More often than not, we name a chef to represent the nuts-and-bolts of a restaurant. Chef So-and-So’s exciting new venture just opened in the Village, we enthuse. Maybe, maybe not. Every restaurant needs someone with a checkbook as well as a vision — negotiating a lease, settling the contracts, buying the oven, and having final say on the forks. Sometimes that person is the chef. And in the case of Scott Gerber, principal and C.E.O. of the Gerber Group, that person is him.
“Like a lot of guys, I guess, I always wanted to open a bar,” Gerber tells the Voice. “But from a business point of view, I just fell into it. My brother [Rande Gerber] and I were both working as real estate brokers, and in 1991 we had the good fortune to meet Ian.” That would be Ian Schrager, the co-founder of Studio 54, who was busy with a re-launch of the Paramount on 46th Street, practically coining the term “boutique hotel.”
“He asked us to help find someone to open the bar, because he had a criminal record, so he couldn’t get a liquor license himself. Eventually, I think he just liked us, and he asked if we wanted to open it ourselves.”
So the brothers considered the challenge. This was a hotel bar, the traditional realm of suits and club sandwiches. A place you go through, not to. How were they going to do things differently?
“Our bar was very small —900 square feet — but Philippe Starke was designing the common areas, so it looked amazing: this beautiful mahogany box. We put the servers in sexy dark-gray jumpsuits. We built a great playlist. We made it a place we’d want to hang out in ourselves. Plus, a lot of Ian’s celebrity friends came to check it out, so there was a lot of buzz.” That, it turns out, is precisely what it takes to get locals to cross the hotel threshold and drink martinis with the tourists.
The Gerbers continued to open hotel bars as an extreme-level hobby, keeping their real estate day jobs until the ultimate opportunity came up: “Negotiating the deal to develop the W hotels; that’s when I went all in. Full time,” Gerber says.
So what does an all-in, full-time day look like for a bar and restaurant entrepreneur?
Gerber considers this. “I do a lot of negotiating. I secure leases and management agreements. I hire managers, and oversee them while they hire staff. I set up the procedures that basically are the day-to-day rules of the businesses. And I get to have a real say in the tone of the place — and the details — which I enjoy.”
Soon, restaurants followed: Whiskey Bar and Grill in Chicago, ME in Madrid, Beach House in Cancun, and, here in New York, LCL at the Westin Grand Central, Kingside at the Viceroy, and earlier this year, Irvington (201 Park Avenue South, 212-677-0425).
“We don’t have cookie-cutter places,” Gerber explains. “Every one is different: different design and different food. The goal is to give visitors that authentic experience.”
And now, down to business: According to Gerber, 30 percent of people who stay in a hotel will probably eat there, and 30 percent of people staying in other hotels will go to a different hotel to eat. So the sweet spot is when 40 percent or more of your customers are local. Gerber believes “the key is creating an authentic place that people from the neighborhood enjoy. That’s always the starting point.”
Hence Irvington: With a greenmarket menu cooked by David Nichols, served in a rustic, elegant room overlooking the Union Square Farmers’ Market, the restaurant is a place that strikes a great balance between delivering New York polish and just-got-off-a-plane comfort. There’s homemade merguez flatbread, grilled asparagus topped with a perfectly poached egg, and duck confit pot pie — fresh, inviting, deceptively simple food.
“I eat there three times a week at least,” Gerber says. “And not because I have to! David and I bonded over our shared love for rotisserie chicken when we were planning the kitchen, so we put a rotisserie oven in — that’s the perk of running the restaurant. If you like it, you can put it on the menu. The best way to set up a place, honestly, is to make it a place where you want to spend time.”
Mission accomplished. Gerber is now on to his next project, “a new bar and restaurant on the fifteenth floor of a place on Ludlow and Orchard. We’re thinking smoked fish from Russ & Daughters, meats from Katz’s, Yonah Schimmel’s knish. A lot of favorites.” And the big dream? “Well, maybe to open a hotel of our own one day. It’s a big undertaking, but, well, what can I say, I love hotels!”