Fernando Peña had been working in restaurants since his early 20s, but when he saw a “For Rent” sign in a vacant shop on the corner of Crescent Street and Ditmars Boulevard in Astoria, he knew he wanted to build a restaurant of his own. He began envisioning Fatty’s Cafe (45-17 28th Avenue, Queens).
That was in back in 2003, and soon after, Fernando and his wife (and now business partner) Sue borrowed some seed money and rounded up some donated equipment from Peña’s old bosses. “There wasn’t anything else in Astoria that had that downtown feeling,” he says. “Plus, Starbucks was up the block. If they knew they could sell coffees for $5, then I thought I could definitely sell a burger and a beer.” They named their new venture Fatty’s, an inside joke and term of endearment between Sue and her friends. They installed a menu of Caribbean classics — mofongo, chuletas, and killer mojitos — as well as steak frites and sandwiches, and they also serve a “Charity Burger,” of which $2 is donated to various causes, ranging from breast and lung cancer to SIDS and MS.
Over the last decade, the Peñas have carved out a niche for themselves in the neighborhood, and they eventually took over the storefront next door, turning it into a brooding wine bar called Crescent and Vine. But that sense of community was disrupted late last year, when their lease expired and forced them to relocate. “I’m not going to lie and say I don’t feel bad about that,” Fernando says. “It’s very personal. It’s like a child. We basically lost a child last year.” But they soon found a new space on 28th Avenue near 45th Street — which was formerly the restaurant Stove — and it’s more than twice the size of the old Fatty’s. It’s still under construction, but the Peñas hope to see it open by mid-April.
On the next page, we chat with Fernando about the move, as well as his hopes and apprehensions for the future of Fatty’s Cafe.
So, was the relocation planned?
We thought our lease was up in two years: When we were two years into Fatty’s, we picked up Crescent and Vine. I asked the landlord to give us more time on Fatty’s. As luck would have it, I couldn’t find any of the paperwork to show for it. He died; now his kids run it, and they were under the assumption the 10 years was up this year. Without any paperwork to prove it, what could we do? When they called us about getting together to talk about the lease, we were looking forward to signing another 10 years. It wasn’t about rent or anything; it just turns out that one of the landlord’s kids is a pharmacist and he wants to do a pharmacy.
A pharmacy did seem like an odd choice.
In my opinion Fatty’s has turned into a neighborhood institution. You know how many apartments we found for people, how many people met there and are still together? We’ve seen couples come in just getting tanked on mojitos and in the course of a decade get married and have children and they still come in with their kids. I can’t see a pharmacy providing that for a neighborhood.
Will it be harder running the two places so much farther apart?
Crescent and Vine can run itself pretty much. You hire the right people and make sure you have inventory and that’s it; you can just let it go. We still have two years left on that lease and we plan on moving that as well.
Maybe. It was nice having them next to each other. I’d still like to stay in Astoria. I think I can make Crescent and Vine something even bigger, like a music venue. I think this neighborhood can carry something like a Mercury Lounge.
How do you feel about this new location?
I felt like we were in no-man’s land here; we’re like three blocks from the border of Woodside. But, I don’t believe that it’s all location, location, location; it’s what you offer. We didn’t advertise for Fatty’s, we just opened our doors and people told people.
Real estate is a nightmare; how was that process?
It was really tough; we wanted to stay on that side of Astoria. We literally were running into situations where we’d call the broker and they’d be like, “We just rented it.” I went to show Sue a spot that I thought was good on Astoria Boulevard. We saw a real estate guy talking to this Asian cat and pointing to the place. So I said, “When he’s done talking, I’ll go up to him and ask him about it.” When I did, he just finished renting the place! We were just missing everything.
So then how long before you found this place?
About seven months, but that’s only because we thought we were going to get a place on 21st [Avenue]. Then he wasn’t responding to our calls. I felt like when you go on a date and everything goes well, then you call the girl and she’s brushing you off. That chewed up a lot of time, otherwise we probably would be open here by now.
Did you have any specific criteria you were looking for?
No, it just had to feel right. We came in, and Sue had a really good feeling about it; she’s good with gut feelings and she has good intuition.
Do you think it’ll be tough to move since you made your name at the old location?
Aside from being a business, there’s a social impact. I really enjoyed that, I enjoyed giving and receiving that kind of thing. You don’t have to come in my door and spend money for me to say hello to you. If I see you five or six times, I know you’re a neighbor; I’m going to say hello. Hopefully we can make that here. I think we do have a following — like a rock band, people will wait for that next record release — and I think we stand to make a new clientele.
So you’re optimistic then?
I was pessimistic just because we had something so good. I’m older now, and when you get older, it’s not like you get more adventurous. You get more cautious. But as we’ve been doing work, I feel more optimistic because we get to change the place. Our kitchen is bigger and we didn’t have draft beers at the old Fatty’s. I think what it takes here is if somebody comes in once and we do a good job, then we do well by retaining customers. We’re staying away from a menu design where it’s about rare ingredients sourced from another planet; I’m just so against that. That’s that game, that’s not our game. This is a soul driven place.