Jessica Bologna is a hospitality veteran. She was valedictorian of her class at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, graduated Harvard Business School, then worked for seven years at Starwood Capital overseeing the development of the Baccarat and One Hotel groups, but even she was unprepared for the early, intense anticipation and cynicism directed toward BEC (148 8th Avenue, 212-633-8020), before the first location of her high concept, all-day, bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich shop in Chelsea opened its doors last week.
That opening was a long time coming. “Two years ago I had an idea for BEC,” Bologna recalls. “I worked on it nights and weekends, figured out the business model, and I held a bake-off.” A friend and partner at LDV Hospitality introduced Bologna to a small group of chefs who were told only to make her their best bacon, egg, and cheese. She challenged them, “if you know nothing else other than I want to open an elevated quick-service concept with the highest quality ingredients, the best breads, then show me what you got.” The winner was James Friedberg, executive sous chef at Aureole, who was reluctant to leave his job.
Today Friedberg is BEC’s consulting chef, daily slapping the grill with the lamb sausage and Serrano ham that The New York Times‘ restaurant critic Pete Wells was quick to judge by concept alone a month before BEC opened, sparking a nationwide hullabaloo over a breakfast sandwich typically affiliated with fast food, bodegas and coffee carts. “We didn’t change our menu because of that article, we try not to over-complicate things. But I appreciate that challenge,” Friedberg says. “I say, bring it Pete Wells!”
BEC’s uncomplicated menu is comprised of a dozen haute, hearty sandwiches, sourced with local ingredients including eggs from Five Acre Farms and the fluffy Il Forno brioche exclusive to the kitchen’s classic sandwich. “It’s a shaved Parmesan and bacon-crusted brioche,” Bologna says. “It was our idea, and we had to find someone to execute it. I loved Il Forno for our other sandwich breads, and convinced them to make it. Now it’s our best seller.”
Other sandwiches draw on cultural influences, like a Serrano ham and Manchego Spicy Spaniard, studded with pickled jalapenos; and the Godmother, which layers prosciutto, salami, and mozzarella on a sopping Pugliese roll. A ricotta and honey Farmhouse takes its inspiration from the more delicate flavor combinations Friedberg played with at Aureole.
Despite the block-long lines BEC faced opening weekend, the menu leaves plenty of room for accommodation. “All of our sandwiches can be done no yolk, no meat, no bread, no problem,” Bologna says, demonstrating her hospitality chops. “It’s like a secret menu that we can do this breadless, with extra veggies and a garnish of arugula or spinach on top.”
Bologna hopes to grow beyond NYC limits. “This concept can be great in major cities, college towns, airports, I think the sky is the limit,” she says. “It’s just figuring out the model here first.” That model will evolve in the coming weeks. BEC has just begun selling local beer and wines, its fridge stocked with bottles of Coney Island Brewing’s Mermaid Pilsner and cans of Two Roads’ Lil’ Heaven.
Additional seating is forthcoming, another location in New York City is already a possibility, and late night hours and delivery service are imminent. What won’t change is her mantra: “Every sandwich counts. If there’s a tradeoff between quality and wait time, they can wait a little longer so we can serve great food with a smile, and the rest will take care of itself.”
Try telling that to the line at the coffee cart.
Follow Adam Robb on Twitter, @lifevicarious.