New York residents interested in achieving detente with either tenant or landlord may want to examine what looks to be something of a “Model UN” of Covid-era property relations right here in Bushwick. Two of its member nations, located on Troutman St between Wycoff and Saint Nicholas, are Lot 45 (a club), Union Pizza Works (a restaurant). Between the two sits a third: Quebracho Inc., a frame-making studio handling prestigious clients owned by Argentinian-Italian artisan Marcelo Bavaro and Angel Campagnale, the men to whom the restaurants write their rent checks. Over the last eight months, this crack quartet – a slice of modern Bushwick par excellence – has presented what looks, at least from the outside, to be a real estate case study in the value of empathy and communication. Because, if while the country squats mired in a once-in-a-generation health & economic crisis the government merely sits twiddling its upholstered leather thumbs, those qualities can mean the difference between survival and extinction – and have for Marcelo’s tenants, whose regular communiques meant the waiving of multiple months’ rent.
Bavaro and Campagnale’s (plus two other partners) relationship with their tenants appears all the more remarkable when contrasted with survey data released by the NYC Hospitality Alliance for October, 2020. The website reported that 88% of survey takers couldn’t pay full rent; 30% were unable to pay any rent. Meanwhile, 59% of landlords declined to waive any rent, and only a quarter of the remaining 41% waived more than half of the month’s rent. Finally, 83% of respondents had no luck trying to renegotiate their leases to fit new financial realities.
Meanwhile, Bavaro and his partners are in the midst of finding a non-commercial, more truly industrial home for their framing business, which he considers to have outgrown its usefulness on the stretch of road he shares with his hospitality tenants. A search is on for a business or businesses to fill the massive space, one better able to gel with the area’s still-thriving commercial life. Abhiram Sunkavalli, an agent for DY Realty, the firm marketing the Quebracho Inc. space for lease, tells Bushwick Daily that “Marcelo is very cognizant of how Bushwick has evolved over the last decade. He wants to make sure that whoever takes the space will contribute to the community spirit that has really blossomed in Bushwick, and on Troutman Street in particular. In fact, he has turned down a few prospects because he felt that they did not share in this vision.”
Bavaro is a third-generation Argentinian-Italian and a fifth generation frame-maker. The family tree includes branches from Bari in the south and Milan in the north, but it’s from Florence in the middle from whence flowed the artisanal blood that runs in his veins. Before coming to the New World, the Florentine Bavaro family was primarily occupied with frame-making, but upon arriving in Argentina’s Europe-aping capital, its members (i.e., Marcelo’s great-grandfather) found few takers for the exquisitely carved and stained pieces the family had made their name on. Instead, they shifted to restoring and gilding the antique furniture brought to Argentina from the Old Country.
In 1982, after a period studying art restoration in Florence, Bavaro expanded his family’s two-continent diaspora to a third when he left Buenos Aires behind for New York City, where his father had already established himself and opened an art gallery. Detecting a gap in the market for quality frames, they picked up where Bavaro’s great-grandfather left off and opened Quebracho Inc.
But it took roughly 20 years for the business to arrive at its current location. Tired of being helplessly pinballed around by the capricious whims of those who possess land, Bavaro decided ownership was the straightest path to self-determination.
“I told my father and Angel, my brother in law and partner, that ‘if we move again we have to buy something,’” Bavaro remembered, composed and professorial but bohemian in a crimson pork pie hat and black framed glasses at the head of a long wooden table that forms the centerpiece of what passes for a showroom in a shop mainly un-reliant on passersby. “We wanted to go to Williamsburg, but it was already becoming commercialized and too expensive. This was 2008-09: nobody had money and nobody was lending money. So if you had some money you could get something at a decent price [in Bushwick].”
Bavaro and his partners – by-and-large family, in true Italian style – chose for their first stable home the Troutman property they currently occupy, closing on it in 2010. Back then, the 10,000 square-foot frameshop’s adjacent lots stood empty, and the murals that now spangle it and every inch of the surrounding buildings had to wait for Bushwick Collective founder Joe Ficalora – himself a scion of an artisan-inclined Italian family, owners of GCM Steel close by – to dream them into existence (which he and his partners did in 2012, transforming north Bushwick into the scintillating visual smorgasbord you take for granted today while walking off a boozy brunch at Sea Wolf or Mominettte Bistro).
Pondering who he and his partners wanted to see fill their newly purchased property’s vacancies, Bavaro and his partners selected tenants with an eye towards resisting the area’s incipient Williamsburg-ization, attempting to preserve the authentic qualities of the area in the same careful way his ancestors might have an antique walnut armchair. They finally opted for the three businesses that remain to this day: Union Street Pizza, Lot 45 and The Rookery. All three fit into the owners’ own sensibilities, which Bavaro sees as being in line with that of Bushwick as a whole, and with the overall trajectory of New York’s dining and drinking culture, which seems to be increasingly allergic to the kind of white table cloth formality that defined it in decades past.
“That typical old italian restaurant,” commented Bavaro with an impatient flick of his wrist, “you still find a few places like them on Long Island. That kind of business in this neighborhood is gonna die. We wanted something tailored to laid back artists.”
Of the three, Lot 45, named after the building’s tax lot number, has had the toughest go of it in COVID-crippled New York; it’s known primarily as a late-night club, a perception difficult to overcome. Since March, the owners have been working to expand and emphasize the daytime and evening dining portion of their business.
One of Lot 45’s owners is Ramon Moralejo, a third-generation Phillipino-American and native New Yorker with an impressive mane of black hair and a Spuds Mckenzie dog. We talked in the establishment’s vast front room, which has the feel of your cool aunt’s screened in front porch, with plants and funky rugs and charmingly mismatched furniture arranged with an eye towards artful chaos.
“This was [in 2013-14] a very industrial area,” said Moralejo. “For me there’s something beautiful about being gritty and creating an environment where you wouldn’t normally see people.”
Together with House of Yes around the corner, Lot 45 helped make Bushwick a late-night clubbing destination. “Late night” swiftly became the valuable fertilizer keeping the giant organism of Lot 45 blooming. But what made them successful eventually made them the most vulnerable to coronavirus of any of Bavaro and co.’s tenants.
Fortunately for Lot 45, a pivot to outdoor dining wasn’t a stretch. As kitchenless clubs everywhere darkened, Lot 45 kept the lights on, if only just, with to-go food and outdoor dining and drinking.
“You have obligations to the bank, to accounts payable, suppliers,” listed Moralejo. “And we weren’t given a good sense of direction from the local, state or federal government. We’re following the guidelines, but the guidelines are choking us.”
Helping matters is Lot 45’s relationship with Quebracho Inc., which Moralejo’s business partner Linda Russell, joining the conversation via speaker phone, characterized in upbeat terms.
“We’ve been lucky, having Marcelo next door,” said Russell. “The main thing is communication: when we were talking about re-opening we were very transparent about what we could and could not do – so that they could think about what they could and could not do.”
“Marcelo is constantly thinking of ways to help. He even offered us the use of the front area of his property. Unfortunately the city hasn’t gotten there yet.”
Union Pizza Works, meanwhile, while by no means weathering the COVID storm with every feather intact, has had, by virtue of being a restaurant – and a to-go friendly pizzeria, to boot – an easier time than Lot 45. But again, survival has been greatly aided by a close working relationship with their landlord.
“Marcelo has always been very excited about what we do,” Union Pizza Works owner Giovanni Gelfini assured me. “He gives suggestions, helps us economically – with construction even. He has a lot of wood, after all.”
Gelfini’s sister is a nurse in their home town of Lake Como, in northern Italy. She and other relatives helped him and his partners get ahead of the COVID situation as it was already unfolding in Italy and the rest of Europe back in January and February. Still, accepting what was coming wasn’t easy.
“I fought a battle with myself,” recalled Gelfini ruefully. “I wanted to stay open for delivery but my sister said ‘Giovanni, close for at least a month, and see what happens.’ So we closed for two months. But every day I was like, Should I open for delivery? After two months, the [COVID cases] started going down and we did.”
Piece-meal reopening notwithstanding, things are anything but rosy for Lot 45 and Union Pizza Works – or, for that matter, other establishments in their immediate vicinity. In late August, the area was dealt a particularly stinging blow when The House of Yes was busted for COVID-related violations and shut down by the city. However, in a recent New York Times profile, club co-owners Kae Burke and Anya Sapozhnikova waxed confident that a comeback is in the works.
Some, inevitably, are doing better than others. Seawolf, a very popular upmarket surf-and-turf restaurant spitting distance from Lot 45, seems built to weather any storm. But regardless of varying levels of adversity, operators on Troutman find there is some comfort to be taken in sharing it.
“We meet everyday [with Lot 45] and exchange thoughts and ideas,” said Gelfini. “It’s almost like the same business. Every time there’s something new or there’s a problem they help us and we help them. Sea Wolf, too; it’s like a family here.”
“And Marcelo, he’s strong. He’s small but strong, like Napoleon,” laughed Gelfini. “Once you start working with him you see that he cares, maybe more than you.”
As of this writing, coronavirus cases countrywide are increasing sharply, and it’s just the beginning of winter. With cold weather rendering outdoor dining a dubious proposition, barely even a stop gap, and the government having reversed course on indoor dining, it remains to be seen if Bavaro’s enthusiasm and largesse will be enough to keep his tenants afloat. (However, the fact that a late night club like Lot 45 has made it this far is telling.) But vaccine development looks promising, with Pfizer and other companies projecting sunny corporate optimism. If their projections jibe with reality, and if the federal government surprises us all by successfully coordinating the vaccine’s promotion and dissemination, the pandemic could soon – relatively speaking – relax its choke hold on the economy, allowing commerce to flood back into a money-starved national corpus.
As mentioned earlier, Bavaro is looking to move his frame studio to a location far from any commercial zone, and rent the vast 10,000 square foot property to a business that will help bring more life and business to Gelfini, Moralejo, et al. He is bringing the same Bushwick-centric curative eye used to welcome Lot 45 and Union Pizza Works into the fold in his search for a tenant he considers suitable for the preservation of Bushwick’s identity.
“To keep growing we need to open up all these places that are closed – one of which is mine!” emphasized Bavaro. “I’m not exactly ‘closed,’ per se, but I’m not really open to the public, either; I’m not bringing anything to the neighborhood and I’m right in the middle of the block. I want the best for this neighborhood.”
Several options have been considered to occupy the forthcoming vacancy, according to DY Realty Group leasing agent Sunkavalli. Some were dismissed outright, while a few more promising candidates fell through as a result of the current pandemic.
“At one point we were negotiating with an international brewing company that would have been a perfect fit for the neighborhood,” said Sunkavalli. “Unfortunately, the New York State Liquor Authority pointed to a potential licencing conflict which ultimately pushed them away. Then we had agreed to terms with a well-known nightclub operator, but once Covid hit, those plans went on hold indefinitely. Even so, we are confident that the right operator is out there; once we all get past this pandemic and people are allowed inside bars and clubs again, they will need a place in their community to reconnect.”
As of this writing, Union Pizza Works is open for lunch and dinner, 12 pm – 11pm everyday. Lot 45 is open 4 pm – 11pm, Thursday – Sunday. Both come with full bars and offer delivery and pickup.
This article was made possible by DY Realty Group
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