How the Queens Kickshaw Owners Built an Astoria Gathering Space
Stella Dacuma Schour
When married couple Jennifer Lim and Ben Sandler began plotting The Queens Kickshaw (40-17 Broadway, Astoria, 718-777-0913) in Astoria, they wanted simply to arm the neighborhood with good coffee. "Kickshaw derives from rickshaw -- I had my eyes on a Vespa and doing a mobile coffee cart," says Sandler. "I went to coffee conventions and all the good specialty coffeeshops in the city. I knew there was no specialty coffee in this part of Queens."
The pair's desire to run their own place derived from planning their own wedding, when they realized they had complementary professional skill sets that made them a good team. Sandler had been in restaurants for years, while Lim had worked in just one cafe, but she pushed Sandler to make the leap, and so they began looking for space.
The couple had been living in Astoria for three years (and Sandler grew up in Long Island City), and they knew the neighborhood was ready for a number of concepts. So by the time they opened their doors in 2011, they had bigger plans. They started with just coffee -- "We knew it would be harder to establish ourselves as a coffee shop if we opened as a restaurant and bar first," says Sandler -- and they quickly garnered a following for those drinks and the grilled cheese sandwiches they served on the side. "We thought the food was an adjunct," says Lim. "We never thought it would become center stage."
Their early success laid the foundation for the next phase, and three months later, they applied for a liquor license, which allowed them to bring in beer, wine, and the first bottles of what would become one of the best cider programs in the city. Soon after, they expanded the space and added a larger menu, which happens to be devoid of meat, although the duo doesn't call their restaurant a vegetarian restaurant. Three years on, the Queens Kickshaw has become a neighborhood staple, and you'll find most tables full no matter what time you stop in.
Your restaurant is closet vegetarian, but you don't like to be labeled like that. What is your food philosophy? Sandler: Familiar foods. It's not necessarily American comfort food, but it's familiar food from other cultures, and we do it with a twist. We're trying to serve something interesting that's made from scratch with great ingredients; something deeply satisfying with rich, layered complex flavors that pairs well with our beverage program. Lim: And just like we don't advertise that we're vegetarian, we don't advertise that we use really good ingredients or that we compost and recycle. Sandler: We don't like to pat ourselves on the back for doing things the way things should be done. The food should speak for itself. If you get your hopes up by seeing organic or artisanal on a menu, you set yourself up for a letdown -- and I have to doubt those words, especially for as prevalent as those phrases are. It's unfair to consumers.
How has your restaurant evolved since opening? Sandler: We just did grilled cheese and specialty coffee for the first three months -- we knew it would be harder to establish as a coffee shop if we opened as a restaurant and bar first. And that worked. Lim: We added beer and cider three months in. Sandler: We didn't even send in the application for the liquor license before that, but we got the license quickly. We wanted to bring something to Astoria that people hadn't experienced yet. At the time, the one-off, rare esoteric beers and the 12 percent imports weren't available in Queens -- and some, you didn't see on lists anywhere, even in Manhattan and Brooklyn. We hired an incredible consulting chef. At the time, a lot of new places were opening with single-item menus. That's not exactly what we were doing -- we just wanted to have an adjunct, something that we could mask as vegetarian. We don't call ourselves vegetarian even though we don't have any meat. So we don't identify as vegetarian -- we think that's a limiting dietary restriction.
Talk to me about how your cider program evolved. Lim: We're super excited about it. We have the largest, most comprehensive menu in the city, but we opened with three. When we first started, we didn't have that much knowledge, but the number of ciders on the market has increased, and more cideries continue to open. Sandler: We found out about the first Cider Week last minute, and we already had a large cider collection at that point. We decided to participate, so we had a cider dinner and went to Glynwood, which had invited a bunch of cider makers from Perche [France] to meet up with Hudson Valley makers. Lim: It was phenomenal. On one side was the French cider; on the other side, American. You could see such a stark line. There was such a range in flavors and stories. Sandler: That opened our eyes to the regional effect on cider-making. Right after, we sent an email to every cider-maker in the region asking, "When is your cider available in NYC in bottles or on draft?" Draft is harder. I wanted to dedicate one tap line to local cider, but we still can't get that many on draft.
How did you end up in Astoria? Sandler: I grew up in LIC. That's my roots. I was there from 10 years old through high school, and I went to grade school in Astoria. When Jen and I moved to New York, we lived in Manhattan for three years and then moved to Astoria. Lim: It feels like home here -- I'm from Toronto. Sandler: When we decided we wanted to do a coffee shop or a food business, we wanted to do things that weren't being done. We wanted to create a community space, and this has been one of our greatest successes: We've been able to create a space that people want to be part of. We've really been embraced. We feel really fortunate, honored, and special. Our excitement comes from doing new things that keep us excited. We're not sticking to a formula and letting other people take over -- we're maintaining control.
How is this neighborhood evolving? Where do you think it goes from here? Sandler: It's always been solid. It's really stable; it doesn't have the same vulnerabilities as the Lower East Side, the East Village, Williamsburg, or Bushwick -- it's a lot more immune to that kind of rapid turnover. And that sense of stability makes for a great place to operate a business. That said, a lot more young people moving to the neighborhood. It's a slow transition. It's a great place for students, teachers, artists, actors -- that's our mix. And people who work in the industry. So it's great to be that neighborhood spot where you can feel comfortable, and we experience that on weekends, during crappy weather, or if the train's not running.
What would you like to see happen in Astoria? Sandler: More restaurants focused on local produce, food made from scratch, a provisions store, and more specialty coffeeshops. Lim: It's cool to see young people doing their first thing that's creative and original, not cookie-cutter. There's an audience here that would appreciate something super unique. Sandler: I would love to see a live music venue, which is sorely needed in Astoria. There's so much live music and so many musicians who live in the area. There's also no art movie house.
Talk to me about running a restaurant as a couple. Lim: It's really challenging. We're together all the time. When we're home, we try to reserve times to talk about work and times for other stuff, like taking breaks, going out to dinner, and going on vacation. We're lucky in that we have different strengths. Ben is more thoughtful and he needs to process thoroughly; I'm more let's do it. On that energy, we balance each other out. He's more passionate than I am about food and drink, and I have more interest of dealing with staff -- how you motivate, delegate, run the machine, and connect with people virtually. Ben is great at dealing with people, so he's great at dealing with customers in difficult situations. But we can talk to each other and solve problems. It's a strong partnership. Sandler: It's quite difficult not to take work with us everywhere we go -- we're going to France, and I want it to be vacation, but we're going to do some cider research. It's almost inescapable. Work sort of interferes with normal life, so we try to make it be part of normal life and have it be fun.
Where is the industry going? Lim: This is our first restaurant, so I don't know if we can assess that, but it's really hard to make it work in this city -- and then you start getting into policies like paid sick leave and minimum wage. Those are things that we advocate that personally, but as business owners... Sandler: Those are the smallest parts, though. The cost of business in New York City is really difficult -- it's hard for small business to compete on a level playing field. So I see the direction going a little more corporate. I don't mean McDonald's and Chipotle, this is a different tier of restaurants: big name chefs behind projects without spending time in the restaurants. Those are going to be successful, but it puts a squeeze on us. It justifies the prices they charge. Lim: Mom-and-pops are rare. This place is so one-off -- we're not into replicating it or building a branded thing. That's one direction that things seem to be going -- in order to succeed without going crazy, you have to have a formula to replicate and manage from afar. Diners used to be such a big thing, but to think about this as our only business, making a living for our family doesn't seem feasible -- we have to think about how to do the next thing. Sandler: As we were seeking out investors, came across that a lot that asked, "How are you going to franchise? When will you do the next Kickshaw?" There's an attitude that you can't survive on one restaurant -- or you'd be stupid not to capitalize on something successful in another neighborhood. It makes sense from an economic perspective, but what does that mean for people who want one modest restaurant and want to stay in business and not get squeezed out by bureaucracy?
Best place in the city for a coffee: Sandler: When I go have coffee, it's like a magnet pulling me. The strongest magnet right now is Little Collins. Lim: I like Gasoline Alley from an aesthetic point of view.
Best place in the city for a drink: Sandler: We're really getting into cocktails lately. Betony. Milk punch. Lim: In Astoria, Mar's and Front Toward Enemy -- they're thesame mixologists as Dutch Kills. And Dutch Kills.
Best special occasion restaurant: Sandler: For us that's been Betony lately. Lim: And we really liked Piora.
Best no occasion restaurant: Lim: Bunker.
Quintessential NYC restaurant: Sandler: Dojo. That's been a staple since my childhood.
Favorite dish you've had out recently: Lim: The broccoli dish at the NoMad. It was super creative.
Best restaurant in Astoria: Lim: They closed. Mezze Place. such a short life, but it was so good. Sandler: Pachanga
Underrated person: Lim: The back of the house. It's a really hard job, and they're the soul of the restaurant. It takes a certain breed of person. They deserve a lot of kudos. It's very stressful, and there's a lot of pressure to do it consistently and with care all the time. There's so much more pressure than on a bartender and server -- the small mistakes matter more. And the pay is really low.
Underrated place: Sandler: I have never seen that restaurant Pukk in the news. Thai vegetarian on First Avenue. In my opinion, Thai food is almost always very good. Once in awhile, it's amazing, and Pukk is amazing -- and I never see anyone talk about them.
Pressing industry issue: Lim: Paid sick leave. Sandler: Back of house wages. It's getting more and more difficult to hire, and most restaurateurs and chefs will agree -- it's very difficult to get line cooks these days. It's hard to get people in the door for an interview or trail. What's going to start happening is restaurants will start paying more because they have to -- and people will realize that it costs a lot more to train someone up and have that turnover than pay more to begin with. Another thing that will make it more difficult for smaller places; it means the industry will have to start charging more.
Someone you'd really like to have come into the restaurant: Sandler: Paul McCartney. He's vegetarian. We could serve him anything. And, you know, he's a Beatle and all.
Someone you'd be nervous about cooking for: Lim: Anthony Bourdain. Sandler: He says rude things about vegetarians, and I think he'd fall back on his rhetoric even if he liked our food.
Something you wish the media focused on more: Sandler: I feel like the media has combed every corner of topic to discuss. I think I'm good with the amount of coverage. If anything, some things are overdone. Lim: I'm looking for a mentor. A female restaurant-owner with the same values. How does a place go from one to two? It would be interesting to talk to someone about how to manage and delegate. Sandler: Maybe the hidden role of consultants in restaurants. They're not in the story because they don't fit nicely, but they're so important in helping restaurants craft their image and service program. Sometimes we feel like we're trying to figure things out as they go -- it's not that we're not asking people for advice, but it feels like you have to wing it.
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