The veteran owner of a kosher dairy restaurant in Boston, Marc Epstein came to New York City on a family visit two years ago and decided, on a whim, to inspect the Financial District location of an Italian restaurant whose business style he admired.
Epstein discovered that the restaurant, non-kosher, was closed, its site vacant. He also noticed that the pedestrian mall on that street — Wall Street between Nassau and William — was packed with workers and tourists. Potential customers, he thought.
Epstein decided to fulfill a long-term dream and open a second branch of his Café.
It opened at 40 Wall Street, under OU supervision, with initial packed crowds, in June.
Three months later Occupy Wall Street, the series of demonstrations based in Zuccotti Park five blocks away that have grown into a tent city that now fills a city block, arrived, leading police to erect metal barricades in the middle of several blocks of Wall Street to keep the demonstrators away.
The barricades, which now restrict foot traffic there to the narrow sidewalk space, also keep customers away, and Epstein says the future of his restaurant (milkstreetcafe.com) is in jeopardy. “People stopped walking” along Wall Street, he says. “It’s not a pedestrian mall.”
Daily business is down by about 30 percent from the week before Occupy Wall Street began seven weeks ago, and Epstein has laid off 20 of the 100 employees who staff the 23,000-square-foot space. He’s cut the restaurant’s hours of operation and looked to increase its catering business.
Without the barricades, Epstein says, “I would be breaking even in October and making money in November. Everything was going in the right direction.” Now, the restaurant is losing money.
His next plan: meetings with the mayor’s office, the Police Department and the leaders of Occupy Wall Street. “I’m going to ask if they can work it out so that the barriers can come down. I don’t want to be collateral damage.”
Four local public officials this week called in Mayor Bloomberg to help “remove the excessive number of barricades" on Wall Street.
The Milk Street Café, down the street from office buildings, the New York Stock Exchange and the iconic statue of George Washington’s 1789 inauguration, is the only restaurant on the affected blocks, Epstein says.
The restaurant’s closing “would be a loss,” says Rabbi Meyer Hager, spiritual leader of the Wall Street Synagogue. “It’s a high-class place.
“It’s ironic,” says Rabbi Hager, that a social movement formed in response to growing economic inequalities is threatening to put several dozen people out of work. “The people who are doing the protesting are not necessarily from Manhattan” — hence have less interest in local jobs.
The restaurant, which serves pareve, meat and dairy food in separate sections, is the largest kosher eatery in the Wall Street area.
Religious Jews constitute just a small percentage of the customers of the restaurant, which aims at local employees and visiting tourists, and which features no visible signs that it is a Jewish establishment, Epstein says.
The 30th anniversary of the founding of the original Milk Street Café will come in two weeks, but Epstein says he has scrapped plans to mark the occasion. “I’m not going to do anything,” he says. “I have to concentrate on making this New York project successful.”