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Keeping it Local: Lower East Side Restaurants Owned By Your Neighbors

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Reading Manhattan’s  food media, you’d think the Lower East Side was suffering from invasion by outside influences at every turn. Stories abound heralding the influx of German cuisine, as evidenced by a giant Munich-based brewhouse planned on the Bowery and a Bavarian bakery under construction on Orchard. The new pizzeria and coffee shop side by side on Ludlow, both from Seattle, along with the Portland-based chicken wing place on Rivington, gave trend-watchers fodder to talk about Pacific Northwest restaurateurs sinking roots below Houston Street.

Given the diverse and adventurous nature of Lower East Side diners, drinkers and shoppers, it’s no wonder that plenty of entrepreneurs from outside the neighborhood seize opportunities here – and flourish. Their places contribute a wealth of variety to local choices whenever we head out from home hungry, thirsty or with empty shopping bags. But we are also rich in a more homegrown commodity: businesses whose proprietors both labor and live in the same ZIP code.

Local joints owned by local residents provide community benefits that are not necessarily obvious as you enjoy a plate of Emmentaler sausage at Café Katja, for example, or down a draft beer across Orchard Street at Interstate Food & Liquor. But the owners of those two places, as well as others like them, operate their businesses based on a passion for and an understanding of the community they call home.

Pushcart Coffee proprietor Jamie Rogers, who lives upstairs from his East Broadway shop, calls it “just good business” to be a neighbor of his patrons. Prior to acquiring Pushcart last fall, Rogers spent a year building houses in rural Louisiana and digging urban gardens in New Jersey with AmeriCorps.

These days, Rogers spends his time overseeing a cafe that has become a gathering spot for residents of the nearby co-op complexes, with the height measurements of customers’ kids marked out on a shop wall, a community bulletin board, and a new elm tree that he ordered growing out front.

“I wanted to achieve that same kind of community-building, but in a way that would also pay the rent,” he says.

At Café Katja on Orchard Street, partners Erwin Schnottner and Andrew Chase have managed not only to pay the rent on their tiny Austrian restaurant; this month, they are completing a major expansion, taking over a storefront next door.

Both Schottner and Chase had a background in high-end establishments, but they purposefully set out to create a “neighborhood restaurant” that just happened to feature Austrian fare, Schottner’s homeland cuisine. Despite doubling their capacity this spring, the pair remains committed to maintaining the comfortable, homey vibe that has been Café Katja’s hallmark for five years.

“Our big objective is to keep it exactly the same – the same feeling, pretty much the same menu – and basically just make it so people don’t have to worry about getting a seat,” Chase says.

Cultivating a mostly local clientele took a little while.

“In the very beginning, when no one knew who we were and we weren’t yet a ‘neighborhood place,’ we got a lot of people from other places coming because we were an ‘Austrian restaurant,’ and they wanted to experience Austrian food, or recreate their grandmother’s cooking, or whatever,” says Chase, recalling some critiques of his goulash and his linzer torte.  “That’s not what we’re about, really.”

In about a year, Chase says, Katja’s regulars became so regular that more often than not, Chase knows eight in 10 of the people he’s serving. Repeat customers are not only good for the bottom line; they engender a whole lot of job satisfaction, he says.

“It’s a pleasure to be here, basically all the time,” says Chase, who lives on Grand Street a few blocks from his restaurant. “We’re humbled and gratified. Even when we aren’t that busy, I often walk home from work and I say to my wife, ‘You know, we weren’t that busy, but we had the nicest people in tonight.”

Café Katja’s block of Orchard, between Grand and Broome, is heavily laden with locally owned businesses. The same year that Chase and Schottner opened their doors, 2007, Roasting Plant creator Mike Caswell chose a spot next door to debut his new coffee shop concept and moved into an apartment upstairs. Since then, other small, independently owned restaurants and stores have arrived and flourished in adjacent storefronts, including newcomer Interstate Food & Liquor, which debuted in September.

Owner Andy Boose is also a partner in Spitzer’s Corner and Los Feliz, so he is no stranger to the hopping LES nightlife scene. He was looking for a spot for a quieter sort of venue, and pounced when the space at 74 Orchard came on the market because it was two blocks from his house and one block from his office. (Boose is an event organizer on a global scale, as well as restaurant owner.)

“I opened this place because I wanted a place nearby that I’d like to hang out in,” says Boose. “I wanted a local dive bar with basic, good food that would be laid-back even on the weekends.”

IF&L recently expanded its hours to serve breakfast and lunch in addition to dinner and late night, and joined neighbors The Living Room and 88 Orchard in offering live music on Tuesday nights, creating a sort of informal jazz night on the block. The upstairs mezzanine in IF&L hosts small private gatherings such as after-parties for local art gallery openings, and Boose sometimes finds the schoolmates of his young children eating macaroni and cheese with their parents during the early dinner hour.

The neighborhood vibe is exactly what he envisioned, he says, and it’s not just seeing old friends that make it interesting – it’s been a source of new friends, as well. “I’ve really met a lot of people running this place,” Boose says. Almost on cue, Ben Stiller, on a break from shooting a film up the street, strolls in the door.

“I’m Andy, and this is my place,” Boose offers to the actor. “Would you like to come in and have a drink on the house?”

A few blocks away and a couple of hours later at Pushcart Coffee, Rogers was welcoming a crowd for a meet-and-greet with the owners of an East Village bar. They were looking for neighborhood support of a new place they want to open on the corner of East Broadway and Clinton streets; one of the partners has just moved into an apartment a couple of blocks away.

Meanwhile, next door at Malt & Mold, a small gourmet grocery that opened in early May, Kevin Heald and his wife Cha Cha Pisani had been meeting and greeting people all day. Surrounded by local products like Roni-Sue’s Chocolates from Essex Street Market and pickles from Rick’s Picks on Chrystie Street, Heald and Pisani discussed how exciting and rewarding their venture has been already, just two days after opening their doors.

“We wanted a store like this here, so we wondered: Does anyone else want a store like this here?” says Heald. In addition to goods from the ’hood, Malt & Mold offers draft beer for growler take-out and a carefully curated selection of cheeses from the regional Northeast, California and Europe (the store’s name is a metaphor for these two products.) Greater New York is also represented: there is fresh bread from Sullivan Street Bakery and ice cream from Brooklyn.

As Heald describes how he chose his products, passersby wander into the shop, offering comments like “Welcome to the neighborhood,” and “Your place looks great, I wish you lots of luck.”

“The genuine outpouring of emotion has been really heartening,” Heald says, as a young woman stops in for a look.

“I live in the neighborhood,” she says, by way of greeting.

“Me, too,” Heald says, stretching his hand out over his newly minted counter. “My name is Kevin.”

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