In conversations about gentrification, small business owners that ring in the changes—the fancy coffee shops and hip art galleries, for instance—are characterized as drivers of social change. But for a certain class of food entrepreneurs, opening a business in a gentrifying neighborhood has less to do with the change you want to make and more to do with where it's possible for you to thrive.
"I think people see a restaurant in a demographically changing neighborhood and they look at you as if all you have are dollar signs in your eyes," says Dan Ross-Leutwyler, the chef and owner of Fritzl's Lunch Box.
Fritzl's, which opened last year to positive press from food media (including Serious Eats) and quickly surfaced on Eater's Brooklyn Heatmap, is located squarely in Bushwick, Brooklyn, a battleground of New York's gentrification debate with a rapidly changing restaurant scene.
For Ross-Leutwyler, opening Bushwick allowed him to run the only kind of restaurant he ever wanted: a neighborhood joint serving aspirational food that was, above all, accessible. That means a place where locals can afford to come by a few nights a week, eat a burger, drink some beer, and if they're up to it, try that special of ricotta dumplings with crab and trout roe.
That's a concept most neighborhoods would like to have but that only a few can make economically viable. In the New York of sweeping, ever-accelerating hyper-gentrification, only a few neighborhoods have the special blend of affordable costs, customer demand, and population density to support it.
In Greenpoint, Ross-Leutwyler found an affordable but unfinished space that charged $5,000 a month in rent, but he would have needed a quarter million dollars to get the landlord to take him seriously. In a Fritzl's-friendly neighborhood in Manhattan, the costs would have been four times as high.
"I don't want to feel like I have to charge $20 for a $10 hamburger," Ross-Leutwyler said.
He considered other options before settling on Bushwick, like Sunset Park, where he lived for a number of years. But he felt that "the community that lives there is served very, very well with what they have already." Meanwhile, in Bushwick, he saw opportunity. "There's a wide spectrum of customers in this neighborhood and they have very few options."
"The primary driver is economics. I didn't have a ton of money. I was able to raise this amount of money. I didn't have anyone else to go ask for more." And so the choice was stark: either open in Bushwick or abandon his dream of owning a restaurant in New York, the only city he's ever called home.
How does it feel to open a gentrifying restaurant in a gentrifying neighborhood? Ross-Leutwyler, who grew up just south of the Meatpacking District and later lived in Williamsburg, knows both sides of the story. "This neighborhood will change regardless of whether Fritzl's is here. I don't think I'm a driver of change. I think I'm an indicator of change," he said. "You can either try to shape that change in a more positive direction or you can rail against it and throw a brick through a window. But I don't see what that accomplishes."
When he appeared before the local community board to get approval for his beer and wine license, he faced the angst of locals first-hand. "They're scared their neighborhood is going to be taken away from them, that everyone's going to open up a bar and the streets will be filled with people pissing and screaming. That's a legitimate fear. You can't tell them it's unfounded. Look at Bedford Avenue."
So the question, at the end of the day, is how a restaurant like Fritzl's can maximize the positives that it offers the neighborhood.
"You have an obligation as a small business owner to be mindful. Hopefully a byproduct of what I do means giving neighborhood residents jobs and raising their standards of living. That's not the purpose of running a restaurant—I want to make some money and give my kid a future—but every other positive thing that happens is fantastic."
About the author: Chris Crowley is the author of the Bronx Eats and Anatomy of A Smorgasburg Pop Up columns. Follow him on Twitter, if you'd like. In person, your best bet is the window seat at Neerob, or waiting in line at the Lechonera La Piranha trailer.