Risky Business

It takes more than a dollar and a dream to develop a storefront— but the rewards can be priceless

Jean-Paul Sartre called New York "the phantom city," where space "flows through the streets like a cold draught, separating the inhabitants of one side from those of the other."

Every day some of those inhabitants wake up and decide they are going to start a business, in some cases a restaurant or a bar to become a community of socialization, or a store to share what they have made with the rest of the world.

Then of course they have to go about making the business.

And then there are all the books written about business. The titles— like beating-the-odds-do-it-now-you-could-be-the-one— all sound alike. They go on and on about cash flow, cash thirst, shrinking gross margins, ballooning sales costs, managerial blindness. Some tell people how to make business-project spreadsheets with sections on expense control and preopening expense lists. They tell people the world is a jungle, to watch your back, and some get a little gloomy and say, by the way, the number of small businesses that survive five years is very small but it does not matter because you could be the choo-choo that could.

Following are the stories of three new businesses in which the owners probably know nothing of the statistics and have never read any of the books. In each case, the idea did not come because they were sitting around one day saying, hey, now that the city has rebounded from the sharp recession of l989­l992 and had the strongest private employment growth in 1998 in several decades, let's see how many ginger muffins we can sell. Nor were they paging through The Wall Street Journal, noticed the Dow was up, and said, let's open a store and sell four-inch-square pink handbags and make a killing. Nor was it because they read The Crisis in Global Capitalism.

It came out of something deeper, something that is very hard to quantify. They opened their businesses because they wanted to. For experts say, very few would start a small business based on any sort of rational spreadsheet calculation.

Thank God! The go-go dancer at Black Betty's is going to wear a nurse's costume. Now for sure everyone will come.

Bars and clubs are creatures of the night. Their whole job is to seduce people. To do so, they have to be cool. They also need thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars to come into existence.

Black Betty's, scheduled to open at 366 Metropolitan Avenue in Williamsburg later this month, has the coolness factor. The owners are the handsome boulevardiers of Bedford Avenue who know everyone in town.

As for the money, they have been doling out thousands every day for months, mostly from the savings of co-owner Bud Schmeling, 33, and partly from a silent investor. Schmeling's partner, Napoleon Napharoah, 25, had "no money." But Napharoah's connected. Anyway, money means roughly $4000 for the beer taps, $4000 for the hard liquor, $3000 for the sound system, more than $5200 for the liquor license, $2500 for the liquor

license expediter who deals with the community board, $15,000 for the security deposit for the kitchen equipment (they plan to serve food in a few months), $2000 for an accountant to keep the books. Then thousands more for the wood, the lighting, the paper spray-painted copper for the ceiling— for that Moroccan look.

"Oh here, eight dollars for lightbulbs," Schmeling said, sitting near piles of wood that will soon be a door or a stage. "Every so often I realize there's no turning back. Just 'cause you spent all this money, doesn't mean you can stop. I don't have any trust fund. There's no one behind me. I've been saving to open a space for five years. If this bombs, that's it."

"Listen," Napoleon said, "You gotta stay calm because your mental state has to be level or you freak out." Of course, no one thinks it will not make it. Even Schmeling. "Williamsburg has taken off so much in the last five years, you'd have to try really hard to screw up a business."

Long Island­born Schmeling, who has a masters in literature from Brooklyn College and a day job with the Consortium for Worker Education, teaching hospital and ladies' garment union workers, has bartended for seven years at Teddy's, a Williamsburg institution. Napharoah, a former barber who was raised in the neighborhood— his mother has a clothing boutique— for the past two years has been trying to open Juice Daddy at Bedford and North Fifth, which will serve mixtures of "whiskey and wheat grass," he said. "That is another venture."

As for Black Betty's, "The best thing we have going for us is our overhead. It's really low," Schmeling said. "Our rent is $2000 for 2000 square feet. Our landlord is paying for our water. That can get to be really expensive."

"The landlord is an old-fashioned handshake guy," Napoleon said. "Pat Pescatore. He likes us."

"For some unknown reason," Schmeling said. "There were a lot of other people, more qualified, more money, better credentials than us. He wants us to make it. That's why we got lucky."

The space has a history. Up until the 1970s, Jimmy Nap ran a restaurant there, Schmeling said. The late James Napoli, ranked 31st on Fortune magazine's l986 power and influence list of the top 50 mafia leaders. Nap's place was called the HiWay.

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