- Jon Bloostein
- 47 years old, "going on 60 after opening two restaurants in the last two months."
- Grew-up in Bethesda, MD; now lives in Greenwich Village
- Owner Heartland Brewery and Spanky's BBQ
Heartland Brewery celebrates its 10th anniversary this month. What made you think a brewpub could work in New York? Did you always have the desire to be a restaurateur or did you fall into it?
For a year or so, I helped out my brother, Oren, who owns Oren’s Daily Roast Coffees and helped manage one of his stores a few days a week. I constantly asked myself “what made his business a success?” This was years before Starbuck when Porto Rico Coffee Company and Gillies were the city’s only other coffee merchants. The only good answer I came up with was that he was fanatical about the product which also happens to be addictive. So, I wasn’t really looking specifically to open a brewpub. I was looking for business that capitalized on people’s addictions, or to be politically correct, people’s behavioral patterns I looked at tobacco, candy/sugar, gambling, topless bars and alcohol. Make your own alcohol – now legal in New York!
I had always owned my own business in some form and had gotten interested in brewpubs when the original New Amsterdam Brewery opened on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan. It was a great place; ahead of its time. While I was in Mergers & Acquisitions, I took a trip to New Orleans to a National Brewpub convention. At 9 AM, we had beer tastings, after which the exhibition hall opened with galvanized wash tubs, filled with microbrewed beer open to all; liquid lunch was offered by a local brewery; and at night we all went out drinking. I didn’t know if I could get used to the lifestyle, but it was something that I thought might be cool to investigate.
In 1995, the first Heartland Brewery opened in Union Square. I didn’t consider the fact that I was going into the food industry or the restaurant business. I had owned a carwash previously, and figured that a brewpub was really just a similar bunch of plumbing where we served the end product at tables. It was a combination of carwashing and retailing, so I thought I could do that. Dumb, inexperienced lamebrain. I was very naïve and had I not been so naïve, I would never ever have gotten into the restaurant business. I never had the desire to be a restaurateur. I didn’t fall into it, I stepped in it. I thought the chef I hired was the restauranteur, and I was the business man.
How has Heartland Brewery changed over time?
Heartland has become what some people would consider more corporate over time, which in some cases is a necessary evil. Heartland strives for food, beverage and service consistency while growing, although that may sound cliched. The “perfect” corporate structure is one imperceptible to our guests. Employee and guest comfort is very important to me. In some ways we operate as a big “mom and pop.” Rich, the Director of Operations, and I have a hand in all aspects of the business. I regret to say I am not as involved in the day to day operations of each store as when I owned only two Heartlands.
You participated in the executive training program at Bloomingdales before getting your MBA. Why did you leave first retail and then investment banking to enter the food industry?
I was in retailing, and I was something of a workaholic. I come from a retail family, specifically department stores. At 23, I found myself not doing much else but working, drinking and being anxious about work. I wasn’t well and my health was deteriorating. I couldn’t identify the source of it, but I knew I had to escape.
From there I went to live in a group house in Bethesda, where I got a job at a carwash and I grew vegetables, among other things (with a college degree, mind you). I remember, after work buying a six pack and stopping by the local sporting goods store to buy a container of night crawlers to make organic fertilizer for my tomatoes. I made the worm castings in the cellar. Nice visual, huh?
I entered investment banking as a consultant years later after getting an MBA. Although people around me were very smart and bright, transactions took forever and the gratification and satisfaction simply weren’t there.
How is running a successful restaurant like or unlike running any other business? Do the same concepts apply?
In some respects it’s very similar to running other businesses as the operating principles of cash flow, profit, loss, human resources and production carry over into all businesses. It’s unlike any other business I have been in because of the sheer number of things that can go wrong. If I was truly just in the “brewing” business, and I had a brewer who maintained the beer well, then the 1000th beer in the batch would taste a lot like the first beer poured. In the “restaurant” business, when I send out 1000 hamburgers, its 1000 different opportunities to send out something undercooked, overcooked, with soggy fries or a stale bun or a wilted pickle or a dirty plate or delivered to the guest late. And that’s only one very simple example.
Compared to retailing, it’s a much more complicated business -- little did I know. In retailing there’s no production. There is simply stocking, presenting and selling inventory that may be perishable but only in seasonal increments. In our restaurants, we have production crews in the kitchen, a sales and management staff in the restaurant, and we turn over the entire inventory approximately 60 times or more per year vs. 4 to 5 times a year. My inventory can go bad in a period of days and must be thrown away.
Does creating a brand/chain like Heartland create different challenges than simply opening a bunch of different establishments?
I think the real challenge of establishing a group of restaurants with a strong common bond like the Heartland Brewery identity keeps me very conscious of maintaining each restaurant’s separate character; maintaining similarities but making each distinct. In NYC, no restaurant but a national brand wants to be identified as a chain restaurant, primarily because New Yorkers will be less likely to go because they lack distinction and are homogenous. Homogenous is not how I’d describe New Yorkers. So, the challenge has been to create very strong brand recognition while having separate restaurants under the same umbrella, such as the Rotisserie at Empire State Building, a Beer Hall at South Street, a Chophouse in Times Square, and the original Brewery at Union Square, after which the Radio City store on 51st Street was modeled, at the request of the landlord.
Last month you opened a new barbecue restaurant called Spanky's. New York isn't necessarily known as a barbecue mecca like say Memphis or Birmingham, but with recent additions like Daisy Mae's and Dinosaur BBQ, there appears to be a renaissance. Why barbecue and why now?
Because New York is always the last major city to experience any national trend. I think this is true because New Yorkers are natural cynics. New York is the last major market where coffee bars became big; now they’re permanent fixtures. I think enough barbecues have become successful in NY so more restaurateurs are looking closely at it. Personally, I think it is really fun concept and after opening 5 brewpubs I just needed a change.
I view barbecue, in terms of popularity, like softball or NASCAR in that it’s something that most Americans have a very high comfort level with, but it does not feel commercialized. Also, most people who live in the suburbs have barbecues. Barbecue is actually a recreational pastime for Americans. There’s a need for baby boomers to have hobbies and be competitive. It’s perfect for guys – fire, competitions and eating!
What makes Spanky's unique not just among barbecue joints but all restaurants? How will Spanky's carve a barbecue niche in the Big Apple?
I think Spanky’s special comfort level is related to the Honkytonk style design. It looks like a multi-generational restaurant that was thrown together over 30 years or so. There is also an enormous Southern Pride Smoker in the middle of the dining room where you can park yourself, chow down on homemade poppers, real good ‘cue and watch the ribs rotate before your very eyes in the smoky chamber. Are we gonna carve a niche? I don’t know, but the food's really good, people gotta eat and people have been voting with their appetite since we’ve opened. Business keeps getting better every week. Also, we deliver and Virgil’s, on the next block, does not.
Before opening Heartland Brewery you sold ice cream on Wall Street. Were you really the first person in NYC to sell Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream? Was this before or after they Ben & Jerry sent their scoop vehicle to serve free scoops of "That's Life and Economic Crunch" ice cream after the 10/19//87 market crash?
Actually, the first summer I sold ice cream in front of ABC studios as "The Cone Ranger," wearing a Lone Ranger mask, a Stetson hat and a t-shirt with a giant ice cream cone on it. The following summer, I was down in front of the Trinity Church area and kept the shoe shine guys’ Budweiser cold in my pushcart. I originally sold ice cream from the Nassau Ice Cream Company out of Roslyn, NY and I think that the butter fat content was immeasurably high. I later supplemented this with Ben & Jerrys when a company named “Made In Heaven” ice cream sent their own truck up to Vermont to bring it back. That was way before it was packaged and in stores and way before the scoop vehicle, in 1983.
Where do you feel Heartland fits into New York's enormous and extremely competitive restaurant landscape?
Heartland is unique among all New York restaurants for one reason and one reason alone -- you can only get Heartland beer at a Heartland brewery. You can get a nice piece of fish or chicken or steak, and maybe even buffalo spring rolls (our specialty), at any other restaurant, and they may be satisfying. But you can only get a Heartland beer at one of our locations.
Who is the average Heartland customer? Do you find that you have a primary demographic, or is your clientele pretty broad?
Heartland’s clientele is somewhat different in every location. Obviously in the UBS/Paine Webber building it is more ‘white collar’ with some tourists, but the great majority are New Yorkers. Union Square has a younger clientele, more downtown and “down to earth”. The only restaurants that are more than 50 % tourists are Empire State Building and South Street Seaport. I select locations in densely populated areas -- residential, business, shopping and entertainment combinations -- because I’d like to think I am too smart to be lucky enough to make a big splash off the beaten path. Other people do it successfully; I don’t want to take the chance. I refuse to fail so I use real estate as insurance.
Your background seems to be more in business than in food. Do you have much direct input into designing the menus for your restaurants, or do you leave that to the various food "professionals" you hire? How important is it to keep adding to and updating your menu?
I am certainly less a foodie than a business person. I am involved in all aspects of the business. I have learned enough to know the difference between food people are going to like and food that they aren’t going to like, and I participate in every food tasting and approve every menu item. I try to appeal to 90% of the population who are looking to have an affordable meal in a fun, comfortable environment. I often look at Heartland as the middle ground between the Tribeca Grill and Houlihan’s.
We change our menu seasonally -- about 20 % of the items change -- but many of our regulars are so accustomed to what we offer that we can’t make dramatic changes without complaints.
How do you clean those huge tanks? Or do you not clean them, and that's why the beer tastes so good?
The tanks are cleaned with caustic solution after every batch. Without a high level of sanitation in the brewery, you’ll have bacterial infections in the beer which will result in some off-flavored beer.
When coming up with a new flavor, what's the process from brew concept (apricot wheat, etc.) to actual beer in patrons' mugs?
Ah, that’s the fun part! Basically, the brewers and I go out drinking. I generally have an idea of what I want. We all talk, try to remember the conversation the next day, and Kelly Taylor, the Brewmaster, makes a batch. It may or may not come out close to what we anticipated, but if it’s got public support we’ll go ahead and design a logo for the glass and enter it in the Great American Beer Festival.
Speaking of the Great American Beer Festival, your website mentions that Heartland's Farmer Jon's Oatmeal Stout won the Colorado festival's bronze medal in 1995 and a gold medal in 1997? Uhm … how does one get to be a judge in one of these festivals?
Don’t forget that we won a Silver in 1999 for the same beer. To be a judge you have to be certified. You can get information about that from your local Brewer’s Guild or The Institute of Brewing Studies in Boulder, CO … check the web. After certification you judge smaller competitions, then larger ones. If you’re lucky you’ll be invited to judge the Great American Beer Festival.
Ten things to know about Jon:
What's the best thing you've ever purchased/salvaged off the street?
A phenomenal back bar sculpture of a great old bulldog that I bought at Breweriana Show. I would have been happier if I found it in the street, but the guy gave me a break because they knew it would be on display in New York City.
Which city establishment sees more of your paycheck than you do?
I never see my paycheck, and every damn dollar goes back into building more of these pubs. As far as places I like to spend my money, I like the Ginger Man for their beer selection and Juke Box. I have also been known to hang out Blind Tiger Ale House and DBA.
Gotham Mad Lib: When the ______ (noun) makes me feel ________ (adverb), I like to ________ (verb). (Strict adherence to "Madlib" rules is not required.)
When the dog makes me feel licked, I like to bone.
Personality Problem Solving: Would you consider your personality more hysterical or more obsessive, and have you changed since living in New York; has "New York" become a part of you?
More obsessive. New York is both a home and an addiction. I’ve lived in New York for 25 years. I must have changed somewhere along the line.
When you just need to get away from it all, where is your favorite place in NYC to be alone, relish in solitude and find your earthly happiness? (We promise not to intrude.)
As if there is earthly happiness in NYC, though I like the rose garden at the UN.
Assuming that you're generally respectful of your fellow citizens, was there ever a time when you had to absolutely unleash your inner asshole to get satisfaction?
Every time I build a new restaurant, but it’s never satisfying.
Describe that low-low moment when you thought you just might have to leave NYC for good.
That’ll never happen.
Besides more square footage, what luxury would you most like to have in your apartment?
A dining room table.
311: Help or hoopla? Have you ever put it to use?
There are 8 Million stories in The Naked City. Tell us one, but try to keep it to a New York Minute.
We caught an employee stealing rolls of postage stamps, recorded on video tape. We showed it to him on videotape. He was fired and immediately asked for his job back. He couldn’t understand why he had been fired.
Heartland Brewery is New York’s leading local brewpub with five locations around Manhattan. Visit their website for more information and specific location info at heartlandbrewery.com. Spanky’s BBQ is a brand new barbeque restaurant at 127 W. 43rd Street, adjacent to the Heartland Brewery and Chophouse off Times Square. Take a peak at the menu by visiting spankysnyc.com.
-- Interview by Aaron Dobbs and Lily Oei with a special guest contribution from Sean Titone.