Burt Rapoport was born into the restaurant industry, literally. As a child, he lived in an apartment above his grandfather’s restaurant. Here he talks about the lessons he learned as a third generation restaurateur.
You know the cliché of people saying, “Well, it's my DNA”? I hate to be a cliché, but being a restaurant owner is in my DNA. I was literally born in a restaurant, well in the apartment above my grandfather’s restaurant, Rapoport’s, on the lower east side of Manhattan. I would spend my time as a kid hanging around the ovens with the three bakers and whenever something came out, I would take a bite. I’d eat the freshly whipped cream. And the smell of the onion rolls, it was amazing.
My grandparents were from Eastern Europe and the restaurant catered to immigrants like them in that neighborhood with Kosher Dairy cuisine. We'd always sit down for a family meal when nobody was in—between normal busy hours—and my grandfather would say, “Children, what would you like to eat?” I’d say I wanted a bagel with smoked sturgeon and smoked salmon—two of the more expensive items on the menu. Of course my younger brother and sister would say they wanted whatever I was having. My grandfather would joke, “Oh, just bring them potato soup,” which was the least expensive thing on the menu. But he would give us whatever we wanted. He was generous like that, to us, to his customers, to family back in Poland he’d send money rolled up in a coffee canister so it wouldn’t get stolen in the mail.
So much of who I am, and how I’ve shaped my life I owe to my grandfather, even my appreciation for simple, fresh ingredients. My parents had a house on Long Island, four blocks from the beach, and I remember my grandfather taking me to the ocean on a Sunday afternoon with a pail to scoop up clams and mussels. We brought it back to my grandmother and she made fresh seafood pasta. I guess I was a foodie, you know, right from day one.
I worked that restaurant from the bottom up—when I was 10 years old, my job was to organize the storage room in the basement. I’d put all the cans, jars, and boxes on the shelves—labels facing out—and break down the big boxes. To this day, if you look in my fridge at home, or in the storage rooms at my restaurants, you can see my grandfather’s fingerprints on the way I do things. It's the little things that have a way of sticking with you. I bussed his tables throughout high school. I served. I cooked. And when I was old enough, I bar tended. There was not a corner of that business that I didn’t touch. I watched, and I learned, and really it’s all about people. My grandfather once told me, “I don’t have to like these people, but they’ll always be my customers.”
Me. I like the people! I just have the gift of gab and love chatting up people, talking to employees and customers. Even the ones who can be a little grumpy.
There was this couple who came into one of my restaurants, and they were very demanding. They didn't like the table they were sitting at. They thought the service was slow. Basically, they had made up their minds that they were going to have a bad experience. And I said to myself, like I always do, “I am going to make this person a raving fan!” So, I just made sure they felt taken care of. And when they left, they said, “We'll see you again!” And they came in once a week for 20 years.
I teach that to my employees. Like the other day, we had a woman come in who asked for a diet ginger ale. Even though that’s not something we carry, the hostess ran down to the market and picked some up for the customer. Always look for the way to go the extra mile. You have to astonish your guests.
I have a saying, “The answer is yes, now what is the question?” and that’s not just for customers, it’s for my employees, too, because I believe that you have to treat them like family. I developed an incredible sense of empathy. As an owner, the hard work that goes into a restaurant isn’t an abstract for me. I’ve experienced it, I recognize it, and I respect it. So, I've always put my employees above anything. All the financial success in the world would be meaningless to me without the connection with people and that is why cultivating a work culture that values people is so important to me.
I think my grandfather would be really proud, not only to see what I've accomplished, and how I’ve been recognized over the years. Although that would impress him, I think my grandfather would be more impressed by the people’s lives I’ve touched with the generosity of spirit he instilled in me.
For me, it all comes down to the people. Once you commit to this hospitality lifestyle, you are committing to making people happy. That’s a huge responsibility and an honor.
Through life, I've always known when it was time to go. You know, I knew that when I was a waiter. I said, "I am done, I don't want to wait on another table again." When I was a bartender I knew it was time to move on. When I was a manager and then ultimately a supervisor, I said, "I am done working for somebody else." I was ready to open my own restaurant. I know that when this becomes a chore or a job, that's when it’ll be time to stop. But I’m about to open the 40th restaurant in my career and I’m filled with the same excitement I had when I opened my first restaurant. I’m excited to meet the employees who will become the newest part of my work family, and the customers who will become regulars. I’m just trying to savor it. Because nothing lasts forever. Everything is a gift. And you have to appreciate today.
Read more from the Real Talk with Restaurateurs blog series.