The Ex-Villagers | Out in Long Island, the Living Is Easy

The Ex-Villagers: they loved the East Village and left it. Mara Levi closed her East Sixth Street restaurant last year. With the Long Island outpost of Mara’s Homemade now a year old, we checked in to see how she’s doing.

IMG_1666Lauren Carol Smith Mara Levi at the new Mara’s Homemade in
Syosset, N.Y.

When the building that occupied our Union Square coffeehouse, Java N Jazz, was sold and all the tenants were asked to leave we started looking for a new space in the neighborhood, for a new type of restaurant. We found one, but lost out when a celebrity chef also started negotiations for it. The search started again and we found a place in the East Village. We opened there a month after Java N Jazz closed.

The space was not ideal. We were forced out in three months, but were lucky to find another location three doors down. The rent was $5,000 a month for 750 square feet. With the failing of the first location we had changed our focus to the foods of New Orleans. We started out with the basics: jambalaya, shrimp Creole, etouffee, and of course the live crawfish boil.

The customers started coming and requested dishes they had eaten at Jazz Fest. My husband was waiting tables and I was in the kitchen. He would describe dishes and I would prepare them and the customers would tell me if I was on the mark. Then we’d add them to the menu.

My husband has a love for barbecue; he found a smoker that would fit in the kitchen and we started serving Arkansas barbecue. The neighborhood took a liking to what we were doing.

A friend passed out Mara’s Homemade flyers to people on the street, and when customers started coming in we asked them to get on our e-mail list. Soon we had a list of over 5,000 addresses. In those days we were just one of a handful of East Village restaurants on Opentable. Tourists and people from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, the five boroughs and Long Island started driving in. They were able to find parking, and were paying reasonable tolls to reach us.

IMG_1663Lauren Carol Smith The dining room in Long Island.

We didn’t realize how property taxes on buildings with apartments and retail spaces would affect us. Over the course of seven years, our rent would go up by 50 percent and taxes went from $0 to $3,500 last year. They would have been over $4,000 had we stayed.

In 2008 while we had been looking for new space in Manhattan, we changed focus and decided to get a second location on Long Island. It took us three years to find a location where we thought we could do well. At the time, 25 percent of customers on our e-mail list were from Long Island. Our business was booming after the financial meltdown since our prices were in the moderate range. We were all very excited. The Village was becoming the focal point of the City and our menu was expanding.

The Times Picayune in New Orleans wrote about us on a Sunday morning on the front page one year after BP explosion. USA Today featured us with four other restaurants regarding where to get the Louisiana food outside of Louisiana after Katrina.

Then the bust came. The mayor put in bus lanes and our business dropped 40 percent immediately. Customers would make reservations and when they drove in couldn’t find parking. One no-show said he tried for 45 minutes to find parking on a Sunday afternoon and gave up.

In a matter of months, we went from having a nice savings account to not having any reserves. Our lease was up and the landlord would not discuss a reduction in our rent or real estate taxes. We had no choice but to close. Every location we looked at in Manhattan had a bike lane and bus lanes and offered no or limited street parking, so we passed on them.

We went to several city council members but got no help. Since we closed on Sixth Street five other restaurants have closed.

Meanwhile in Long Island, we brought a change of taste to the area, and our family has been welcomed into its family. We feel honored that about 20 percent of our customers from New York City visit us on Long Island regularly. Many Manhattan customers actually lived in Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island and the tri-state area. They have family and friends in the area whom they visit and bring in. They like that our new location is spacious and has free, easily accessible parking. And, of course, no tolls.