Interview with Margaret Wong and her sister Suzy Wong
80 Riverside Café (expected open January 2013)
Interview with Jeff Yoskowitz and Kathryn Gordon
Kathryn: Hi Suzy, Hi Margaret. This space is so open and airy, and with the plants and the overhead fans it reminds me of a stage-set for a Cuban café. How did you find this space, and what are you planning to do here?
Suzy: We’re sitting in the hotel lounge area and this is where we will set up our cafe. We are located at the corner of 80th St. and Riverside Drive in a Landmark building hotel. There are no cafes along Riverside Drive and there are 120 rooms in the hotel. Hotel guests have to walk 2 blocks to Broadway if they want coffee and breakfast in the morning. Based on a survey I conducted of guests staying at this hotel and based on the overwhelming positive response of guests wanting a cafe on premises, we’ve decided to open a breakfast café here. The owner is a very dear friend of mine. He wanted to have a restaurant/outdoor cafe here many years ago but it was very difficult in the past to get the Landmark Preservation Committee to approve an outdoor cafe. We are in a sense fulfilling the owner's dream - many years later.
Jeff: Landmark status is difficult to work around. How are you managing that?
Margaret: We’ve used the hotel’s architect, because there are very few landmark specialist architects. He has now obtained permission from the NYC Landmarks Preservation Committee for us to create a new door opening facing the park. That will allow us access to neighborhood foot traffic, in addition to hotel guests. We’re hoping to attract customers throughout the day, then transition to light lunches and finally to afternoon snacks and treats as mothers and nannies take kids to the park after school.
Kathryn: So Margaret, we know you from when you were a Chef Instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE). Obviously, you’ll be managing the kitchen. Suzy, what’s going to be your position?
Suzy: I'm the day-to-day manager. Once the cafe opens I will be front of the house and barista/counter person.
Jeff: Margaret, what’s it like to work so closely with your sister?
Margaret: Well actually, there are 2 more siblings involved! My other sister will be in charge of the Café’s aesthetics and when we open she will be doing the sandwiches and wraps for lunch.
My brother Simon, who is a architect, will be in charge of the inside renovations (and the hotel architect is working in conjunction with him for the outside modifications under the landmark rules). There is also a pre-existing bathroom that we will spruce up and are sharing with the hotel.
Kathryn: Wow, that’s an amazing group of resources to be able to draw upon. So where will the kitchen that your brother is designing be located?
Margaret: Right now, it’s the suitcase storage area for the hotel. It actually was a kitchen once so there are pre-existing gas hookups. There is good solid floor tile, and windows and I’m thinking we might open up the art deco archway and have an open kitchen view from the café. I might be able to host some demos and classes here eventually.
Suzy: Can you visualize a kitchen in there?
Jeff: I can visualize a kitchen anywhere! It’s really tiny though!
Margaret: It’ll be even smaller since the lease requires us to carve out a suitcase storage closet. But I will have a Hobart mixer, convection ovens and other equipment.
Jeff: What kind of terms did you get on that lease?
Suzy: It’s a 5-year lease with a 5-year renewal option. We don’t begin paying until we are actually in business.
Jeff: Those are fantastic terms to have negotiated.
Kathryn: And there really is nothing like this around you in this whole very residential neighborhood.
Suzy: We are fortunate as we already have a captive audience - the hotel guests!
Margaret: And especially in the summer, the amount of foot traffic passing outside is amazing! The baking aromas should help draw them all in, and there’s visibility to the kitchen thru these tall windows.
Kathryn: Margaret, for the 9 years I’ve known you, you’ve been a pastry and baking instructor. You’re making quite a transition from teaching. How do you feel about that?
Margaret: I’ve always wanted to have something of my own, and I’m the only member of my family in the food business. I told my students what I was planning to do, and they were very supportive. I needed something more. This is the time to do this, for myself and I couldn’t teach and focus on the business at the same time.
Kathryn: It helps immensely to have support from your family, as well.
Suzy: We’ve pooled our resources to finance everything and we are reluctant to take a bank loan. Having Simon overseeing the architect/design portion of the business has been a tremendous help in keeping our costs down.
Jeff: Sometimes that’s risky, because you’re risking your own family relationships.
Margaret: I think at the end of the day if this fails, we’ll still be ok as brothers and sisters.
Suzy: As a family we are very close and each of us will work very hard to make this dream come true. We’re in a bit of shock today, because we just got our first bill from the hotel landmark architect. We should probably double the estimate for each project moving forward.
Jeff: Did you have a concern that you were leaving a salaried position for a business that was going to take a long time to get off the ground?
Margaret: Thankfully I have somewhat of a cushion and obviously, having an architect in the family will ultimately save on costs.
Jeff: Do you have a business plan?
Suzy: Yes, we do and I find SCORE's website to be very helpful. You have to do a lot of your own work, but they give you guidance. We welcome any guidance/suggestions as this is so new to us.
Margaret: We’re sort of all over the place, because we’ve never done this before.
Kathryn: In your business plan, how many customers are you expecting once you’re open?
Suzie: I tried to be very conservative. We need on average of 75 customers a day, estimated from the hotel. There are 120 rooms, and we believe based on my surveys that roughly 80% of those will get something for breakfast. Throughout the rest of the day, if another 45 people total come in thru foot traffic from the neighborhood that would not be unreasonable. We’re located right on the park! On average we need each customer to spend about $4 to break even.
Jeff: That’s pretty reasonable for a break-even projection, given the cost of coffee and a croissant or danish!
Kathryn: Have you figured out your menu?
Suzy: We’re going to focus mainly on breakfast items, sandwiches and coffee for now. If we could expand we would ultimately want to do wine and dessert.
Jeff: Since this is a hotel, are you planning to be open 7 days a week? What are your business hours going to be?
Margaret: 7:30 am till about 6 pm. I think we can handle that every day, between all of us.
Jeff: Besides the process of working in a landmark building, were there any surprises for you that you had no idea you were getting into?
Margaret: No, not yet. We thought we would have to go all electric, but then we’ve been told that we have the ability to go gas, because there once was a kitchen here.
Jeff: There’s an existing bathroom – have you determined how you would share the responsibilities with the hotel of updating it, cleaning it?
Suzy: You’ve just brought up an important point! Like what happens with the shared space – that we have not thought about. I think that we’ll be able to work out some plan with the hotel staff.
Kathryn: Is it a concern that people might just hang out in the space here off the hotel lobby, and you won’t be able to turn tables?
Suzy: The hotel guests usually come in and check emails and go off to do other things in the city. I am noticing more and more hotels in Manhattan share their lobby areas with something like a Starbucks.
Kathryn: Can we come back and see how the space comes out after the build out, before you open?
Margaret: Sure! I’d love to share my menu with you when it’s ready, too!