Yassir Raouli was just minutes away from seeing thousands of dollars slip through his fingers. Rouli, the Morrocan cuisine guru who operates the gourmet Bistro Truck with his wife Elsa, will soon open Rustic L.E.S., a brick-and-mortar restaurant at 124 Ridge Street, off Stanton. But just months ago, Raouli was struggling to find the funds to outfit his new kitchen.
“We were tight on money,” Raouli said recently, sitting in his nearly furnished restaurant. “As with every restaurant, you never meet the budget—it’s impossible. We were thinking of ways to raise money.” His answer came from Ben Rossen, one of the creators of Smallknot, a crowd-funding website that allows members of local communities to donate funds to small businesses in need of cash and receive rewards from those businesses in return.
Together, Rossen and Raolui launched a campaign to raise $8000 for Rustic LES. On June 13th, they succeeded—but without much time to spare. With the campaign’s time limit fast approaching, an angel investor put them over the top.
“Half an hour before the end of the campaign, someone pledged $1700,” remembered Raouli. “It was literally 11:30, and Ben said, ‘Dude, you just got a big donation right now.’” To thnk contributors, Raouli will offer rewards, ranging from discounts to a private lesson in Moroccan cooking, once Rustic L.E.S. is up and running.
“We see it both as a funding platform and word of mouth marketing—a way to identify customers who are really the kind of loyal customers that you most want to reach,” said Rossen. He and his partner, Jay Lee, are former lawyers who started Smallknot after seeing small businesses struggle to compete with chains in their neighborhood, the East Village.
“We were just watching all of these places close and thinking its crazy that there’s no way really for ordinary people to invest in their neighborhood,” Rossen said. “Communities love these places—the people who live there want their neighborhoods to be diverse. But the economic incentives of any financial institution just aren’t aligned with that, because it’s so much easier for Bank of America to rubber stamp a 6 million dollar loan to KFC.”
Raouli said he was skeptical at first, but his restaurant’s good fortune has changed his mind. “I’ll be honest with you—I never was excited about it. I thought it’s begging for money, it’s bad for the brand,” he said. Rossen had initially approached him last year, but he shied away from his proposal. But with encouragement from his wife, he reconsidered working with Smallknot to build out his kitchen. “Now I take it all back—I thought it was begging for money, I thought it was bad for the brand. I think I was wrong. It’s a really cool way to get funding for a small project,” he said.
Raouli is especially excited to open his doors to this community. “The Lower East Side is one of my favorite, if not my favorite neighborhood in the whole city,” he said. “When I’m hanging out, I’m always like at a bar with my wife, or before I even got married I was always here. I just like the landscape of the neighborhood, the different crowd, the different landscape of human beings.”
Now he’s putting the finishing touches on the restaurant’s interior and waiting for the city to approve the site’s plumbing before he offers “a fine dining experience in a casual atmosphere and setting.” His menu will feature some traditional Moroccan items that should pique the interest of adventuresome foodies, including a lamb liver crepinette, wrapped in the thin exterior tissue of lamb stomach, and a whole roasted lamb. “We’re doing some craziness; we’re not doing safe,” Raouli said. The menu will also feature items familiar to fans of the bistro truck, and takeout will be available during lunch and dinner, starting at 11 a.m. each day.
Whether Rustic L.E.S. will serve wine remains to be seen. In April, Community Board 3’s State Liquor Authority licensing committee declined to support Raouli’s beer and wine license. He is now waiting on the State Liquor Authority’s ultimate decision, but his dissatisfaction with the ruling, combined with the slow pace of city approval for his restaurant, has him considering a political career in the community that helped fund him. He knows other restaurant owners have been appointed to serve on CB3. “Maybe I’ll run for office,” Raouli mused. “I’m definitely thinking about it.”