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Current Issue : 2009 Spring

Lori Mason '99 / Klee Brasserie

While Mason's switch from lawyer to sommelier and restaurateur may seem like a quirky anomaly, it's actually been a familiar and quite successful career route for a number of BLS graduates. If you've shopped at Zabar's (Stanley Zabar '56), perused the stalls of Chelsea Market (Irwin Cohen '58), ordered a gourmet cookie box from Feed Your Soul (Mya Jacobson '03), grabbed a mile-high sandwich at the Second Avenue Deli (Jack Lebewohl '74), or snacked on a David's Cookie (David Liederman '75), you've supported a Brooklyn Law grad.

These alumni are responsible for some of Gotham's most compelling culinary landmarks. Can you imagine New York City without a Second Avenue Deli, or the Upper West Side without Zabar's? And without Irwin Cohen, it's quite possible that there would be no super-chic Meatpacking District, and no Highline—the monumental new park and greenway in the sky set to open the summer of 2009. In fact, some might say that Zabar, Cohen and Lebewohl in particular were the pioneers who knit the culinary fabric of this city by taking risks, banking on small business ideals, and channeling the passion and perseverance of their immigrant families into the food businesses that have inspired and fed generations of New Yorkers.

A Maverick in the Market

Take Cohen for instance. The first son of his Ukrainian and Polish parents to get an education, Cohen is a former Eastern Intercollegiate weightlifting champ who began his career as house counsel to a New York commercial real estate firm. But he saw more to bricks and mortar than rent and profit. In real estate, he saw ground-up community development and improvement. And thanks to his vision, a neglected neighborhood of Manhattan on the western edge of Chelsea was transformed into not only a vibrant culinary center, but also an anchor for development and renewal.

It all started when a run-down former Nabisco cookie plant on a deserted stretch of Ninth Avenue sparked his interest. He found an opportunity for more traditional commercial tenants and also for a culinary destination where, he says, "an eight-year-old could come and shop by himself and head home." Most people thought he was crazy. But to Cohen, the idea, while risky, made perfect sense. If he intended to rent the upper floors to commercial businesses, he realized that with the neighborhood in such a poor state (it was known more for aggressive prostitutes than artisan prosciutto), the only way he could get those tenants was to put something exciting down below to bring people over. Food, he decided, would do the trick.

"It started as a social experiment where I believed that people in New York would travel to a desolate part of town for high quality food at low prices," he says. But as it turned out, it wasn't easy to convince his food tenants to sell retail; most wanted to use the space for wholesale only. Cohen did not agree.

"My first tenant, Manhattan Fruit Exchange, wanted space for storage and wholesale, and I said, 'I'll only lease it to you if you do retail.' They said, 'We don't know anything about retail,' and I said, 'I don't know it either, but we can learn together.'"

He offered the same proposal to tenants like Amy's Bread, Eleni's Cookies, The Cleaver Company and The Lobster Place, offering them space for their wholesale business only if they agreed to sell retail too. They all accepted.