Ryan Hardy sits at his desk looking at a to-do list. Item number one: Write a job description for Ryan Hardy.
Just under three years ago, Hardy opened hip-hop-inspired hot spot Charlie Bird in SoHo with partner Robert Bohr. In February, the pair teamed up with wine director Grant Reynolds for another concept, Pasquale Jones (187 Mulberry Street; 917-472-7230), that would prove to be hit number two. Now, Hardy and the rest of the team are striving to redefine each of their roles in what may just become New York City’s next big restaurant group.
“You go from being director of the film to the producer of the film,” says Hardy. “You want these guys to grow. That’s why we opened a second restaurant.”
For Hardy and Bohr, the idea goes back to Charlie Trotter, who Hardy says strove to give back to the individuals heavily involved in the operation of Trotter’s restaurants. If employees don’t have space to move up, logic dictates that they’re more likely to move onto more fruitful ventures.
Creating career development opportunities for employees has become crucial to the team, whether it’s moving someone to operations director, general manager, or just giving a young sommelier a chance (a sommelier at Charlie Bird recently competed in a global sommelier championship). In doing so, the theory is, they get to keep talented people and reap the rewards of the training investment. Hardy wants to “provide them a stable, creative, growing business to work in.”
Paying servers a living wage is part of that. Pasquale Jones is a no-tip establishment. For Hardy and his partners, it was purely a business decision — a way to encourage waitstaff to move up the chain of command. Servers are no longer beholden or anxious about the $100 bill riding on “the jerk at table two.” There’s no more worrying about favoritism or fighting for shifts. It doesn’t matter if a server works on a Monday or a Sunday night. Salaries are coming out of paychecks.
So far, it’s been a success. As Hardy sees it, salaries between front and back of house are going to have to equalize. With the potential $15-per-hour minimum wage increase looming, there doesn’t seem to be a way around using an inclusive pay model. It will only deepen the divide between the wages of servers and cooks. To make up for the impact on the bottom line, food prices will have to rise regardless. And, Hardy says, following the inclusive model makes it easier for business owners to offset employee insurance costs. “The goal is not to pay kitchen staff more and wait staff less,” says Hardy. “It’s to balance the playing field in another way.”
Customers have barely noticed, says Hardy. And given the lengthy waits to get a table, few seem to care.
As the team mulled over the idea of opening a second restaurant, they weren’t sure exactly what they wanted to do. They knew they wanted a fun neighborhood restaurant. Like most people, Hardy, Bohr, and Reynolds have an affinity for wood-fired pizza. The trio threw ideas around, but when they found a storefront on historic Mulberry Street with wood ovens (and permits), the concept really started to take shape. The goal was to create a fun and comfortable restaurant with wood-fired pies and other dishes, paired with great wines, and served by nice people. “We had always spitballed this idea,” says wine director and partner Grant Reynolds.
The existing wood-fire ovens were ripped out, replaced with high-end Stefano Ferrara ovens from Naples. The menu, which changes seasonally, features pasta; however, what they call their “neo-NY-style” pies have been the main draw. Unlike soupy Neapolitan pizzas, these slices can still be picked up, folded, and consumed by hand.
The menu isn’t fully Italian, but it’s “kept within a framework of Italian culinary heritage,” says chef de cuisine Tim Caspare (formerly of San Francisco’s Quince and Cotogna), as he rolls out pasta dough.
Former pizzaiolo of Locale in Boulder Matt Perez helped design the pies. The littleneck clam pizza has become an instant classic, regularly turning up on the Instagram feeds of food-obsessed New Yorkers. Other options include black trumpet mushroom, as well as spicy coppa with kale and caciocavallo.
Vegetables and meats also get the wood treatment. Roasted cauliflower was a top seller on the opening menu. Caspare roasted it with citrus and horseradish, then served it with a salad of blood orange, hot pepper, fennel, and mint. Pork shank for two proved to be another popular pick. Caspare modeled it after a technique he learned while working in Umbria — seasoning it with lardo paste, black pepper, fennel seeds, fennel pollen, rosemary, and garlic.
Hardy is stoked to have Caspare on the team. They had been friendly for years, going back to Caspare’s Eleven Madison Park days. As Hardy mentioned earlier, Caspare’s presence means Hardy can focus on other things. That has allowed the chef/partner to pay closer attention to the operations side of the company, a natural fit for Hardy’s business and accounting degree.
With Charlie Bird, the chef/partner would cook all day, run into the afternoon staff meeting to talk about parties, and then keep going. Now, Hardy finds himself zigzagging between tasks on an hourly — and even half-hourly — basis. One moment, he’s reviewing financial profits and losses. The next, he’s rolling out tagliatelle.
In some ways, the change of position has been a bit of an adjustment for Hardy. He regularly goes through the items with Caspare, suggesting dishes or pizzas. Caspare comes back with ideas on execution. Ultimately, Hardy has become more of a collaborator, giving Caspare a “tremendous amount of credit” for the food at Pasquale Jones. “As a chef, your food is your voice,” Hardy says. “It’s really hard to have somebody else do that and love it.”
It’s not the first time Hardy has been in this position. He oversaw operations Aspen’s acclaimed Little Nell — a massive kitchen with 100 employees, including 70 cooks. He has experience running big budgets, multiple outlets, and fine-dining restaurants. He admits “It could be harder” — especially for someone who doesn’t have the experience of handling both a kitchen and a vision.
Still, Hardy says that growing into a second concept is far easier than opening your first restaurant. While they still have to write menus and recipes for two different places, there’s a lot of duplicate duties with things like permits and legalities. But a strong team, lead by Caspare and general manager Dan Bjugstad, was already in place. With established systems, it’s easier to handle the crowds. After opening his first New York City restaurant, Hardy now knows what to expect. “It’s just different from other places,” he says. “Getting your garbage picked up, you have to go out and fight with the garbage man. They’ll talk shit to you, and you have to talk back to them or they’ll run all over it.”
The other bonus for an expanded concept? Built-in clientele. When they opened the first restaurant, they didn’t receive the same instant acclaim or hordes, as the team was still working on building a brand. With restaurant number two, they knew they had a stronger following of regulars and industry friends. Still, they didn’t know how that would play out. “We didn’t expect to be quite as busy from the get-go here,” says Reynolds. “I think that having Charlie Bird has certainly helped that.”