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Competition is fierce at Fulton Fish Market, to a Point


By MEGAN GIBSON

At the Fulton Fish Market at Hunt’s Point, the oldest and largest fish market cooperative in the country, competition is fierce.

A struggling economy and an open market arena contribute to the competitively charged atmosphere. However, as a cooperative, vendors also come to rely on everyone’s company prospering, at least enough so that they can all stay in business.

Vendors are in direct competition with one another, as restaurant buyers and market suppliers weave through the warehouse, perusing the selection. The market “handles millions of pounds of seafood daily”, according to its Web site, and a lot of vendors are selling similar products, so haggling with the customers becomes an art.

Angelo Rosa has been working for Blue Ribbon Fish Co., Inc., a business at the market, for 24 years. A small man of Portuguese descent with a booming voice, he horses around with customers, jokingly calling them names and miming karate moves in their direction.

Late night hours—the market is open from 1 am until 7 am, Monday to Friday—don’t seem to affect his mood.  However, Rosa does turn serious when talking about the market and sales.  He says he cuts deals for loyal customers and that bargaining is part of the sale.

As prospective customers wander by, looks of disinterest on their face, kicking at boxes filled with ice and large fish, Rosa works to engage them into his playful banter.  Some are receptive, some continue to the next vendor.

“It’s the most unpredictable market you can imagine,” said Rosa.

Richard Montelbano can attest to that.  He works at Monte Seafood and after the economy took a turn for the worse last year, the company was forced to reduce their staff from 21 to 12.  Montelbano, a tall and lanky man who glides around the pallets of boxes containing fish as if by second nature, said they are determined to “go with the flow.”  He said the company has to carry on with the competition of market life.

“It’s all about sales.”

Sales are the driving force behind the market and the competition between vendors is palpable.  Rosa said many of the vendors lie to one another over the prices of their fish.

“You don’t want anyone to go out of business, but it’s competitive.”

It’s not pure generosity that influences Rosa’s wish to see his competitors stay open.  As a part of a cooperative, all the businesses operating at the Fulton Fish Market rely on one another to keep their own costs down.

The New Fulton Fish Market Cooperative at Hunt’s Point Inc. operates the market and the facility, which until four years ago was located on Fulton Street in Lower Manhattan. The huge, warehouse-style building is managed by the city’s Economic Development Corporation.

Dan Kim of Alaskan Feast said, “Since it’s a coop, if one company goes under we as a coop have to absorb the loss of revenue for rent.”

Unwinding as the long night draws to an end—it’s approaching six am—Kim is mostly finished selling to customers.  As his coworkers go about organizing the seafood that hasn’t sold, he slips outside for a few minutes.  The early morning air seems colder than the refrigerated warehouse. Leaning against the wall, Kim describes the cooperative’s operations.

Each business pays a share of the rent and utility costs of the facility that houses the market. The warehouse is divided into stalls and each business occupies one or more stalls, depending on how big their business is.  Kim said that Alaskan Feast, which occupies two stalls, costs approximately $9000 a month in rent and utility bills.

Kim estimates that if a business goes under the rise in costs for the other businesses is about five to 20 percent, depending on the size of the business.  When Arrow Seafood went out of business, “it was just upsetting.”

While only four operations have gone out of business since the move from Fulton Street to Hunt’s Point in 2005—Mazur Bros. and Jaffe Food Co. Inc., Soho Seafood Inc., and Sunrise Seafood Inc. closed before Arrow—Kim thinks that a few more businesses are not far behind.

Kim also said that when a new business comes in to fill the empty spaces, coop prices remain the same. Right now though, he has to get back to work, as the day is about to end.  He ducks back inside the warehouse, where the sun has yet to rise.

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In downturn, Harlem sees hope in opening restaurants


HarlemFood

(Photos by Vadim Lavrusik)

By VADIM LAVRUSIK

After running a small cupcake shop in the West Village for three years, Tonnie Rozier decided to come back to his roots by opening up a second shop in Harlem.

Rozier, 40, said he hadn’t considered opening up a shop in Harlem because the rent always seemed so high. But when a friend approached him with a location off Lenox Avenue in Central Harlem last spring with a great rent price, he couldn’t resist.

He considered the fact that he was taking a risk with the recession taking a toll on small and big businesses alike. But Rozier was looking further ahead, and already noticing new businesses moving into the neighborhood. And it was a homecoming for the Harlemite who grew up and has lots of family there.

Tonnie’s Minis Opens in Harlem (Audio by Vadim Lavrusik)

“Harlem has been on its way back for many years now. And I saw the vision, but never thought it would become what is has become today,” Rozier said.

Though there’s more than 40 cupcake shops in Manhattan, Tonnie’s Minis is the first in Harlem. But it’s not the only first for a neighborhood that is seeing new food businesses (map) opening up and the community buzzing that these are signs of economic recovery.

Part of the buzz stems from new jobs that these new restaurants will create. Applebee’s alone is hiring 250 new workers for next week’s opening off 125th Street. The neighborhood is also awaiting the openings of several restaurants off Lenox Avenue, including a Jamaican and soul food restaurant called Jams, rotisserie chicken shack Spinners, and OneBar, a high-scale bar.

Though the exact number of restaurants opened in Harlem in the last year was unavailable, Community Board 10 has approved 49 liquor licenses so far this year.

Franc Perry, chairman of Community Board 10, which represents Central Harlem, said though he didn’t want to jump to conclusions on what that means, he certainly is optimistic about the opportunities it brings into Central Harlem – a neighborhood with an unemployment rate topping 20 percent. The city’s overall rate is 10.3 percent.

Though there has been a spurt of restaurants openings in Harlem, Andrew Rigie, director of operations at New York State Restaurant Association, said there is no doubt that the economy has still created a dip in restaurants’ sales. People are cutting back on going out, and one would think that Harlem would be worse off than other neighborhoods with such a high jobless rate. Though more new restuarants are opening, those that have been open longer have better chances of weathering the stark economy because they already have a customer base, experience and operating capital, Rigie said.

Harlem welcomes ‘Eatin’ good in the neighborhood’

So why would anyone want to open a restaurant during such economic turmoil, and why in Harlem? For Zane Tankel, CEO of Apple-Metro, which operates 34 Applebee’s locations in the New York metro area, the answer is simple. Demand in Harlem, plus cheap rent, a dash of risk, and years of experience is why Tankel is opening an Applebee’s on 125th Street.

“I think it is an underserved community,” Tankel said. “There are few places there right now where a large group of people can go in and sit down and get some good food for a reasonable price.”

Damaa Bell, who writes the UPTOWNFlavor blog on food news, said she thinks the new Applebee’s will be successful in Harlem because there is a shortage of restaurants that can accommodate large groups.

“When you think of dining in Harlem they are often small venues that can accommodate up to 10 diners max. An Applebee’s would be popular with families,” Bell said.

Bell points out that an Applebee’s just opened in the Marble Hill area has been successful because it is the only eatery of its type in the neighborhood, which she says is similar to Harlem.

Tankel said he also hopes he can attract some late-night customers. Though many restaurants in the area close around 9 p.m., Applebee’s will be open until midnight on weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends. He acknowledges that maybe there is a lack of late-night demand or owners worry about crime, but said that is something he will have to re-evaluate after seeing how business goes.

“We’ll see how it pans out because we’re not immune to the economy, but we’ve definitely made the adjustments,” Tankel said. Though sales are down a bit at some of his locations, Tankel said they attract people by offering them value deals like bundling menu items with a $20 deal for an appetizer and two entrees. This keeps the total bill higher for the restaurant, but is still a good deal for the customers, he said.

On Tuesday, the restaurant’s hiring center was full of people filling out applications for the 250 full- and part-time positions available. The Labor Department reported Friday that the national jobless rate had dropped from 10.2 to 10 percent, the strongest report since the recession began – a glimmer of hope for those that have recently lost jobs.

Jeffrey McCaskill, 20, stopped in between classes at The College of Technology to fill out an application for a cook. McCaskill, who is currently unemployed, said he needs to get a job to help pay the family bills.

He’s predicting the restaurant, which sits at the corner of 125 Street and 5th Avenue, will be really busy despite the downturn.

“Sure people are struggling, but I think you’re starting to see more places opening up and they’re starting to build again,” he said. “It’s great. It gives a chance for people to get a job.”

McCaskill is one of 5,000 people that had filled out applications as of Thursday, according to Tankel.

“I hope I get it,” McCaskill said.

Real estate and a developing neighborhood

Though Tankel had been looking to open a franchise in Harlem for about six years, each time a potential location came up he was faced with obstacles in construction or price.

However, with the drop in real estate prices, rents in the neighborhood have gone down dramatically too, which is why Tankel took advantage of the location, he said.

Charles Belanger, a real estate broker turned restaurant owner, knows that better than anyone.

“The market obviously collapsed,” he said. “So I went into the chicken business.”

Belanger, who was a broker for more than 20 years in Manhattan, took his store front real estate office off Lenox Avenue and turned it into a rotisserie chicken and sandwich shop. On Thursday, he was working on cleaning the entryway of the shop on its first day open. Customers slowed to see what the new restaurant had to offer, some eyeing the side real estate office signs still visible from its previous incarnation..

Belanger already had the location and didn’t want to just give up on the space. A food business made sense for the neighborhood, he said.
“People gotta eat.”

Because it is a low-income neighborhood, he said it wouldn’t make sense to open an electronics store, which would be difficult to compete with a big box store that gets its products less expensibely from overseas.

“You can’t ship a roast beef sandwich from China though,” he said.

Belanger said he decided to stay in Central Harlem because of the growth in real estate development and businesses the neighborhood has seen in recent years.

“Harlem does have a bright future,” he said. “It’s an area in Manhattan that has seen a lot of growth in recent years.”

He said a combination of factors like city tax breaks contributed to the growth. Also, The Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Corp. has given $2.5 million in loans over the last 12 years to restaurants in Harlem, giving them the necessary cash to get started.

But most residents will point to the Clinton Foundation’s move into the neighborhood and its sweeping efforts to improve the neighborhood. Last year, the foundation launched the Harlem Restaurant Program, which used public funds and tax incentives to teach restauranteurs in the neighborhood better business skills.

Richard Howard, who stops at Rozier’s new cupcake shop almost eveyday after he picks his kids up from school, said ever since Clinton’s foundation came to Harlem a lot of new businesses moved into the neighborhood.

“I think that Harlem has kinda become the new mecca of new businesses,” Howard said. “It’s becoming like a SoHo or Delancey street. Well, now it’s Harlem.”

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Fulton Fish Market feels the pinch


By CAROLINE SHIN

Inside a white room the size of a toll booth, Diana Chicolo slides her window open at the tapping of a seafood distributor’s fingers. The warehouse air, regulated at 40 degrees, wafts in through her heated office, as she glances at the yellow receipt the distributor hands her.

“$186, even. Do you pay by check?”

For 13 years, Chicolo, 38, has been the bookkeeper for Caleb Haley & Co., one of the oldest and largest seafood wholesalers at the Fulton Fish Market. Between sips of coffee she said, “The fish market is not as busy as it used to be. It’s definitely dwindling.”

While it remains the largest wholesale seafood market in the U.S., the Fulton Fish Market has been shrinking in recent years. Four shops have closed since 2005 — a significant number in a market dominated by third-generation businesses — and many wholesalers cite sales decreases of 10 to 30 percent.

Caleb Haley, operating since 1859, is a big name at the market. Like those of the other 30 or so wholesalers, Caleb Haley’s core customers are seafood purveyors who distribute to restaurants and other eating establishments.

Sporting a navy blue baseball hat and jacket, a heavy-set Joseph Serrantonio, 52, oversees tuna and swordfish sales for the family-run business. He says the economic downturn has decreased his sales by 10 to 15 percent since last year. While the Zagat survey recently reported that 157 notable restaurants opened and 102 closed this year, Chicolo and Serrantonio both said the closings have impacted the wholesale business.

One of Caleb Haley’s longtime customers, David Coopersmith, 52, has been distributing seafood for Scandia Seafood for about 20 years. On any given day, he can buy 300 to 1,000 pounds, spending between $3,000 and $10,000, but he said demand from customers, including restaurants, is down 14 percent from last year. The economic downturn is “affecting us a little bit,” he said. “Absolutely.”

Chicolo also said the market’s relocation from downtown Manhattan in 2005 created a barrier for smaller buyers and passers-by. “People from Chinatown used to buy two to three pieces of fish,” she said “Now coming here means a lot of gas, time and parking fees.” The fish market charges $5 for drivers who wish to purchase seafood; those who brave the two-hour subway and bus ride have to pay a $2 pedestrian’s entry fee.

Opposite Caleb Haley, Anthony DeVito, 35, stands behind purple and red nets and white cardboard boxes of clams, oysters and mussels. It is a lot drier here. The third generation owner of the family-run New Seafood, DeVito has been working at the market for 32 years. “With the economy the way it is, business is down a little bit,” he said. He sells 10,000 to 20,000 pieces of shellfish, or about $30,000 a week. “It’s off by probably 30 percent” since last year, he said. He mulled over the number, chuckled and said, “I try not to look at it. You look at it, you just want to cry. The bills are getting paid. I’m happy with that.” He said the decreased demand has particularly hit high-end shellfish such as Maine oysters that require diving to obtain them.

On the other side of the 400,000-square-foot warehouse, Joel Rivera, 28, with a shaven head and solid build, maneuvers his forklift to unload fish onto the floor of Montauk Seafood. Having worked at the market for six years, he said, “I noticed a change in the money that the market was pushing. All the fish that was on the floor, all the fish that was being delivered. And there’s just such a big difference now.” He continued, “It just keeps getting smaller. Guys are getting laid off.”

Pan Sing Long, 35, a fish cutter at Caleb Haley, can certainly attest to that. After the company laid off two workers last year, he has had to double his responsibilities.

Meanwhile, outside the Fulton Fish Market, Restaurant Depot, a private wholesaler of food and supplies to restaurants, delis and grocery stores, has been aggressively growing, with 13 locations in New York and New Jersey. Staffed by former restaurant owners, chefs and food service specialists and offering thousands of food products at each location, the store calls itself the “the low-cost alternative to other foodservice suppliers,” according to its Web site. “A lot of restaurants are going to Restaurant Depot,” Chicolo said. “They buy in bulk,” and can get the seafood “frozen and cheaper.”

A line of purveyors grew outside Chicolo’s window, and, her wavy auburn hair highlighted against her white sweatshirt, she continued ringing up the purchases: $858.25, $4,742.68, $476.19. “It’s Thursday. It’s a busy day,” she said.

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GoMobo looks to expand online, on-the-go food ordering


By VADIM LAVRUSIK

Noah Glass, 28, founder of GoMobo. The company is looking to expand its services to 2,000 restaurants this coming year.

Noah Glass, 28, founder of GoMobo. The company is looking to expand its services to 2,000 restaurants this coming year. (Photo: Vadim Lavrusik)

When Noah Glass worked on Wall Street, he would line up with hundreds of other professionals and wait for what seemed like an eternity to get his morning coffee. Frustrated, he wondered what it would be like to skip the line by ordering in advance.

In fact, he was willing to put off going to Harvard Business School to pursue the idea.

Glass, 28, now runs GoMobo, a company that allows customers of some 500 restaurants to skip the line by ordering through a text message, online or a mobile application. You can even order for delivery from those restaurants.

“The idea really came from my own consumer frustration,” Glass said. “Cutting out the wait in getting your food.”

The site is just one of several popular Web sites such as grubhub.com, seamlessweb.com, delivery.com, that cater to people who want food quickly. GoMobo, however, sets itself apart by offering multiple options to order food for take out or delivery. And after founding GoMobo in 2005, Glass said the company expects the number of restaurants using GoMobo to increase to more than 1,000 by year’s end and a revenue of $10 million for 2010.

That money comes from fees GoMobo charges for its services. For chain restaurants, GoMobo charges a flat daily fee of $2 to $5 per store, depending on whether the restaurant signs up for marketing services. For individual restaurants, GoMobo gets 10 percent of the transaction. So what’s in it for restaurants?

David Fellows, director of product development, works at the GoMobo headquarters in SoHo Monday. Fellows has been with the young company for three years.

David Fellows, director of product development, at the GoMobo headquarters in SoHo. Fellows has been with the young company for three years. (Photo: Vadim Lavrusik)

A potential increase in customers who might not have ordered from the restaurant during, say, their lunch hour, if it weren’t for the convenience and speed of using GoMobo.

Dallas BBQ tested the service at its Chelsea location in August and received roughly 100 orders through GoMobo, according to Sarah Haman, account executive at SHARPLEFT marketing agency. And in September, that number jumped to 150 orders, Haman said.

They are now rolling out the service to multiple locations and are about to launch a separate Web site that GoMobo customizes for restaurants’ online ordering services. She said the restaurant has a heavy takeout business, which is why she thinks the service has been successful.

“Almost any restaurant that has a successful takeout business will be successful with online ordering,” Haman said. “With so many New Yorkers ordering delivery and takeout, this makes it even easier.”

But the service isn’t gaining traction just in New York. With the exception of the Dakotas, Glass said, the company has restaurants in all of the states. But it is more popular in urban areas, he said.

James Harrington, 56, was dropping into a SUBWAY — one of GoMobo’s clients in the Upper West Side — during his lunch break on Thursday. Harrington said he has never used GoMobo, but often uses other online ordering services, especially with pizza ordering.

Harrington, whose son, Asante Samuels, plays for the Philadelphia Eagles, said, “It’s convenient, especially now that the football season has started. But other times you just want to go to the place because you want to go for a walk.”

Cutting the time spent in waiting isn’t just a boon for the customers.

Noah Glass gives suggestions on GoMobo's Web site redesign to Mike Hirst, creative director. The company is looking to release a fresh look for its site.

Noah Glass gives suggestions on GoMobo's Web site redesign to Mike Hirst, creative director. The company is looking to release a fresh look for its site. (Photo: Vadim Lavrusik)

Tahir Siddiqui, general manager of several SUBWAY stores in Manhattan, said they have been able to cut some of the time spent on labor and increase the number of people coming through the store. It makes the process much more efficient, he said. More people per hour means more revenue.

Siddiqui said they get a lot of online orders during the lunch hours on weekdays; people trying to save some time on their breaks.

“I think that people eventually will use this more,” he said.

He also said a majority of the time the service is very accurate in the timing of the order coming in and the customer arriving.

The Web site uses an algorithm to determine what Glass calls the “go time,” or the estimated amount of time it would take to prepare the order at any given time of day. This is based on various factors like how long it would take you to get to the restaurant, how big the order is, number of customers before you, and more. The aim is to get the order ready for you just before you arrive.

Glass said he is aiming to take this one step further. The company is working on incorporating a GPS element so that customers can order on-the-go.

“For now, we’re just trying to focus on developing our current services to more clients,” he said.

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Famous Fat Dave looks to expand food tours in his Checker


By VADIM LAVRUSIK

When Dave Freedenberg was a cabbie some five years ago, every time he dropped someone off he would ask where the best local food joint was. After several years of driving up and down New York City, he knew a lot of the local food secrets.

Three years ago, he decided to use that knowledge to start his own food touring business, driving people to some of the most delicate tastes the city has to offer.

Today, he’s now better known as Famous Fat Dave. Famous? That’s something he earned from his appearances on the likes of National Public Radio and Anthony Bourdain’s TV show on the Travel Channel. Even though he’s from SoHo, on a recent tour he was recognized by school kids in Harlem.

Freedenberg doesn’t drive a yellow cab around town anymore, but a mint condition cream-colored 1982 Checker A12, the iconic 60s taxi.

“Kids love the Checker,” he said. “It’s like a toy to them.”

After getting his master’s from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs last spring, the 30-year-old plans to focus on his business full time, with aims of landing his own TV show.

He gets smiles all around from people pulling up next to him and asking him about his Checker or just passers-by on the street.

“The Checker really brings people back,” Freedenberg said. “Sometimes I feel like it gets added respect while I am driving.”

He always makes sure to give anyone stopping him his business card and talks about his tours or points to the Web site name stickered on his car door. He’s continuing to look for ways to get more business for his food tours, which mostly comes from word of mouth and his Web site, where he also writes about his food adventures.

The base rate for a tour starts at $200 for two people for two hours, and that includes the food. Each added hour or person costs $100, unless they’re kids, who eat for free. And of course, the tours are all customizable to the eater: vegetarian, meat lover, experienced foodie, New Yorker. Sometimes people will go to fewer places because they simply enjoy seeing the city in a Checker, while others are on the tour to try as much food as possible.

“Sometimes if you’re from Manhattan, you don’t venture much into the other boroughs to try those foods,” Freedenberg said. “This lets you do that.”

So what are those foods? Everything from jerk shrimp to coal oven pizza to broccoli rabe to cannoli to you name it. And often times, he knows the story behind the name of the place too. Like the Murder Burger in the Bronx. “It either got its name because it’s supposed to murder your hunger or someone was murdered there,” he said.

The restaurants are either places he’s come across in his work as a cabby or recommendations he gets from locals.

This is the appeal to many of his tasters, many of whom are out-of-towners looking to get a glimpse of the big city through its food.

Matt Vinnola, who lives in Colorado, toured with Famous Fat Dave during a guys’ weekend to the city with three of his friends last summer. He found the tour after seeing Freedenberg on the Travel Channel. Their tour lasted for about four hours and ranged from Caribbean food to key lime pie, he said.

Vinnola said Freedenberg brings a lot to the table with his knowledge of the city and the stories behind the food. “It’s something that everybody can do,” he said. “I could do this with my wife and kids.”

Jennifer Kepler was visiting the city with her husband and decided to do the tour after hearing about it on NPR.

Kepler said the places they visited weren’t ones that she would have found on her own, but would have to live in the neighborhood to find out about it.

“Most of these aren’t in the tourist book,” she said.

Freedenberg said customer favorites on the tour include Fratelli’s Pizza Cafe in the Bronx, a small place with a big taste, which he said has the best broccoli rabe.

The tasty green dish was an off-the-menu item, but has become a favorite with patrons, said Joe Fratelli, owner of the cafe. Fratelli, 45, uses many family recipes.

“There’s no special secret,” he said. “We don’t premake our stuff and use the best recipes. We don’t cheat. It’s all made right here.” The pizza brings in celebrities like Busta Rhymes, Fratelli said, showing a recent picture of the rapper eating at the cafe.

Despite the exposure from Famous Fat Dave’s tours and visits from celebrities, Fratelli said the cafe is still not that well known.

“Only if you know someone who’s been here, they would bring you here,” he said.

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