OFF THE CORNER, BARBECUE JOINT STRUGGLES

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On a recent Friday night at 7:15, Chef Charles Gabriel and several staff members stood chatting at the bar of Rack and Soul restaurant in Morningside Heights, in front of a nearly empty dining room.

The barbecue and soul food restaurant that opened on the southeast corner of Broadway and West 109th Street in 2006 to several positive and highly publicized reviews is now on a significantly less visible side street. And, like scores of other Manhattan restaurants, Rack and Soul is bracing itself as the economy slumps.
“Everybody has the same plan—it’s to serve food another day,” said Ed Levine, the editor of Serious Eats, a food blog.

Michael Eberstadt, Rack and Soul’s 42-year-old owner, heeded that strategy. Over a year ago, with business decent but not where he hoped it would be, he made a calculated decision to vacate his highly visible corner spot—and the $26,000 a month rent that came with it—and move onto West 109th Street. He cut his rent in half, to $13,000.

Michael Eberstadt has had to lay off several longtime workers at his well-reviewed eatery, Rack and Soul, since he moved from a corner to mid-block location. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

Michael Eberstadt has had to lay off several longtime workers at his well-reviewed eatery, Rack and Soul, since he moved from a corner to mid-block location. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

“I’m sure there’s a lot of similar property negotiations going on around the city,” Levine said. “I think that everybody is going to their landlords and saying, ‘If I leave, will you be able to rent this?’ That, I’m sure, is playing out 100 times a day.”
To fill the newly vacant corner, Friedland Properties, the building’s owner, followed the pattern of many Manhattan commercial landlords during the recession and signed up the only breed of tenant who could afford the corner: a national chain, in this case, Verizon Wireless.

“Now it’s a lot more manageable and the landlord was very reasonable in dealing with that. It’s a straightforward business decision,” Eberstadt said. “It was a win-win for everybody.”

Further exacerbating the loss of visibility for the restaurant has been the lengthy construction process of the Verizon branch, which began in October and is still unfinished. For several months, the corner has been hidden by in a bare wooden exoskeleton, making the entire area in front of the restaurant look vacant and blighted to those passing by on Broadway.

Though Rack and Soul has experimented with four different signs in an attempt to gain visibility, business is struggling, with both the carryout and eat-in business down equally.

“Our loss of visibility certainly doesn’t help,” Eberstadt said.

David Samberg, a Verizon spokesman, was unsure when the construction would be finished but said the store is “coming soon.”

Finally, Rack and Soul has the added challenge of succeeding on a street with scant commercial activity and little foot traffic other than residents and parents and children from an elementary school on the block.

“Those side streets are particularly tough, especially farther Uptown,” said Levine, the food blogger.

Since the move, Eberstadt has laid off several longtime workers and now hopes that while the economy struggles, at least the opening of the Verizon store will help increase foot traffic to the area and improve the corner’s appearance.

Meanwhile, the restaurant that earned a positive review in The New Yorker’s “Tables for Two” feature in July 2006, and was the number-one seller at the popular Big Apple Barbecue Block Party in 2008, remains largely empty on most nights.
Knowing that factors beyond their control are hurting business, Eberstadt and his staff, like many others around the city, remain focused on the one thing they can manage.

“You always want to point the finger at yourself,” Eberstadt said. “In the end, what’s most important is how that chicken tastes.”

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