Small wonders make food work
Small wonders make food work New York City's smallest eateries make do with 250 square feet or less. Microsize me:
Alon Kruvi's four-foot-wide Simply Sliders draws midtown lunch crowds outside, in part because there is no room inside. Photo: Buck Ennis
Simply Sliders, a new takeout spot popular with the lunch crowds around Grand Central Terminal, is a lot like nearby food joints. It offers a trendy product—small Angus-beef burgers, fried chicken sandwiches and french fries wrapped in checkered paper. Customers have their choice of beverages, ranging from a variety of sodas to lemonade, and there are plenty of napkins for messy eaters. Yet unlike other eateries, Simply Sliders is only 85 square feet in size—a four-foot-wide cubby nestled between a Subway and a Lotto store on East 43rd Street.
"We're an innovative model," said Alon Kruvi, who opened Simply Sliders in May and pays about $3,000 in monthly rent. "We're not paying for storage—we're basically a stationary food truck."
Honey, I shrunk the café! Across Manhattan, local food entrepreneurs, eager to open their own storefronts, are squeezing into tiny, shoebox-shaped retail properties less than 200 square feet in size. Traditionally, such nooks were reserved for jewelry or scarf sellers, or the occasional magazine and newspaper stand. Food operators, subject to stringent rules and regulations from the city's Department of Health, usually steered clear.
Yet this new crop of foodies, hoping to save on rent and appear more creative aesthetically, are making it work. Some, like Mr. Kruvi, operate cheaper commissary kitchens elsewhere in the city and receive daily deliveries to keep stock up. Others take up sidewalk space or rely on a friendly neighboring shop for extra room.
"It's hard to be a food seller and have a small space," said Alexandre Warzee, who opened a 180-square-foot café called Bisous Ciao Macarons on Bleecker Street last summer and now makes about $2,500 in sales per square foot. He noted the need for a sink for hand-washing, a floor drain and a three--compartment sink for food prep. "Processes just need to be in place and respected to keep the chaos out."
Though small, these peanut-size stores can pack in a big sales punch. Many of the lucrative ventures boast sales between $2,500 and $3,000 per square foot. It's not too far from the sales figures of Apple, a money magnet—the electronics company averages near $4,600 in sales per square foot, according to investment bank Needham & Co. Meanwhile, trendy supermarket chain Trader Joe's weighs in at $1,750 per square foot.
Singular focus Meat and Greet:
Daniel Mancini keeps Meatball Obsession's menu small and simple, just like his 212-square-foot shop. Photo: Buck Ennis Experts credit the rising popularity of food trucks and markets such as Brooklyn's Smorgasburg for making tiny takeout operations seem feasible. An early pioneer of the trend, Baked by Melissa opened a nearly 100-square-foot storefront on Spring Street in 2009—baking coin-size cupcakes off-premises. The company has since expanded to 10 additional outposts. Unlike national chains, which usually have size requirements of at least 2,000 square feet, local players are more flexible.
"If you look at the people operating in smaller footprints, it's the local, trendier guys," said Robin Abrams, executive vice president at real estate firm Lansco Corp. "It's what they're doing to fit the mold and not make the mold fit into their prototypical requirements."
Since the mold is limited, most entrepreneurs keep the menu brief, offering just one or two products. Such a strategy works twofold: It helps shop owners manage within the confines of the space, and it helps to market the concept. Mr. Kruvi's store, for example, is better known as the "sliders shop."
Daniel Mancini operates Meatball Obsession in a 212-square-foot outpost on Sixth Avenue. "I keep it simple," said Mr. Mancini, who sells four types of meatballs with a dozen toppings. "Meatballs are in my blood."
Attracting a crowd on the sidewalk—lines form, of course, because hungry customers can't fit inside—makes some businesses stand out even more. Neesa Peterson is one entrepreneur reaping the benefits of such an arrangement.
She chose a 38-square-foot closet in the meatpacking district for her three-year-old seasonal business, Imperial Woodpecker Sno-Balls, because she could wheel her 100-pound ice machine onto the sidewalk each day. It's a drastic change from last summer, when she was in a pricier 400-square-foot store on MacDougal Street. A restaurant next door to her new spot at 55 Gansevoort St. lends Ms. Peterson some storage and refrigeration space, though she keeps her own fridge, stocked with evaporated milk and about 50 flavors of syrup, in her own shop.
Good neighbors Sno queen:
Neesa Peterson's Imperial Woodpecker Sno-Balls operates out of a 38-square-foot space in the meatpacking district. Photo: Buck Ennis She declined to say how much she pays in rent for the space, which is hers until Sept. 30, but the asking rent was about $4,000 a month. It's the smallest space the fashion model turned snowball seller has ever used, but she's gotten used to it.
"It's small, but my overhead is staying lower than it would if I was in an actual storefront," she said, noting that on a warm summer day, she can sell about 400 snowballs, priced from $3 to $9. "It's a perfect product for right on the sidewalk."
Like Ms. Peterson, Nicole Meyers, a co-owner of gelato shop Screme, has nice neighbors. Because Screme, located in an 18- by 6-foot sliver on the corner of West 94th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, has no room for indoor seating, it uses the adjoining patio area of apparel shop Upper 90 for its café.
Ms. Meyers has about six tables in the outside space where customers sit to sip espresso or eat sorbet. Two freezers in a 50-square-foot basement space complete the setup, which can get rather tight—the ice-cream display counter is long enough for three workers, but it's nearly impossible for one to walk behind another.
Though Screme is open only nine months of the year, it generates about $3,000 per square foot in annual sales, said Ms. Meyers. And the space works well enough that the company is opening another tiny store in Battery Park this year.
"We'd like to do an indoor café, but so far we're managing," she said. "We don't need large locations."
A version of this article appears in the August 12, 2013, print issue
of Crain's New York Business as "Small wonders". http://www.crainsnewyork....5557&sfvc4enews=42
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