For every East Village business that’s opening or closing, dozens are quietly making it. Here’s one of them: Two Boots.
Tonight, Two Boots celebrates its 25th anniversary with an outdoor concert hosted by Luis Guzman and featuring performances by the Sierra Leone Refuge All-Stars, circus acts, live painters, poets from the Nuyorican and more. So we talked to the pizza and film chain’s maverick owner and community builder, Phil Hartman, about how he’s kept his Avenue A shop running while watching his other businesses open, close and relocate.
In the East Village and Lower East Side, you’ve endured some losses alongside your business triumphs.
We closed the Two Boots on Grand Street but that one was never supposed to stay open long. It was in a location too close to the East Village one. We also moved a location from Rock Center to Hells Kitchen. That was a cool move into a great funky environment. A big loss for me was when we closed down Mo Pitkins. The Pioneer Theater closing down was another one. Losing it was hard. We’d invested a lot into it. I used to say the Pioneer ate 40,000 slices of pizza a year at $2.50 a slice, so it was expensive to keep it going. I wish we could have kept it, but our lease ran out.
Mo Pitkins and the Pioneer Theater were homes away from home for a lot of New Yorkers.
Sometimes I think I think I was running my businesses more form my heart than from my head. Mo Pitkins was probably an example of that, a multi-level music club on Avenue A in this economy was hard and the financial reality made it impossible. No matter how badly I wanted it and loved it, it’s not always enough.
How do you measure what is enough to keep a business going another year and another?
When we started in the business, the goal was for occupancy to be seven percent of our sales. That was our standard and then over time it grew to 10 percent. Now we have locations where we are paying 20 percent of our sales for occupancy and that is absurd. That means every penny goes to our landlord. That is why we have been building the business outside of the city. Landlords in Manhattan never got the message that the economy collapsed in 2007-2008.
Do the $1 pizza places affect your business?
The advent of $1 pizza places have been a challenge. We don’t dumb down our pizzas to compete with those places. I remember there was a 50-cent pizza when I was young and broke, and I went there. There is a place for that kind of thing, but there are always people who want something better with better ingredients and better sourcing.
How much have you had to raise your prices to stay afloat?
We raise incrementally, as our expenses go up. We aren’t raising them as much as our landlords are raising; we keep up with our vendor increases. The landlord is always threatening a CVS or Starbucks will move in if we don’t want to stay.
You throw a lot of community events, which requires a lot of overhead. How are you making money?
We sell a lot of pizza, about 3 million slices a year. Our events definitely have us spending a lot more than we bring in. Selling wine and beer helps when we’re giving away pizza. We do stuff like this to say thank you to the community. The East Village history and legacy feeds us every day. My office and house and kids are here. I can’t say thank you enough for what the community does for us every day. Being generous is the best marketing you can do. I scratch my head and wonder why more businesses don’t do it.
How does one get a pizza named after them?
There are three things you need. 1) You can’t ask. If you ask, you are finished. 2) You have to have done something really great that most people aren’t aware of. 3) It has to have happened at least 10 years ago. You have to stand the test of time. We added “The Meg” which is for Meg of White Stripes recently. We also just added “The Animal” for the Animal Collective.
How do you go about picking the next city for a new Two Boots?
I only want to open in places I want to visit, except for New Orleans because I love that city and I want to be able to relax and visit it. I want to open in Detroit. I can’t wait to get out there. I like the weird depressing cities. When I get a request for a store in Nanuet Mall in New Jersey, it doesn’t turn me on. I just opened in Bard College in upstate New York, and I love that project. It has a stage for live poetry jams. That kind of thing speaks to me, not malls in New Jersey. I went to Mumbai to meet with folks there, but I don’t think that’s the right situation for us. I love London. I have someone in Barcelona interested. We’re opening in Nashville. I love the deep south and want to open in obvious places like Austin.
Would you consider yourself a pizza mogul?
No. I am a project junkie. I love new projects whether it’s an art festival, or a new branch of Two Boots, I’m not a mogul, but am a Two Boots missionary.