Start talking about the rise of farm-to-table cooking in New York City, and it won’t be long before someone brings up Francine Stephens and Andrew Feinberg, the married couple who opened Franny’s (348 Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-230-0221) more than a decade ago. The couple met at Savoy, Peter Hoffman’s now-closed Soho temple of greenmarket cooking, where they discovered a mutual love for Italian food and dovetailing perspectives on sustainable agriculture.
For Feinberg, sourcing locally from good growers was about flavor. “It was amazing to taste what Swiss chard is supposed to taste like, versus what it tastes like when it’s shipped from California or Mexico,” he says.
For Stephens, it was more political. “I was in the nonprofit world, advocating for sustainable agriculture,” she says.
When they began plotting opening a restaurant together, they knew it’d be Italian, and they knew they’d source sustainably. “We were always going to be transparent about where we sourced our food, cleaning products, and everything we purchased,” says Stephens.
They settled on building a pizzeria, thanks to a suggestion from a family member. “I’d never cooked pizza before,” says Feinberg. The gamble paid off — the Prospect Heights restaurant grew into a beloved neighborhood restaurant that saw hours-long waits even on traditionally slow nights.
Franny’s also launched a mini neighborhood empire. Five years ago, the couple opened the Brooklyn Larder, which sells meats and cheeses, prepared foods, and beer. A year ago, Franny’s moved down Flatbush Avenue to a bigger space, and Feinberg and Stephens transformed the old address into Marco’s, a seasonal Italian trattoria that allowed the couple and their kitchen team to experiment with dishes they couldn’t put on the menu at Franny’s.
Throughout, they’ve remained true to their original vision. “We always come back to the same two ideas: local farms, the best ingredients,” says Stephens. “That’s become a trend in high-quality restaurants, and that’s great. But if you sit down at these restaurants, you’ll find varying degrees of commitment. There’s still room for growth.”
Despite the fact that farm-to-table sourcing is the backbone of their restaurants’ ethos, Stephens and Feinberg don’t want to talk about it anymore, or at least not with regard to how it should evolve within the industry. “I would like [farm-to-table sourcing] to be so entrenched in the norm that we can move on to the next question,” says Stephens vehemently. “In New York City, there are a lot more pressing, relevant things to talk about. There are a lot of problems facing the restaurant industry right now. I’d like to move on to a new conversation.”
Specifically, they’re concerned about the economic issues facing this city’s restaurants. “The city is looking to restaurants to make up a lot of its income,” says Stephens. “And it’s small and medium businesses that suffer.” Beyond the web of regulations they’re required to implement, Stephens and Feinberg say, restaurant owners contend with fines from inconsistent health department inspectors. Some rules also require expensive equipment investments, like a law that goes into effect in 2018 requiring a special emissions system for kitchens with wood-burning ovens.
And then there are rising rents, even in historically outlying neighborhoods like Prospect Heights. Stephens and Feinberg just negotiated two leases, the terms of which really reflected the neighborhood change that’s occurred over the past five years. “Pre-Barclays Center, growth was slow, but now the wall of gentrification has been broken,” says Stephens.
But none of those issues cause the couple the stress that they’re facing when it comes to the Affordable Care Act. Come January, businesses with more than 100 employees will be required to insure their staffs. Though not one of the couple’s restaurants employs that many people, the group is counted as one business — which means Stephens and Feinberg are facing a yearly cost increase of between $150,000 and $210,000 to be spread throughout their venues. “No one knows what’s going to happen,” says Feinberg. “It’s like throwing everything in the air. How will we come up with that money? Raise prices? Or tack on a surcharge?”
“There’s no way for us to come up with that money without passing it along,” says Stephens. “Hopefully it’s a blip in the story — hopefully everyone who comes in will understand.”
Feinberg is still worried: “There’s a limit to what people are going to pay for a pizza. We already charge $17 or $18, and if I have to add $1 to that, people are going to say, ‘I’m only going to have that once every two weeks instead of once a week.’ ”
They’re optimistic, though, that the community will rally around them as they negotiate the changes. “We have people who have been dining in our restaurant once a week for the last 10 years,” says Stephens. “We’re part of our community, we know our neighbors, and we continue to grow.”
That community, they hope, will sustain Franny’s, Marco’s, and the Larder for years to come. “[Franny’s chef] Jonathan Adler just had a baby,” says Stephens. “We saw that next generation taking over the restaurants and thought, Wouldn’t that be amazing? Hopefully that will happen in another 20 years.”