounds as proud as any first-time parent. “It’s not a retirement plan,” he said. “But we’re enjoying the journey.”
A few brokers stumble into the world of restaurants simply by happy accident.
Henry Beck, a Corcoran broker who has been selling real estate for nearly a quarter of a century, never set out to run restaurants. But his wife, Marissa, was a virtuoso cook, especially skilled at whipping up dishes from her native Philippines. And when the couple were looking for an investment property, the idea of creating a Filipino restaurant in a Gramercy storefront was born.
The restaurant, Grill 21, opened in 2005 with just 10 tables, along with tropical-themed murals by Russ Elliott featuring fruits and sunflowers. Last year the couple opened a sister establishment down the block, a Filipino-themed patisserie called Pan de Sal. Its specialty is the cafe’s namesake Filipino bun, and the murals, also by Mr. Elliott, feature toucans and egrets. At both sites, Mr. Beck cheerfully pitches in as a good-natured jack-of-all-trades.
“I do a little bit of everything,” Mr. Beck said. “I’ll wash dishes, I’ll wait tables. When we ran out of rice, which is a crisis for an Asian restaurant, I rushed out to buy a 50-pound bag. But it all gives me energy. You meet new people every day. And things lead to other things.”
An even happier accident brought Levi Michaels, a Brown Harris Stevens broker with a passion for food, into the restaurant business.
“What happened was that a deal for a commercial property I was involved with went south,” said Mr. Michaels, 41. “The person who was supposed to buy the property changed his mind. I looked at the owner and said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll take the space off your hands.’ I kept the space empty for three months, racking my brains with what to do with it. Then one great morning I woke up and thought — food!”
By 5:30 that afternoon Mr. Michaels was in deepest Brooklyn, spending $6,000 for an oven and two refrigerators. “Then I called my wife and said to her: ‘Guess what? I think we’re going to be in the pizza business.’ ” That same day he e-mailed his Italian-born grandmother asking for her recipe for sauce, the secret ingredient being whole San Marzano tomatoes.
Four years ago, Ciao Bella opened in a 325-square-foot space on Allen Street on the Lower East Side with five tables and a robust takeout business. What with two careers, Mr. Michaels works 70 or 80 hours a week, up at 6 and not home before midnight. “But I’m not tired because I love them both,” he said. “Plus it’s a nice change from the life where you’re wearing the double Windsor knotted tie.”
Friday, August 03, 2012