This weekend I went back to Sucelt for another helping of beans and rice, empanadas, and a cup of morir sornando, a frothy milk and juice shake whose name aptly translates to “die dreaming.” While waiting for my beverage I joined a conversation between the owner, Jehnny Novarro, and one of her regulars. They were talking regretfully about Sucelt’s December 24 closing. “Maybe it’s for the best,” Ms. Novarro said with a shrug, “I have to think this way so my heart won’t break.”
The regular introduced himself as Ken Friedman, co-owner of The Spotted Pig, a restaurant I’d never heard of before. “I’m always looking at restaurant spaces,” he told Ms. Novarro, “Maybe I can find something for you in the area.”
“I’m thinking about a place in New Jersey,” she said, “Here the rents are too much. I would have to double my prices — and more. I cannot do that to my customers. They are working people, poor people. I cannot do that to them.” She’d rather go out of business than fail to serve her faithful.
As Ms. Novarro went back to her work, I talked more with Ken, a scruffy, quietly affable guy who loves Sucelt so much he eats there three times a week. It was at Sucelt, he said, that he and his chef found the inspiration for their popular cubano sandwich.
Ken told me he came from California and has a passion for old New York. (He enjoys reading this blog and gave me an impromptu interview.) The Spotted Pig, he explained, is housed in an 1849 building that lived many lives--as a carriage house, a Dutch flophouse, and a tavern. “We tried to make it look like the Hudson riverside pubs,” he said of his meticulous restoration efforts, “so now we’ve got a nice fake old place.” But he also enjoys the city’s real old places, like Katz’s, Corner Bistro, and Ess-A-Bagel. “New York wasn’t meant to be all banks and Starbucks,” he said, “We need places like this.”
As he left to go, Ken told me to stop by The Pig sometime and also to check out an interview with him in this week’s Observer. At home, online, I read the interview — and discovered what many New Yorkers apparently know already: The Spotted Pig is a celebrity hotspot backed by powerhouse investors, including Mario Batali, Bono, Michael Stipe, and Fatboy Slim.
Ken enjoying a magnificent Sucelt empanada
Now that I know how much clout Ken has, I want to present him (and any others in a similar position) with a friendly challenge. Businesses like The Spotted Pig are creating and benefiting from the new affluence of New York. The culture in which they thrive raises rents that push out small shops like Sucelt. What if we had a system where each big guy “adopted” a little guy, by providing investors and mentorship, to keep them from vanishing?
Before I left Sucelt the other day, I told Ms. Novarro about the Essex Street Market and she was interested. This location would provide the perfect atmosphere in which Sucelt could thrive -- without raising prices. The market has small spaces, like the one Shopsin’s occupies. It has a strong Spanish-speaking, working-class customer base, just like Sucelt has now. It also attracts that new Lower East Side money -- and that makes investors happy. Sucelt is beloved by celebrities and working people alike.
So, what do you say Ken? You have the power to save a real old place that you genuinely love, the place that gave you its signature sandwich. Let’s show the city there’s still room for two “best cubanos” in town.