Opening a restaurant takes guts and grit, and most of them fail after a few years. Lloyd Feit, age 52, has owned his restaurant for more than 25 years, and likes to imagine himself sitting in front of his restaurant in Colonial times, with his neighbors passing by and a wood burning stove in the kitchen.
“I was always an industrious kid, mowing lawns and doing stuff like that, so on my fouteenth birthday I got my working papers and I went to work in a place similar to Nathan's, you know, with a long line of food stations. I pushed the garbage can around and then I swept the parking lots and as I got older, I worked at the soda fountain, and down to the hot dog stand, and then to the french fry line, and then down to the hamburgers, and then to the meat slicing machine, where only college kids were allowed to work! So I was 16 years old and I was making a lot of money. I think I graduated high school with $8,000 in 1971, which would be equivalent to $50,000 or $60,000 now. And I was mowing lawns before I went to work, so I was just a good employee and a nice kid.
“To this day, I still say yes, sir, yes, ma'am, like I was serving hot dogs up there. In my mind, I think all you have to do is be on time and be polite and you have half the world licked.
“From there, I left and went to college. I worked sea food houses in Virgina Beach, and then I went to work for a big steak corporation, where I worked for a brilliant franchiser. Some of the things I learned there I still do here in my restaurant: bonuses for the kitchen at a certain point, wine sales contest...things I just learned along the way.
“I was going to school to be a teacher, and I got a degree to be an elementary school teacher and special education teacher, not really having my heart in it. But my parents didn't let me go to cooking school; they thought it wasn't a nice thing for a Jewish boy to do. So I went and got a degree, but I always cooked.
“When I graduated school, they built the first European style hotel in Norfolk, Virginia. Long story short, three years later I was chef de garde, the supervising chef, over two restaurants. Those were the best years of my life, because they hired the most beautiful girls in the city, and all the equipment was incredible, and I was done with school, and aesthetically I probably looked the best in my life at that time.
“And then I drank myself out of Virginia, and came back to New York to my parents' house and my head is spinning. I take a couple of local jobs and go back to work in banquet houses in Long Island, and I continue to drink and start saying I'm a chef, when I'm really not, yet. I was basically just a good for nothin' chef like a lot of the cooks back then were: guys who drank too much. Back then, the restaurant business leant itself to acceptable drinking. It was less professional.
“So I worked as a sous-chef in Long Island for a few years, but with alcohol mixed in, I wasn't responsible. Eventually a girl I worked with said there was an opening for a job in New York City, in a tiny little cafe with a blackboard menu, and that I should do it.
“So I came into Manhattan on 13th street, 26 or 27 yrs ago. I wrote a blackboard menu and went to work in a little ten-seat cafe. We were Cafe Loup--cafe the wolf-- and across the street was a chacuterie called Les Trois Petite Cochons--the three little pigs--and we're both still in business now.
“And I survived. Along the way, you learn how to ruin everything every different way, until you find the right way to do it. I have it my head the best way every type of food should be done. And that just comes from trial and error--I guess at the customer's expense!
“I sit outside in the morning, and do my crossword puzzle and say good morning to all my neighbors and I like to think that I could be doing my job 200 or 300 years ago, and still be doing it the same way. I'd be a merchant who is sitting in front of his little shop, saying good morning and then going into the kitchen to work. I feel blessed that way.
“I’ve had some of the staff in the kitchen since they were 14 years old. They were illegal aliens and I've sponsored them for immigration, and they own homes, and one them has his own business, and they still work for me. I would say the average amount of time that someone would have on my staff, front house and back-- including waiters!--would be ten years.
“Lots of guys want to open a second restaurant, but like my millionaire landlord says about me to his brother, another millionaire landlord: "All this guys does is want to take care of his kids and pay his bills. He doesn't care about being rich!"
“I have a nice life, I live in Chelsea, my kids have gone to public school and my wife and myself are pretty low key. There are some people who, in their minds, think that I'm rich, and they wonder why I'm here working, or customers who think I might have a better life than they do. And I might! Because I do what I love to do every day.”