Sixty-four years ago, Junior’s (386 Flatbush Avenue Extension, Brooklyn, 718-852-5257) owner Alan Rosen’s grandfather Harry decided he was going to open a restaurant that served great cheesecake. So he went to a number of restaurants lauded for their baked goods, bought cakes, and took them to his baker, Eigel Peterson, to experiment. The pair tinkered with crust and consistency, eventually settling on a recipe that’s still used at Junior’s today, four decades after the Voice first declared it the best cheesecake in the city. “We’re not just a restaurant, we’re an institution,” Rosen says. “I take that responsibility quite seriously.”
Rosen’s family history on the Brooklyn block where the original Junior’s still resides dates back even further — Harry had owned a restaurant there as early as the ’20s. It was part of a small chain of Enduros, and when the stock market crash and ensuing fallout of the Great Depression happened, it was the only location he held onto when he was forced to liquidate the rest of his assets. The Enduro eventually closed — Harry later went broke again, but the tireless restaurateur resurfaced with Junior’s.
And so began a true family business: Rosen’s father and uncle skipped college to join Harry at work, carrying on the Junior’s legacy of “great food, great cheesecake, and great service,” Rosen says. “They were never trying to be what they weren’t. That’s what they did their whole lives.”
The youngest Rosen got his own start when he was a toddler, when he’d help separate doilies to line the front pastry cases. After bussing tables and working in the kitchen, he took over the business (though his dad still stops by the restaurant), and he saw growth potential. So he built a small mail-order business especially for ex-New Yorkers who had moved elsewhere but craved cheesecake, and he expanded with outlets in Grand Central, Times Square, and at the MGM Grand at Foxwoods in Connecticut.
Sadly, the original Junior’s location is up for sale, though Rosen says he hasn’t yet accepted an offer. But he confirms that he’s plotting another Brooklyn location nearby, this one slightly closer to Barclays Center — and it’ll carry on the Junior’s tradition.
Give me your account of the Junior’s history.
My grandfather was a soda jerk. His father and mother — one emigrated from Poland, one from Russia — lived on the Lower East Side. My great grandfather made bunk beds and worked in a slaughterhouse; my great grandmother encouraged my grandfather and his brother to work — that’s how he got the job at the soda shop — and save. He bought a a half interest in this luncheonette, and that’s how he got his start. The name of that first restaurant was Enduro’s, and he operated four or five going into the late ’20s. He went broke in the stock market crash and sold four of the five locations, but he kept the one in Brooklyn. He ran the Enduro from then until ’49 and then went broke again.
With the promise to pay a builder at a later date, he got a new restaurant built. It was a family-style place. He said, “We’re going to be a great restaurant and have a great cheesecake.” So he went to all these other places supposedly making great cheesecake and bought cakes, and then he’d go upstairs to the bakery, and he and his baker, Eigel Peterson, would do experiments. They hit upon a formula that was acceptable and ran with it, and from the ’50s until now, that recipe hasn’t changed.
In the ’50s, my father and uncle started working by [my grandfather’s] side.I don’t know that they finished high school. Myself and my brother were the first generation to go to college. They ran a restaurant. One restaurant. That’s what they did their whole lives. My dad’s 80 and he still comes to work.
So then at what point did you expand?
When I got involved in the ’90s, I thought the brand deserved a little more. First, we started a mail order business. Really, customers forced us into it. They’d move away and say, “Can you send us a cheesecake?” Then in ’99, we opened two stores in Grand Central. They came to us and said, “We’re doing this redevelopment, and we’d love to have you be a part of it.” This one [in Times Square] opened May 17, 2006. Foxwoods opened in 2008 — two years to the day after Times Square.
Talk to me about the neighborhood around Junior’s in downtown Brooklyn — how has it evolved?
It has almost come full circle. In the ’50s, you had the Paramount, and people were going to rock ‘n’ roll shows and coming to Junior’s for a late burger. Now there’s Barclays Center, and downtown is getting residential. On Flatbush, you see people pushing strollers — that’s kind of cool. I love that young people are choosing to live there. This neighborhood has seen some rough times. In the ’70s, I remember my dad coming home with black eyes. It was not the most comfortable place to be. It’s always had a certain edge. I’m hoping that remains and that it doesn’t get all homogenized. Retail rents are rising. It’ll be interesting to see how it all shakes out — we’re in the middle of a major change.
How has Junior’s evolved over the years?
When we opened in the ’50s, we were really a kosher-style restaurant. You’d get chicken in the pot, beef in the pot, stuffed cabbage — that stuff is no longer on the menu. We have Caribbean items, red snapper, and Brooklyn has some Brooklyn things. You can’t stick your head in the sand and not change — we have to give our customers what they want. And Brooklyn’s changing. Ten or 15 years ago, I was not a believer. But now… I don’t think development’s bad, by the way. But I want Brooklyn to retain its character.
Could you share me some favorite memories?
Camille, Mary, Freddy, Chichi — these are people I’ve known since I was 4 or 5. If I wanted to see my dad, I had to go to work because he worked seven days a week. I started working with Camille in the bakery; she had me separate doilies with my fingers. Our whole front window was filled with cakes on those doilies. Mary and Fred would yell and scream at each other all day, like that old kind of counter banter. As for Chichi — I learned how to make sandwiches from him. These people don’t work with us anymore, but we still sort of pay homage to them. Then there was a blackout in 1977. I was 8, and I remember standing behind the counter at Junior’s, resting the bus pan against the counter and tossing in saucers and cups. I dropped the whole thing and started to cry. I thought my dad was going to be mad, but he came over and said, “It’s okay.”
What about notable guests?
We’ve had Clinton, Obama, [John F.] Kennedy. But at the end of the day, the people who come every day for breakfast and lunch are much more important — they’ve seen me grow up there, too. Hopefully, we’ll get a new generation of people to experience Junior’s that way.
Tell me about your regulars.
There is a variety of people who’ve been going to Junior’s their whole life. We have a group who’s been doing a businessmen’s lunch there for 40 years. Another group has eaten breakfast there every day for 25 years. There’s a woman who always sits at the first seat at the counter. There are so many of them, it’s a shame to only mention a few.
How has the restaurant industry evolved since you’ve been in it?
I’ve always thought this was a professional business that you’re proud to be in, but it’s become much more professional over the last 25 years. It’s a more respected industry today than it was back then. Between the celebrity chefs and the Food Network,there’s a generation behind me that is going to be amazing. I have friends whose kids who can cook at eight years old. When I was eight, they wouldn’t let us near a frying pan. And there are a lot of young people who want to be in the restaurant business. In Europe, the restaurant biz was always a noble industry. It should be that here.
How about the media? How has that changed?
It can make or break a new restaurant. I opened another restaurant a year ago, and it’s about to change. I sold it. It didn’t make it, and I think that’s because of the lack of media attention. It’s called Enduro after my grandfather’s original restaurant, but it’s changing to a grill. Celebrity chefs have built-in advertising campaigns for their restaurants — it’s amazing.
Any advice for people just getting into the business?
Work your ass off. There’s no replacement for that. If you’re lazy, you’re not going to make it. You’ve gotta love it; you can’t fake it.
What’s next for you?
We’re working on another store in Brooklyn. Our real estate is for sale, and that troubles me every day — I’m not sure where it shakes out. I have offers, but I haven’t accepted any of them. It’s a moment of unknown, and a lot of people think we’re closed — but seven months after that news broke, we’re still open. And once a deal happens, we’ll have plenty of notice. It takes a year. We’re also negotiating a new lease, and the places can coexist, regardless of what we do with our location. Whatever we do, it’ll be the same. In 1981, when our restaurant burnt down, everyone thought it would change. But if you want it to be the same, it’ll be the same. And I want it to be the same — I’m in love with it.
What do you wish I’d asked?
What I want people to take away is that Junior’s isn’t a business to me. Sometimes your employees or customers look at you and think that, but you don’t work this hard and it just be a business. It’s part of the family. Most people don’t feel that way about their job. I’m part of something that has all this history, and I want people to appreciate that history and enjoy it. If I could talk to every guest, I would tell them that. There’s a soul behind this.