When Alan Natkiel finally caved to pressure from his enthusiastic friends and decided to solve his unemployment problem by opening Georgia’s Eastside BBQ in 2007, he had a few very firm predictions about his potential for success.
One, that all the new buildings sprouting out of the ground near his northern Orchard Street location would create a built-in customer base—construction workers at first, and later, upscale office workers and new Lower East Side residents.
Two, that he could turn a profit without becoming a destination dining spot as long as he won over enough local diners.
He was wrong on the first point: shortly after he opened in July 2007, the commercial real estate market tanked and large residential projects like 180 Ludlow stalled, leaving hulking frames devoid of barbecue eaters. Streets on surrounding blocks have been torn up, scaffolding covered his entrance all fall, and even though there are some new storefronts, many more sit empty.
“I thought construction down here was going to drive business, but it’s actually turned out to be a real downside,” says Natkiel, 35.
But Natkiel was right enough on the second point that, nearly four years later, he and his staff of a dozen or so are still slinging Southern-inspired dishes seven days a week. Considering the Lower East Side’s notoriously high mortality rate for new, independently owned restaurants, that shows staying power.
“I thought there was the ability for a fraction of this neighborhood, if they liked me and would support me, I wouldn’t need any tourists or other customers, really,” says Natkiel, who estimates that takeout and delivery orders account for nearly half his business. He also offers family style dinners in-house at $25 per person, and takeout or delivery party-sized combo dinners. The latter option is popular during events like last month’s Super Bowl, when he sold 1,100 pounds of meat in one weekend.
With a menu built around foods the New Hampshire native learned to appreciate—and to cook—during his young adulthood in Atlanta, Georgia’s Eastside BBQ offers urbanites a taste of country soul-food: ribs, pulled pork, barbecued and fried chicken (including two kinds of wings), collard greens, cole slaw. The French fries are made from actual potatoes; the banana pudding has just the right amount of vanilla wafer crumbles.
“I did the math in my head of what food in this neighborhood in any way resembled my food,” he said. “I thought I’d be able to do something in a way no one else was doing it.”
With less than a dozen tables and a narrow, tiny space adorned with old photos of Natkiel’s artist parents and snapshots of the restaurant’s namesake, his 10-year-old Cane Corso dog, Georgia’s Eastside BBQ is a staple for lots of its neighbors. Natkiel says he has some customers who come three times a week. Several patrons who wandered in on Sunday afternoon were greeted by name, and WD-50 Chef Wylie Dufresne is an occasional visitor.
The restaurant was born out of parties Natkiel threw for friends at his East Village apartment. He’d worked in restaurants and bars, including Lodge in Williamsburg, but found himself out of a job at the age of 31. Cooking barbecue for appreciative buddies led to a search for space to do it for strangers, and he cashed in a small inheritance from his grandmother to fund the venture. He dreams of someday spreading his brand to other New York neighborhoods and bigger spaces, but right now he’s got his hands full with the Orchard Street location and an almost-2-year-old son.
“Owning a restaurant—there’s a lot of strings attached, a lot of stress. I get less sleep than ever,” Natkiel says. “But I also get more job satisfaction than ever.”