Big-shot architects often become synonymous with fancy construction projects.
The actual builders not so much—yet they’re the ones who truly make something from nothing.
“For the project we did at Grand Central, Cipriani Dolci, there were no architectural drawings,” recalled Wayne Schumer, president of UCON Corp., a Brooklyn-based boutique construction company that specializes in building restaurants, bars and nightclubs, often to owners’ improbable specifications. “They came to us with a little model shipped from Italy!
“The M.T.A. didn’t know what to do,” Mr. Schumer said, laughing. “There was this big review process, and here’s this tiny little building. That was it.”
Mr. Schumer, 41, has overseen the construction and reconstruction of many eating and drinking establishments in Manhattan over his nearly 20-year career in the business, including Café Boulud, Payard, the Campbell Apartment—notably converted from an old jail, he pointed out—and a total of four of the esteemed Cipriani family’s fine-dining destinations.
But the mini-Cipriani was a first.
“It was actually wonderful,” Mr. Schumer said, swirling a glass of chardonnay on the night of Oct. 8. “Our job was very easy. It was a good little model.”
Dressed in a black jacket and a shiny untucked shirt more befitting an Upper East Side-raised club-hopper than a New Jersey-born construction worker—turns out, he’s both—the good-humored veteran project manager was sitting down that evening with other invited guests for a special gut-busting nine-course tasting of chef Marco Berto’s traditional Venetian menu at the newly opened, nearly 6,000-square-foot Zorzi eatery and cocktail lounge, located at 1 East 35th Street.
Mr. Schumer had personally traveled to Italy twice this year to consult with owner Alberto Zorzi on the six-month-long construction effort, which involved extensive work with imported stone.
The free food—“about the seventh” such tasting that Mr. Schumer has enjoyed at Zorzi since taking the job, he said—is just one of the many rewarding perks of specializing in hospitality venues, as opposed to, say, condos.
Mr. Schumer’s done those, too. “I don’t like ’em,” he told The Observer over a small plate of beef tartare with a sliver of black truffle. “It’s like building a small room 300 times.”
Bars and restaurants can be tricky—kitchens, in particular, are “a pain in the ass,” he said. “The plumbing, the electrics, the exhaust system.”
And the business overall can be messy. For the past two years, Mr. Schumer has been engaged in a vicious court battle with former partner Brandon Roth over control of the firm and wound up changing the company’s name, formerly Ameribuild Construction Management, as a result.
But sticking to hospitality offers more variety, more self-fulfillment. “Every project is different, every project is complicated,” he said.
Not to mention the more stimulating social component.
Over the years, Mr. Schumer has gained an intimate knowledge of the exclusive VIP suites at swanky strip clubs Scores and Scores West; you know, beyond having physically erected the small, secluded enclosures themselves, including, he noted, a special Roman-motif back room at infamous Scores West designed exclusively for radio talk-show host Howard Stern.
Albeit “not much of a strip-club guy” himself, Mr. Schumer openly confessed to indulging in an occasional cappuccino alongside embattled Scores boss Richard Goldring, whom he considers “a good friend,” while surveying the eye-popping fruits of his 42-person crew’s labor.
Nov. 6 will mark the completion of yet another palatable project for Mr. Schumer’s company, a tiny 1,000-square-foot Italian specialty foods store and cozy 35-seat eatery, Salumeria Rosi, at 283 Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side—which, despite its small size, may present much larger opportunities for the builder in the future. Tuscan chef-operator Cesare Casella is looking to open multiple locations, including a bigger, full-scale restaurant, in New York, Mr. Schumer said.