Pop-up vendors who parlay their successes into brick-and-mortar restaurants have become a common story. And the most recent vendor to make the jump is The story of Schnitz (177 First Avenue, 646-861-3923), which just opened in the East Village.
Co-owners and siblings Donna and Yoni Erlich grew up enjoying chicken schnitzel prepared in the traditional Easter European manner. But they had difficulty chewing on the formality of the hand-pounded fried cutlet they saw at restaurants. Making the item accessible became their mission.
The Erlichs’ father owns several Manhattan restaurants, but they quickly realized they were out of their depth when it came to marketing such a niche food. “We started this blog, and that was the driving force,” says Yoni. They reviewed schnitzel at established restaurants. They talked about milestones like purchasing their first fryer on Atlantic Avenue. Yoni took a job at the now closed Rickshaw Dumpling Bar for four months to understand the ebb and flow of running a kitchen. They documented everything for the web.
Soon, the duo and their business partner Allon Yosha applied to be part of Smorgasburg, and after a stressful interview process, they were accepted. “That was a huge day in our lives,” says Donna. Smorgasburg provided a platform for the team to showcase their product to a wider audience, as well as deal with the challenges of running a food business outdoors. “There are a lot of things that can go wrong,” says Donna. But the family atmosphere of the market helped ease the transition into pop-up entrepreneurs.
The perils of moving a fryer around on summer weekends paid off: Schnitz began to amass a following. Reviews from critics poured in and were overwhelmingly positive. Even Mario Batali got in on the action, stopping in for a bite and leaving a happy customer.
Schnitz soon brought in chef Stephanie Alleyne, whose credits include longtime East Village standby Veselka. Soon the pop-up was serving shrimp and pork belly schnitzels in addition to the original chicken version, which comes topped with pickled cucumbers, daikon, ginger, shallots, and a caramelized onion dijon mustard sauce.
After three years of hustling, the team was ready to open a permanent place in the East Village, a neighborhood where the roster of Smorgas alums includes Mighty Quinn’s and BaoHaus. They lined their cozy space with wallpaper made of copies of “The Schnitz Chronicle,” their old blog, which serves as a reminder of the team’s continued use of media to connect with customers, and they filled the room with small tables and high tops for dining in. The large windows provide good people-watching on First Avenue.
The menu here is full of Schnitz’s signature offbeat sandwiches, like the Forrest Gump-inspired Lt. Dan (shrimp schnitzel with jicama-fennel slaw and lemongrass mayo) and the Grumpy Russian (a mix of pork loin schnitzel, greens, pickled cherries, and a gorgonzola spread). There’s a vegetarian option called the Yonz; it’s a butternut squash and corn mix with honey sriracha mayo and that jicama-fennel slaw. And one big difference from the portable tent: You can order alcohol. Schnitz has craft beer and wine taps installed at the counter.
Still, “at the end of the day, schnitzel is the star of the show,” says Yoni. And what’s most important to the Erlichs is making people realize they can experience a classic dish in a completely new way.
Click through for a couple of photos.