When husband-and-wife team Meghan Love and Jeff Lutonsky first opened Mable’s Smokehouse on a then-quiet block in north Williamsburg in 2011, they faced a number of obstacles that threatened to shut them down. “We really struggled the first two years,” remembers Love. “The block we’re on was not nearly as crazy as it is now; the Wythe wasn’t there when we signed our lease. It took us a long time to build out our space, and we paid-back rent for the first year we were open. We were busy in the beginning because we got a lot of press, but then it really slowed down.”
The couple survived the first few slow months after the buzz died, and over the last two and a half years, they’ve gained considerable steam. Their persistence is a lesson in operating a neighborhood joint in the New York City restaurant world, and so we caught up with Love, who weighed in on how she and her husband bootstrapped the business while having a kid, what’s most important to her about running a family eatery in a hip neighborhood, and how she’s using crowd funding to make the next step.
What’s the back story behind your restaurant?
We opened in January 2011. I was an actor, but I’d always worked in restaurants. Jeff was working in the art world, but he always worked in his mom’s restaurant growing up. He learned how to cook from his grandmother out in Oklahoma, and she did real country cooking and amazing southern sides.
When the recession happened, no one was buying art and nothing was happening in the acting world. Jeff’s mother passed away, and shortly thereafter, so did his grandmother, whose name was Mable. That left us with a little chunk of money to do something, and we thought there was no better way to use it than to open this restaurant. No one else was really doing these recipes in the family, and it was a good way to continue the tradition.
How did you stretch a small inheritance into enough to open your place?
We did the build-out on our own and scraped together the money, and we ran out of money like 10 times. We built every table and the bar, and we got all the chairs from yard sales. Because we crafted it all, it’s very sturdy and really well-made.
Once you opened, how did it go?
We opened in January 2011, and the barbecue craze had really just started. We wanted to do something that wasn’t trendy or cool. We’re in the middle of the coolest neighborhood in the world, and we wanted to do roadhouse barbecue like you can still find on the side of the road in Texas or Oklahoma. I grew up in Kentucky, so the bourbon is my influence. We wanted a simple and down-home vibe in a comfortable space. We wanted people to walk in and feel at home with country music playing.
When I wrote the business plan, I wrote that my goal was that you wouldn’t feel intimidated when you walked in the door. After 12 years in Williamsburg, I knew there were a lot of restaurants where you feel intimidated, and I didn’t want to have a place like that.
When did you start to pick up steam?
It was scary in the first year because it was really not busy. It picked up in the second year, and now that we’re in our third year, it’s booming.
We have a lot of regulars that live in the neighborhood, and a lot of families because we’re kid-friendly. It really does it for me to see one of our long communal tables and see people from all over the city. Maybe there’s a couple from the Upper West Side who hasn’t been to Brooklyn since 1989, and they heard about us so they came and checked us out. Or meat-loving guys who come in for beers and suddenly show up with their parents. That’s the biggest compliment to me.
So what’s next?
We would like to open other locations of Mable’s, but we’re not there yet financially or spiritually. Jeff and I still run this place, and our energy is still here. As our staff gets stronger, and we have more ability to be away a little bit, we’ll think about it. But we’re not sure if we want to do another spot in New York.
We really want to expand our catering and events business, and I would love to do more weddings. I love feeding people on their wedding day. I want to do more off-site stuff. We’d benefit so much from having a mobile smoker because we’d have the ability to have a whole hog and cook it right there on the spot.
It’s always been sort of a dream of ours to take the food out to the people. And to do barbecue competitions (well, that’s a dream of my husband’s). But we need a mobile smoker to do that. We want to take the concept and spread it to people who might never be in Brooklyn. We want to feed people who don’t live in New York.
And you’re funding plan that on crowdsourcing site FairStreet right now, correct?
Yes. FairStreet approached us. They were asking about people’s stories in restaurants, and I gave them a few-minute spiel on what we had been through and, at that point, were still going through. My husband and I put all of our resources, money, and time into this. We had a baby five months after it opened. We threw ourselves into the business. FairStreet was really about being able to fund people’s dreams. They have a lot of heart in their business, and they’re giving people the ability to realize their dreams in a way they couldn’t do otherwise. With FairStreet, it’s more about why you want to fund a business beyond you just want to have a restaurant and make money.
The why is at the forefront of what we do. We’re carrying on our family traditions and business.