Now Invading Manhattan, Father and Son Cipriani Start Rainbow Room War

If Arrigo and Giuseppe Cipriani have not seen Ghostbusters II , they might want to rent a copy. In the film, the collective negative energy of New York becomes a physical force that threatens to destroy the city.

The Ciprianis will identify with the premise. A creeping, sulfurous fog has shadowed the Italian father-and-son restaurateurs ever since the announcement last year that they were taking over the lease to the city’s vaunted Rainbow Room. As the Ciprianis have pursued a course of aggressive growth–their newest projects include a former Bowery Savings Bank-turned-catering hall on East 42nd Street, two restaurants in Grand Central Terminal, a hotel, restaurant and party space at 55 Wall Street, and a stake in the floundering Fashion Cafe–the storm front of bad mojo has grown, fed by New York’s insular and competitive restaurant industry, but also by the Ciprianis themselves. With their bullish growth, the Ciprianis have exhibited a good deal of bullish behavior, with actions and pronouncements that have angered restaurateurs, food critics and the labor unions that represent the food-service industry, who accuse the Ciprianis of trying to freeze them out of their burgeoning empire.

Now, even as the Ciprianis fight to correct what their spokesman, Barbara Archer, termed “a lot of misinformation and rumors” about their plans for the Rainbow Room and other ventures, a physical manifestation of all that ill will is about to collect behind blue police barricades outside Rockefeller Center. On Jan. 22, 250 longtime waiters, bartenders and other former employees of the Rainbow Room, and members of Local 6 of the Hotel, Restaurant and Club Employees and Bartenders Union, plan to amass outside Rockefeller Center wielding bullhorns, brandishing signs and charging the Ciprianis with what the union’s spokesman, John Turchiano, called a “mass execution”: the elimination of union jobs at the once organized establishment, which has only been open for private events since Christmas.

“They won’t even talk to us,” said Leo Blokar, a former captain at the restaurant. “It’s really an outrage. [Giuseppe Cipriani] is just a greedy restaurateur with no scruples.”

The planned demonstration has already resulted in one cancellation: a Jan. 26 fund-raiser for State Comptroller Carl McCall. Clyde Butler, finance director for Friends of McCall, said she moved the event to Tavern on the Green because she did not want to deal with pickets or offend the union. “It was quite an inconvenience. Trust me, it’s not something I wanted to do,” said Ms. Butler. “But I’m glad they [the union] told me there was a problem.”

It remains to be seen whether the Ciprianis’ landlord, Rockefeller Center, which is owned by a partnership that includes Tishman Speyer Properties Inc. and Goldman, Sachs & Company, will react to the picket lines marring its upscale limestone shopping mall. Still, as restaurant-guide mogul Tim Zagat pointed out, “I don’t think Rockefeller Center is going to want to have pickets around their buildings.”

Local 6′s strategy does not end with Rockefeller Center. According to Mr. Turchiano, picketing and leafleting is also planned at other Cipriani sites, including 55 Wall Street’s monthly “big-spenders” concerts, featuring musicians such as Whitney Houston and Barry Manilow and attendees such as Chris-Craft Industries Inc. chairman Herb Siegel and Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein’s foreign minister. Natalie Cole is slated to perform on Jan. 27. (Fortunately for billionaire Ira Rennert’s daughter Yonina, the picketing had yet to start when she was married at 55 Wall Street earlier this month.) “We consider it a disgrace that [Giuseppe Cipriani is] discriminating against New Yorkers simply because they are union members,” said Mr. Turchiano.

It’s ironic that the Ciprianis, who are foreigners, are being accused of discrimination. But that sense of discrimination is certainly out there, and it extends beyond the two restaurateurs’ labor stance. To many of the city’s very close-knit (yet ultra-competitive) restaurateurs, the Ciprianis are relative outsiders who have nonetheless carved out a niche serving $16 glasses of house chardonnay and $20 appetizer plates of prosciutto and melon to a clientele consisting largely of Eurotrash and New-Crowd money.

As long as they plied that niche, they were fine.

But the Rainbow Room has been around since 1934, long before Manhattan was the international playground of the garish rich, and New Yorkers have a proprietary sense about it. Suddenly, the Ciprianis–guys who cater to the likes of Ralph Lauren, Ivana Trump, Ted Forstmann and Henry Kravis in the first place–were leasing it for $4 million a month and telling the press that the restaurant, with its revolving dance floor and panoramic views of the city, would be open to the public only for Sunday brunch, Friday dinner and one Saturday night a month. The rest of the time, this jewel of Rockefeller Center’s crown would be used as a fancy catering hall.

Well, the Ciprianis seem to be backpedaling a bit, even though they did not return numerous calls from The Observer . Their spokesman, Ms. Archer, said that Giuseppe, who’s credited with spearheading the family’s aggressive expansion plans, is “a little gun-shy of the press because he feels that he’s taken out of context and not properly quoted.” (One defender of the family claimed that the 34-year-old Giuseppe has been misquoted a lot because his English is not very good.)

Herbert Rose, the director of the Rainbow Room, told The Transom, “It’s not that we don’t want to answer your questions. It’s just that we have to make a full presentation to the Tishman Speyer people first.”

Mr. Rose’s son Louis, managing director of the Cipriani’s 55 Wall Street and East 42nd Street facilities, told The Observer that the Ciprianis now plan to turn the touristy Promenade Bar, which is not part of the Rainbow Room proper, into a seven-day-a-week restaurant, tentatively titled the Rainbow Grill. (Mr. Rose said he did not know how many people the restaurant would seat.) The bar, he said, would be kept intact, but would be moved to another location within the room to allow for more window seating. Possibly to allay any additional fears that the Ciprianis would be gutting the place, Mr. Rose said, “The Landmarks Commission is thinking about making the interior of the Rainbow Room a landmark.” He added that the Ciprianis plan to continue the Rockefeller Club, a buffet lunch that used to feed the bigwigs of Lazard Frères & Company and other top executives who work in the building. One glitch: The former proprietors did not turn over the membership list.

While the Ciprianis are currently renting out the Rainbow Room, they are also planning a renovation of the space, especially the kitchen, said Mr. Rose, which has a leakage problem. Mr. Rose said that the Rainbow Room was expected to be fully operational by February, but renovations in New York are a tricky thing. Indeed, Mr. Rose had just finished explaining that the two restaurants that the Ciprianis plan to open at Grand Central Terminal are far from opening their doors. Meanwhile, he pegged the opening of the hotel at 55 Wall Street, which was supposed to be in January, at “late March or April.”

Asked who was backing the Ciprianis in their bid to become New York’s grandest caterers, Mr. Rose replied: “That’s a Giuseppe question.”

It’s a question that many of New York’s restaurateurs would love answered. As one veteran of the industry noted, the city’s restaurant scene is small enough that “everyone knows where everyone is getting their money.” But when it comes to the Rainbow Room and some of the Ciprianis’ other endeavors, such as its East 42nd Street operation, no one seems to know. (Speculation has included partners at Goldman and Sidney Kimmel, the owner of Jones Apparel Group, who owns 55 Wall Street. Mr. Kimmel did not return calls, but Ms. Archer said that as far as she knew, he was not involved in any Cipriani venture besides 55 Wall Street.)

In terms of the Rainbow Room, 55 Wall Street and now the East 42nd Street Bowery Bank location (where Mr. Rose said the Ciprianis will set up their corporate headquarters), the Ciprianis seem to have embarked upon a strategy to lease dramatic, large spaces in which the city’s high rollers can hold parties. The question seems to be whether, even in 1999, there is enough demand to fill all those spaces–especially when the Rainbow Room’s base rent is $4 million a year. According to one real estate source, the rent actually escalates upward if the revenues exceed $4 million. “My sense is they are so naïve, they just agreed to this, thinking, ‘Oh, we’ll just renegotiate down the line,’” said the source. “But they’re dealing with some pretty tough hombres here.”

One way in which the Ciprianis are addressing this issue: “We rent everything,” said Mr. Rose. “We just bought chairs and are going to be purchasing tables, but we rent all china, linen, silverware and glassware per event.” That includes human resources, he said, so that when there are no events scheduled, the Ciprianis’ costs are minimal.

Last year, the Ciprianis managed to lure Herb Rose from his 20-year post as the head of catering at the Pierre Hotel. He brought a team of five with him from the hotel, which some local restaurateurs said indicates that the Ciprianis have a good eye for talent. Yet some still seemed to be mystified as to where the Ciprianis will find the staff and management to run their venues. “All I can say is, they must be keyed into some great source of management and staff that the rest of us have yet been exposed to,” said Buzzy O’Keeffe, owner of the Water Club.

Louis Rose said that, as far as wait staff is concerned, “We have a service that provides us with top-notch waiters.” Using an outside company for waiters is not without pitfalls. In November, The New York Post ‘s Page Six column reported that the Ciprianis had replaced one such firm with another after waiters were allegedly caught walking out of its Wall Street concert series with magnums of Cristal champagne and tins of caviar. That story also reported, though, that some of the workers who were still there were protesting working conditions that were imposed on them. One of the conditions protested was that the wait staff was served its pasta dinner (the workers dubbed it “penne alla caca”) out of bus pans. “No utensils or anything, and they don’t even warm the bleep up,” the Post reported one worker saying.

After first laughing at the story, Mr. Rose denied that the staff was served out of bus pans. “The best part of that is that we don’t have to feed them,” he said. “We choose to feed them. We’re not that bad.”

Asked whether union workers would be employed at the various Cipriani establishments, Mr. Rose said: “The wait staff are union at Harry Cipriani and downtown Cipriani. Down here [at 55 Wall Street], they’re not. Ideally, they won’t be elsewhere,” he said.

Just a few moments later, however, Mr. Rose said: “There’s no angst against the people just because they’re in a union. We certainly don’t want to ask for trouble.”

So far, the Ciprianis haven’t fared particularly well in their battles with the city’s hotel union. They are already tangling with the Hotel and Motel Trades Council over 55 Wall Street. Because they operate Harry Cipriani in the Sherry Netherland Hotel, they are subject to a collective bargaining agreement between the council and the New York Hotel Association that forbids parties from interfering if their workers get the urge to organize at any hotel they operate. But the council was rebuffed by the Venetian restaurateurs last year when it inquired if the Ciprianis would honor the agreement at 55 Wall Street. The labor group cried foul and dragged them in front of an arbitrator who will hear the case this month. The outcome doesn’t look good for the Ciprianis. They have already tried without success to thwart the council in the state and Federal courts.

Now the Ciprianis are facing the prospect of a bitter, protracted fight with Local 6. As far as union members are concerned, it was Giuseppe Cipriani who took the first jab last June when he casually slammed the Rainbow Room and its staff in an interview with The New York Times after winning the restaurant’s lease. “Right now, it’s a little tired,” he sniffed. “The service is a disaster.”

These were fighting words for the waiters, bartenders and other Local 6 members at the culinary eagle’s nest. Many of them see themselves not simply as employees but caretakers of a uniquely American institution. Many of them worship the late Joe Baum, the Rainbow Room’s former proprietor who revived the establishment in the late 1980′s. And they are fiercely proud of the service they provided over the years to the kings, Presidents, movie stars and other discerning patrons of the 65th-floor eatery.

“We made the place a three-star restaurant, which is unheard of in a restaurant of that size,” said former waiter Michael Morana, who spent 11 years at the Rainbow Room before the Ciprianis took over. “I personally waited on [ New York Times restaurant critic] Ruth Reichl twice out of the four times she came up there while she was doing her reviews. So for him to say the service was bad? You’ll never get better service anywhere in the world.” (By comparison, Harry Cipriani, at the Sherry Netherland, earned two stars, and the Ciprianis’ SoHo outpost, Downtown, garnered one star. Ms. Reichl did have nice things to say about Cipriani Wall Street, the restaurant at 55 Wall Street, in a Diners Journal column last December.)

What made Mr. Cipriani’s comments even more infuriating was that union members are convinced he never dined at the Rainbow Room before winning the lease. They are certain they would have spotted him if he had. “It would be impossible for him to just sneak in here unnoticed,” Mr. Blokar insisted. “Ruth Reichl came wearing a wig, and she was immediately recognized.”

In November, Mr. Baum’s company held a job fair for its Rainbow Room employee in the space that housed Rainbow & Stars. According to several Local 6 members, the Ciprianis sent a representative (their chief financial officer Jeffrey Vasser, according to some), who told the astonished workers that he was only interested in hiring cashiers and an accountant, neither of whom belong to the union.

In December, the union decided it was finally time to take action. It instructed 190 of its members who were former Rainbow Room employees to send certified letters to the Ciprianis saying they were interested in working at the Rainbow Room and inquiring about the hiring process. All but one of the letters was returned unopened.

Bob Thomas, a former waiter who worked for nine years at the Rainbow Room, thinks he knows why he’s being ignored. He’s convinced Mr. Cipriani wants to hire part-time workers so he won’t have to pay the health benefits that he and other union members receive.

“He’s not looking for people who do restaurant work for a living,” Mr. Thomas told The Observer . “He’s looking for transients. You’re going to have people coming in with Tupperware. They are going to be carrying the place out.”

Like most of his fellow former employees, Mr. Thomas hopes to get a new job soon. But even if he does, Mr. Thomas said he is so mad that he will picket the Ciprianis any time he gets a spare moment.

“I know I’m just a guppy,” he said. “I know I’m just a pawn. But if we’re together, we’re going to hurt him. He signed himself into a big lease, and he’s going to have to meet that final responsibility. That’s the only thing he cares about: money.” With a $4 million-a-year nut, Mr. Cipriani is going to have to care about money a lot.