Out of the Pan
The Cookery’s Chef Dave DiBari on risk, reward, and expansion.
Here’s a scene from the life of a first-time restaurant owner. Chef Dave DiBari, 32, is huddled under a blanket on his Yonkers sofa, crying so hard that tears are soaking his shirt. “I was sitting there on Christmas Day and it just hit me all at once: I just put everyone at risk and I don’t know what the f*** I’m doing.”
It was 2008, and DiBari had just signed the papers promising away all of his own money. He'd also committed all of his partner, Michael O’Neill’s, money, along with a chunk of his family’s equity, to a 68-seat restaurant space that they could barely afford. All told, he raised around $130,000–-a pittance in these days of multi-million-dollar restaurant build-outs—and plonked it all down for 41 Cedar Street in sleepy Dobbs Ferry. Austin’s Steak and Wine Bar, whose pans, tables, dishes, and ranges DiBari bought with the money, had not been a success at the site, and the 2008-09 mortgage crisis was in full, deadly swing.
And the parking for 41 Cedar Street is awful.
According to Cornell University and the National Restaurant Association, 60 percent of start-up restaurants fail within their first three years. After five years, the restaurant failure rate shoots as high as 75 percent, and these numbers have not escaped the notice of bank loan officers. The policies of most banks is to decline loans to restaurateurs (especially first-timers), which means that most would-be restaurateurs incur huge personal financial risk.
A well-heeled investor? DiBari sighs and rolls his eyes with all the weariness of a restaurant lifer. When he opened the Cookery, he’d already been in kitchens for more than half of his life. (He’d started washing dishes at 14.) “No matter what they say, investors always have opinions, and, once you take their money, you have to listen to what they say. As a chef, I’ve always had to worry about how to spend other people’s money, but I don’t want to worry about someone else’s money any more. I’d rather put up the stake myself and just take the hit.”
DiBari’s swagger runs counter to restaurant-world wisdom, which cites undercapitalization as the main cause of restaurant failure. New restaurants can take months to attract dependable customers and, all the while, they must stock their walk-ins with perishable food. Unlike retail businesses—which retain the commodity of their inventory—70 percent of a restaurant’s running costs are un-recoupable in food and payroll. Industry guidelines routinely stress that restaurateurs should retain at least three months of running expenses when they open, but when DiBari opened the Cookery in mid March 2009, he had barely enough money to last two weeks.
So little capital meant that the Cookery wouldn’t benefit from an AvRoKo restaurant design—yet the space needed a drastic facelift to differentiate the Cookery from its moribund predecessor. “We needed to imprint ourselves, fast and cheap. So we hauled everything out of Austin’s—they actually had a beautiful mirror/shelf thing behind the bar—and we just uncovered the bare bricks.” In keeping with their utilitarian aesthetic, DiBari and O’Neill bolted stainless kitchen shelves to the bricks behind the bar. The pair spent a solid week sanding and refinishing the Cookery’s wooden bar, and then moved onto every one of its tables. They swung a deal for some upholstery fabric, and then took on the hand-crippling job of stapling it to the seats of 60 chairs. DiBari says of the work, “We obviously did it out of necessity, but it’s also a big part of the Cookery story. This is something that we built with our own hands.”
The Cookery’s menu shows similar fiscal discipline. “I’d done my research before I opened. I knew my menu, I knew what I was going to buy, and I’d worked out my food cost percentages to a point.” DiBari, who cooked with Mario Batali at Babbo for three years before moving to Zuppa in Yonkers, had learned about food costs from a master. Batali is famous for the scene in Bill Buford’s Heat, when, to make a point of kitchen economy, he forces a Babbo cook to pull vegetable trimmings out of the garbage and serve them that night.
“I believed in Mario’s concept of making money from the very beginning,” DiBari says. “You can make something really exciting and it doesn’t have to be foie gras or lobster.” Pasta, a restaurant-world money spinner, is an anchor of the Cookery’s menu. (DiBari, smiling coyly, admits, “We sell a lot of pasta.”) And, like Batali, DiBari has become a proponent of offal—veal tails, duck tongues, brains—which are (so far) still cheap and very trendy.
Yet many of DiBari’s choices at the Cookery, though well considered, risked excluding diners. Not only did the site have severe flaws (like noise, small size, and bad parking), but DiBari’s well-heeled following from Zuppa might have balked at the Cookery’s simplicity. The restaurant’s service style is brisk (and not fawning), its tables are bare, and its wine list is short and modestly priced—DiBari and company offer no bottles for more than $60, which effectively alienates the customers who like to throw money around and feel important.
DiBari is unrepentant about his choices. “Let me tell you about that Wall Street wine money. Once you get those guys in here, you have to give them a veal chop. And I don’t have anything against veal chops—they’re delicious—but it’s just not what we do. They can go to Del Posto and get a beautiful veal chop, brought tableside, and served for two. But as soon as I get those expensive wines in here, I’d have to cook that veal chop, and I don’t want to be told what to do. Also, he continues "those big-spending diners don’t comprise the majority of the dining public. They make up, maybe, thirty percent of diners—so I’d rather go for the other seventy percent. You know what restaurant made money during the recession? McDonalds. I’m not trying to be McDonald’s, but I’m not catering to super-rich diners, either. If they’re into food, they’ll find their way here, but we’re cooking for everyday people.”
In keeping with that mantra, the Cookery’s menu pricing is restrained. In these days of $40-plus entrees, the Cookery’s highest-priced mains sell for $25 (except for a special of bistecca alla fiorentina for two at $60). A mere $21 buys a three-course, midweek lunch at the Cookery.
“We opened the doors on St. Patrick’s Day 2009, and I was so freaked out that I almost went out on the sidewalk to beg people to come in. But I have to say that we’ve been fortunate, and we’ve been busy almost since the day we opened.” How busy? Like most proud restaurateurs, it doesn’t take much to get DiBari to whip out his numbers. Including the bar, the Cookery seats only 68 diners, yet DiBari’s been averaging more than 1,100 meals per week.
“We went into this restaurant in almost a naïve way. All my research was based in White Plains and in Tarrytown—I didn’t really know a thing about Dobbs Ferry. We just saw this spot and thought, ‘Look, someone’s already done some of the work. It’s got some character and, maybe, we could actually swing the rent.’ We were lucky that, in Dobbs Ferry, we managed to find the perfect demographic for the kind of food that we do.”
Yet, with its success, the Cookery’s size is getting limiting. DiBari can’t serve many more diners than he already does. And the restaurant’s tried and true Italian idiom might be restrictive for a young, creative chef. “Sometimes I charge into the kitchen, and I’ve got so many ideas, I’ve got stuff recorded on my iPhone. I go in there and make a mess and get on everyone’s nerves. But I’m finding now that I have way more ideas than I can produce.”
The Cookery’s monthly party, “Industry Night,” held at 11pm after the restaurant closes, has raised speculation about another restaurant on the horizon. In the past, Industry Night has offered a thriving bar, live music, and treats like house-baked soft pretzels. “I’m looking around for a new spot. I want to expand, make my own beer, and reward some of my guys with promotions.” Gesturing affectionately toward the kitchen, seen through the Cookery’s pass-through, DiBari may be talking of himself when he says, “Those guys don’t want to spend the rest of their lives in there.”
Julia Sexton is a restaurant critic, food writer, and blogger. Before chaining herself to her laptop and in the capacity of a line cook, she'd written multiple loan applications for a restaurant that subsequently failed. Having barely escaped with her sanity intact, she holds the deepest respect for the those assuming the financial risks of owning restaurants.