Food

‘Balls Deep: The Meatball Shop Owners Reflect on Five Years in Business

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In five short years, Michael Chernow and Daniel Holzman have laid the foundation for what looks certain to eventually become a meatball empire. From one restaurant on the Lower East Side, they’ve built a total of six Meatball Shops, spreading casual gathering spots and their quirky humor throughout the city. They have hundreds of employees, and they’ve begun to put the infrastructure in place to better run multiple outlets. But ask them about their plans to proliferate, and they’ll carefully sidestep the question. “We kind of have always had a two-year horizon,” says Holzman. “We learn so much in a year that trying to think five or ten years ahead is distracting. Next year, we’d like to open one restaurant, but we’re not sure where yet. The next year, we’d like to open one or two, maybe in another city, but we haven’t really figured that out. Beyond that, we’ll know so much more next year, so maybe we can think about it then. Every mistake we’ve dodged is because we’ve moved a little slower.” And besides, he points out, six restaurants in five years is plenty, especially for a couple of guys who come from modest backgrounds.

Chernow and Holzman grew up together — “We’ve been breaking each other’s balls since we were kids,” says Chernow. They started working in restaurants together when they were thirteen or fourteen, Chernow in the front of the house and Holzman in the back. After high school, Holzman split for the West Coast, and though Chernow followed for a while, he soon found himself back in New York City. In his mid-twenties, he decided it was time to get serious about his goal of owning a restaurant, and so he put himself through a hospitality management track at culinary school. When he was finished, he called Holzman and asked him to come back and open a restaurant with him.

Holzman balked. He was in a relationship in California, and he had a plum restaurant job. But Chernow was persistent, and when Holzman’s romance fizzled, Chernow insisted his friend come blow off some steam in New York City for a while. Chernow knew he had precious little time to convince Holzman to come home, but he pulled it off — Holzman soon returned permanently.

The duo began kicking around concept ideas. “We knew we wanted something on the simpler side,” says Chernow. “Simple, accessible, fun for us, fun for friends and family, and accessible to people in New York.” They settled on meatballs because Chernow used to eat a pile of them at family meals, skipping the pasta. Their investors were enthusiastic about the plan, and they started shopping for space.

The guys were looking for a counter service joint, or at least something smaller than the Lower East Side address they ended up taking. But when they saw the space, they thought, “This is it, this is the place, this is the block, this is where it needs to be,” says Chernow. “We rolled the dice.” After an unusually smooth build-out — “Sometimes I get really shitty poker cards, and I just smile and say I used up all my luck with that opening,” says Holzman — they opened the doors in February of 2010.

The shop was immediately packed. One of Holzman’s fondest memories, he says, is of seeing a line of people down the block waiting to get meatballs on opening day. “I was so scared that no one was going to show up to our party,” he says. The guys had envisioned a place that could serve as a casual joint, a place to gather with friends, or a place to take a date without breaking the bank. The Meatball Shop played music loudly, and energy from the kitchen spilled out into the dining room. Diners sat around drinking pitchers of sangria until their cheeks were rosy and eyes glassy, and they’d eat meatballs in sandwiches or over polenta, and then finish meals with fat ice cream sandwiches. Waits could stretch hours. It didn’t take long before a second outpost was in the works.

While the partners were focused on running one really good restaurant back in 2010 — “You can’t have multiple restaurants if you don’t have one great one,” Holzman points out — they also knew from the outset that they’d like to have more than one location. So they built the Meatball Shop concept so that it could expand, paring down items and making decisions so that the place would run even if the chef, Holzman, wasn’t in the kitchen. But their second location was more luck than anything: One of their investors suddenly found himself with extra space in a building, and he asked Holzman and Chernow if they wanted to build a Meatball Shop there. They agreed.

Additional locations, says Holzman, have worked out a lot like that — they’ll find a space they like in a neighborhood they want to be in, and they’ll figure out how to build it. Chernow says this also helps them maintain a grassroots aspect to growing the business, so that neighbors are actually excited about having a Meatball Shop coming in, as opposed to seeing it as another outlet of a chain.

Even still, the partners have been dealing with growing pains; both miss the personal connection that comes with working with the same people day in and day out. Much of their effort in the past months has focused on putting systems into place that will help them preserve the culture as they expand.

Another challenge of expanding: dealing with the city. “I think New York City is moving quickly in the wrong direction of being too expensive,” says Holzman. “The whole beauty of New York City is walking downstairs and finding your shoe repair shop and bookstore; these businesses live together and it’s dynamic. I love NYC — I don’t want to live anywhere else — but it does feel like the city’s working against you. It doesn’t feel like a team effort to do business here.”

Rents in some neighborhoods hover around $300 per square foot, which presents a major obstacle for affordable comfort food restaurants like the Meatball Shop — which Chernow believes are the restaurants that diners really crave. “New Yorkers are looking for kitchens outside of their home, and they can’t spend $100 every time they go out to dinner,” he says. “Look at these super-fancy chefs opening burger and sausage places.”

He and Holzman deal with those realities by putting their heads down and continuing to operate. “It’s not like you open a restaurant and then, voilà, you’re done,” says Holzman. They’ve worked hard, and they seem, at this moment, their fifth anniversary, to be unstoppable.

“A monstrous thank-you to the people of New York that support us on a daily basis,” says Chernow. “Thank you for coming to the restaurants in the freezing-cold winter and unbearably hot summer and allowing us to live our dream.”

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