Monday, November 10, 2014

Lunch Mob for Cafe Edison

This past Saturday, we held a Lunch Mob to save the beloved Cafe Edison, which is being denied a lease renewal and thus forced out by the Edison Hotel after 34 years of serving New Yorkers, tourists, and the Broadway community.

The event was a huge success. Cafe manager Conrad Strohl estimates that 400 - 500 people were in attendance. The most popular dish? "Definitely soup! Matzo ball soup. But cabbage soup may be a close second." And how many matzo balls were consumed during the mob? Conrad told me, "Two to a soup. Some lucky ones may get three. About 600 matzo balls!"

That's a lot of matzo balls.

The Cafe Edison cooks prepared all morning for the mob, tripling their usual orders, and managed to feed everyone throughout the busy day and night. (The night before, they sold out of matzo balls and blintzes, and there wasn't even a mob.)

Conrad Strohl & NBC News: photo by Barbara Nassberg -- see the video here

Supporters showed up hungry on Saturday afternoon with hand-made signs and clever slogans. Out on the sidewalk, regular customer Mike Salonia offered "Don't bust my matzo balls!" Comedian Jackie Hoffman held up a manila envelope with, "Matzoh ball, not wrecking ball."

Everyone wore name tags with the popular Twitter hashtag #SaveCafeEdison, a slogan you could find on flyers and signs all over the coffee shop.

Jackie Hoffman: Photo by Jennifer Leonard

Someone called the cops, but they were friendly, telling the sidewalk protesters, "We had our matzo ball soup earlier today."

Someone called the Fire Department--a safety inspector cited concerns for over-occupancy--but nothing stopped the mob.

Inside, the place was literally mobbed, with a line going out the door. "It was insane," said Betty, the cashier. Supporters meeted-and-greeted each other, noshing and plotting the next steps for saving this iconic coffee shop.

Jordan Strohl, son of Conrad, told me, "We were extremely pleased with the turnout and overwhelming show of love and support for the Cafe Edison. We cannot thank everyone enough for all that everyone is doing. These past few days have been very overwhelming and emotional for my entire family and all we can say is thank you, thank you, thank you!"

photo by Davy Mack

At a table of honor, the matriarch of Cafe Edison, Frances Edelstein, sat among her family. Her 2001 Tony Award for Excellence in Theater, for Service to the Theater Community, sat prominently beside her as she greeted supporters and gave interviews to the media.

Over email, her grandson Adam Strohl told me:

"My grandmother was appreciative of all the visitors. She was overwhelmed by all the hellos from friendly, supportive faces, new and old. If losing her husband of over 70 years was the worst day of her life, then losing her kitchen will be the second worst. She makes people happy through their bellies. It's what she knew after surviving the Holocaust and coming to America. My grandparents never envisioned creating such a special, unique place like 'the store,' as Cafe Edison is referred to by the family. They just wanted to keep people fed. And, as chronicled by Neil Simon's '45 Seconds from Broadway,' when some couldn't pay because the acting gigs were drying up, they still kept them fed."

Mrs. Edelstein: photo by Adam Strohl

With her son-in-law Conrad, Mrs. Edelstein started the cafe with her late husband, Harry, back in 1980 when they were invited to open shop in the hotel by its former owner, their friend and fellow Holocaust survivor Ulo Barad. When Mr. Barad died last year, his son Gerald Barad became principal owner of the hotel. Several months ago, the Strohls were told that no new lease would be offered.

Word of the closure leaked out last week when two of the coffee shop's customers got in touch with me. Hotel management later confirmed to the Times that "the cafe is closing as the hotel prepares for a multimillion-dollar investment to upgrade and restore the space." The Strohl family says they will be replaced by a white-tablecloth restaurant with "a name chef."

Adam Strohl adds, "The closing takes away an icon in Times Square and the theater community. It is also the undermining of an Old World deal made by a meaningful handshake between two Holocaust survivors looking to make a living together in the New World."

On the petition to save the cafe--now with well over 5,000 signatures, including many actors like Susan Sarandon and Glenn Close--Brian Strohl echoed his brother, writing: "two Holocaust survivors had an agreement that as long as my family ran the Cafe, we would be able to call the space our home. One Holocaust survivor gave another his word and that assurance meant something."

photo by Davy Mack

In the new New York, such an agreement doesn't mean much. Without protections like cultural landmarking, selective retail rent control, or the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, our beloved small businesses are sitting ducks, completely unprotected from the big guns of Big Business.

The creator of the petition, Jason Bratton, recently added Gerald Barad's name to his document, explaining: "Mr. Barad is a co-owner of Triumph Hotels. Triumph Hotels owns and operates the Iroquois New York, the Hotel Chandler, the Gershwin Hotel, the Hotel Belleclaire, the Washington Jefferson Hotel and the Cosmopolitan Hotel - Tribeca. You might want to keep that in mind when staying in New York or recommending a hotel to your friends and family who come to town."

photo: Tim Schreier

Though the Lunch Mob began to dwindle around 3:00, enthusiastic diners continued to flow into the Cafe Edison, arriving in waves throughout the day and night.

Around 8:30 p.m., the last bowl of matzo ball soup was served to Friederike Paetzold and Shane Arbogast. As the waitress slid the bowl onto the table, she announced, "You're lucky. It's the last one. Enjoy!"

It may have been the last matzo ball of the Lunch Mob, but it won't be the last for Cafe Edison. They'll be in their long-time home at least until December 27, and many are fighting to keep them there for a long time after. While they've been looking for a new location, the Edelstein-Strohl family wants to stay put. There is simply no other space like the Cafe Edison space.

The petition continues to gather signatures. From loyal customers, there's talk of boycotts, legal action, and more mobs. Those working to save the soul of New York--from the ravages of real-estate overdevelopment, skyrocketing rents, and unrestrained chain stores--hope that the fight for Cafe Edison will be a watershed moment.

This gathering was not a funeral, not a goodbye, but the beginning of a battle.

photo by Robert Bischoff

Cafe Edison Lunch Mob Announcement
News of the Closure


onemorefoldedsunset said...

What a great event you put together - a beautiful show of support. And there are almost 6,000 signatures on the petition now.
Thank you Jeremiah! The response to the imminent closure has brought out such an inspiring chorus of New York voices, and a feeling of old city spirit. I feel proud to be in such good company. In a moment of giddy optimism, I think this campaign just might work...

bruce said...

Matzoh balls?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps we should take things a bit further and create a petition where people will pledge to not eat at the proposed new establishment ala what they did to protect the pharmacy on the Upper West Side a few years back.

As much as I love the show of support, the only language that people like Mr. Barad speak is money. I mean, if being given a multi-million dollar hotel (!) at birth isn't enough to prevent him from ousting a thriving business and disrupting numerous lives, I don't see why a signed petition would unless there are potential financial ramifications.

Anonymous said...

"being denied a lease renewal"

that's like saying that you were denied a sunny day. it's still a free country (despite our elected politicians' best efforts) and it's the end of a contract. the landlord is no more obligated to keep them than they are obligated to stay

you can't diss Robert Moses on one hand and then force a lease renewal on the other.

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:29 nobody is attempting to force the landlords hand. Thats not possible.I think what people are hoping is that the landlord will come to his senses and realize what a beloved institution it is and also to honor his parents wishes and keep their longtime family friend in business.

What a beautiful thing jeremiah !

John K said...

To Anonymous 11:29AM, I support your approach, but I have to tell you, I am regularly disheartened to see people packing into all the chains and high end spots that have replaced the neighborhood institutions. You pass a Chipotle or a Duane Reed or Dunkin Donuts, and there's always people in there, shopping away, chowing down. (And I'm not singling these particular businesses out, they're the ones that first came to mind.)

What gets me is that there are often more economical, better-tasting food options--but then people go with what they know (and what's relentlessly advertised), so I don't fault them.

Only the bank branches and some of the ultra-frou-frou clothing stores appear to be mostly empty. The latter do have personal shoppers who pop in and charge up thousands of dollars, so I guess they can look as empty as a subway train with bedbugs.

No matter how actively many of us boycott these new businesses, there'll be people filing through their doors in droves, unless, as was the case with that 7-11 in the East Village, enough people make it a pariah business it can't survive. But we'd need an interactive map of the spots that have been hypergentrified and chained into sterility. And they're becoming so numerous in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn that you'd almost have to boycott whole swaths of both boroughs.