A Conversation with Peter Poulakakos
The Lower Manhattan dining scene has dramatically changed over the past several decades. What was once strictly a nine-to-five district with few options outside steakhouses is now brimming with a diverse menu of options.
Few have impacted that shift more than restaurateur Peter Poulakakos and his father, Harry. The duo now runs seven restaurants, bars and cafes below Chambers Street, with plans for more on the way. Most notably, the family recently was chosen as proprietors of the soon-to-be-renovated Pier A, where they plan to open an oyster bar and beer garden, event space and upscale restaurant overlooking the Hudson River.
To learn more about how the neighborhood has changed and about the family’s future plans (they include a bar for dogs and their owners!), the Downtown Alliance recently sat down for a conversation with Peter.
How has the Lower Manhattan dining scene changed since your family entered the restaurant business?
When my dad started down here in the 1950s, it was strictly a corporate neighborhood, and it really remained that way up until the late ‘90s. Things started to get on track before 9/11, but we took a hit right after. Today, I’m amazed when I look at how much of a 24/7 community Lower Manhattan has become—there’s so much going on down here on the weekends and the evenings. The Downtown Alliance was a huge part in helping us transform Stone Street. It’s so much different than it was when I was kid. My wife and I often bring my son down to Stone Street, where on the weekends it’s a stroller parking lot!
Your family now runs seven establishments in the district with three more on the way. What’s your approach when you think about planning a new venture?
I try to think of what we can offer the residents and workers down here as a new amenity. We try to find people and partners who have had success in other areas of the city and bring them Downtown with a concept we think would be important to Lower Manhattan residents. We did this with my partner and our pizza Chef, Nick Angelis, with Adrienne’s, as well as with Chef Eric Bedoucha, my partner and the Executive Pastry Chef of our string of pastry shops, Financier Patisserie.
What was the impetus for the forthcoming dog-themed bar on Stone Street?
I have to give my partner from Ulysses, Danny McDonald, credit for that one! Danny has a concept for Growler Bites & Brews that’s really great, and he’s extremely passionate about it. We’re going to focus on craft beers as well as gourmet variations of hot dogs and sandwiches. I’m actually allergic to dogs, so I haven’t really figured out how I’m to get within 15 feet of the place.
Do you think that bar will change the feel of Stone Street?
I think it’s going to add another highlight for Stone Street, a concept we haven’t done over here yet.
What will you serve the dogs?
We’ve had a lot of suggestions from the community board, to be honest! We have the Executive Chef at Harry’s working on some entrees, but I can’t seem to convince Chef Eric of Financier to offer a dessert. You may want to give him a call.
Your plans for a formal restaurant, beer garden and oyster bar at Pier A were recently announced. What can future patrons expect to see?
We’ve got a plan to bring the pier to life with an awesome public space, and we’re working with various groups to utilize the water facilities for the public as well. We’re hoping with the Freedom Tower opening up in the coming years and even more attention on Lower Manhattan that we can make the pier into a hub for all the cultural exhibits and museums we have in Lower Manhattan. We want this to be a landmark for tourists and residents alike.
In addition to the indoor and outdoor public space, we also have a beer garden planned and an oyster bar on the ground level. The history of beer gardens and oysters in Downtown is absolutely fascinating, and it will be great to pay homage to what came before us in the area. My dad has been in love with Pier A since he came to this country. I’m excited to make this happen in his honor, and to change the landscape of Lower Manhattan in a positive fashion.
Do you use many local ingredients in your restaurants?
We try our best to use as many local ingredients as possible in all of our restaurants. Growing up in New York and cultivating our businesses here for so many years, it’s extremely important to us to support local growers and producers.
Is the baking for Financier done on the premises?
For the first five or so years we did all the baking on the 5th floor of the building where Stone Street Financier is located. It was amazing to smell the cakes and pastries all day, but it wasn’t really sustainable. As we started growing, we realized Chef Eric would need more space to maintain the quality with the volume, so we built a facility in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. We went from 1,500 square feet of kitchen to 15,000. When we started with Stone Street Financier we had nine employees. Today, we have over 200 for Financier alone.
Do you want Financier to compete with Starbucks?
First off, I think coffee originated in New York, not Seattle. And, we have better éclairs.
What advice do you have for anyone who wants to start their own restaurant business?
That’s actually the theme of our upcoming reality show, are you interested? It’s titled “Give up sleep and drink more coffee”.
What’s next for you?
Well obviously, we’ve got a lot of exciting projects coming up. We’re excited to start construction on Pier A in 2012, and we’ve got five or so Financiers coming along just this year. We launched our retail coffee line in Financier this year which was really exciting for us, and we have a few Harry’s Italians up our sleeves, as well as opening Growler on Stone Street.
And, there may be more. My dad, Harry, noticed that I took last Friday afternoon off so now he’s looking for our next project, since I have so much time on my hands.
What’s your guilty (food) pleasure?
Ulysses’ nachos, or the round marguerita pie from Harry’s Italian.