Risky Business

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

Most recently the space was the Don Diego Restaurant. The owners left mysteriously in the night last year "with food still in the oven and glasses on the table. It was a Dominican beer joint," Napharoah said. "I had my eye on the space for two years. I was always hoping these guys would leave. I got the landlord's number from the federal marshall's paper on the door and traced him down. I was originally going to open with another investor. She didn't like the place 'cause it was too greasy. So I needed to meet someone with the same vision as me."

One night, Schmeling was getting an espresso to go at the L Cafe. "And I was sitting in my office space," Napharoah said. "I have a table in the corner. My office phone is the pay phone outside the Mexican restaurant."

"I'd been looking for a year for a space to open up," Schmeling said. The two started talking. "Napoleon took me over. I knew it was right. Central air, fully equipped kitchen, everything was here— tables, chairs, plates, glasses." Their friends are pitching in to build it and be the bartenders.

Schmeling and Napharoah decided on the name Black Betty's while pulling into the parking lot of the Home Depot on Northern Boulevard in Queens. "Those places give me an ulcer," Schmeling said. "But we were getting some BX cable and saw blades and we'd just been thinking about a name for months. There's a famous old blues song called Black Betty. Leadbelly did the original. We said the name out loud a couple of times. Then we nodded our heads. Black Betty was also the name for the car that used to take prisoners to work. The guy who drove the car was called Uncle Bud, so that kind of worked out."

"We named our corporation Dollar Yo Inc.," Schmeling said. "It's like when you shoot craps, yo means 11, it's a 15-to-one shot. It's a winner."

"In six months we should have recouped our investments. Now if $350,000 a year comes into the place, we're strictly guesstimating, and say we knock off half for our costs, that would leave $175,000. Then our investor gets a percentage. I'd say we'd make $60,000, $80,000 each. But we could be completely off. We might make zero."

"I keep telling him," Napharoah said, " 'How do you eat an elephant? A little at a time.' "

If you ask Pete and Dave about their contractor, their eyes roll. But that situation was just the first of the ups and downs experienced by brothers Pete Adrian, 28, and Dave Ethan, 30, owners of the Grey Dog's Coffee on Carmine Street. There were other struggles. But two years later, The Grey Dog has lines for Saturday and Sunday brunch, longer than at "a certain other desirable breakfast spot in the area." In l999, Zagat Survey rated them 10th in the "Top 100 Bangs for the Buck."

Which was a lucky thing. "All the restaurant money came from our life savings," said Adrian. "Instead of buying a car at 18, we decided to hold on to the money."

Their experience in restaurant ownership was not grounded in the family. Their mother runs a coat-hanger factory in New Jersey. "Growing up in Rockland County, all we did was play Whiffle ball every day, forever," Ethan said. But they had worked as waiters in recent years, supplementing their previous professions— Adrian as a commercial photographer and Ethan as an actor, though he says, "When I retired from acting, nobody knew."

A lot of strategy went into finding a location— it took about a week, they said. "Our first choice was to open a café up by Columbia but they wanted $17,000 a month for a corner space at Broadway and 112th," Adrian said. "Broadway real estate is very expensive no matter what part of the city you're in, but especially around Columbia. The university owns a lot of the realty up there and they just won't rent to anybody. We couldn't even get into any of their places. They just wanted a Gap to open up."

Adrian found their Carmine Street, $5000-a-month, 3500-square-foot space— plus 3500 more in the basement— with a 10-year lease by walking around the city with a notepad.

"It was the first place I saw, really prime, really cute, no Starbucks nearby," Adrian said. "Though I would welcome them to open next to us just to see how poorly they would do." Like lions, Adrian and Ethan are not afraid to take on the competition. "A lot of restaurants have gone out of business on this street. One nearby is the third that's opened since we've been here. We got lucky. Now I'd be nervous to open somewhere else."

The 35-seat, 6:30 a.m.­to-midnight restaurant looks and feels like a Joni Mitchell song— ketchup bottles, hanging plants, and brick walls. Adrian's girlfriend makes the ginger cookies that are shaped like dog biscuits. The bathroom has a picket fence.

"This place just kind of grew on its own," Adrian said. "Because the place had a kitchen, we made the immediate decision that we'd serve food. We were just going to serve coffee. Then as soon as we opened, a guy asked for an omelette. Dave said, 'Oh, I can do an omelette.' "

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