This morning’s news that the Pink Tea Cup would close on January 3 after more than 50 years of business came as a shock, but according to the restaurant’s third-generation owner, Lisa Ford, its fortunes began to turn right around the same time that Wall Street’s did.
“It’s the economy,” she says. “The economy is not conducive to a restaurant or a small business at this moment. Like, where’s our stimulus package? People think we’ve been around forever and we’ve got this notoriety, but when things get bad, we’re just like everybody else.”
Ford, who’s worked for 20 years at the soul food restaurant that her great-aunt, Mary Raye, opened in 1954, says that business had actually been down ever since September 11. “We haven’t made the money we made before 9/11,” she says. “Before Lehmann crashed, we were in trouble: we had one of the worst summers that we could imagine.” Business had been so bad that it reminded Ford of “when AIDS hit the Village — I can’t explain it to you. I’d never seen my mother more stressed out. But this right here, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Although the restaurant still attracts tourists and has “a great clientele,” Ford says, the regulars haven’t been quite as regular, thanks to tightening purse strings. “It’s not that they don’t come, it’s that they don’t come as often,” Ford explains.
The fall-off in business was exacerbated by everything from higher property and income taxes to paying the Con Ed and garbage bills: “It’s a domino effect,” Ford says. “People don’t even know how much you spend for trash collection.”
And then, of course, there was the rent. Ford actually considered closing the restaurant two years ago, when her landlord raised it. But she’s quick to defend him. “For the most part, [he] was always a really good guy, and we had a great relationship and rapport,” she says. “But if the real estate market says he can max out the space, he wants to max out the space. He’s always been really fair, but the rent increase came and it was more than we thought it was going to be.”
Ford says that as far as she’s concerned, the Pink Tea Cup will not be reincarnated. “For me, it’s the end of the road,” Ford says. “I put in my 20 years.” Born and raised in Queens, she started working at her mother’s restaurant “straight out of college.” Now, she’s “43 years old and ready for a change.” She’s not sure what she’ll do next, but she does know that she’ll be doing it in Atlanta, where she has family. “My mother’s a little concerned because I’ve never worked for anyone, but I’m going to work it out.”
As for the fate of her restaurant’s soon-to-be former home, Ford says she has no idea who its next occupant will be. “It’s a rough space because it’s on a side corner,” she says. “They’re probably going to push it as a restaurant. I wouldn’t. I’d shoot for a clothing store.”