Last of the Bowery Boys: Skid Row’s Restaurant Suppliers Struggle with an Invasion of Eateries

  • A decade ago, the only sight more common on the Bowery than the homeless people lining the street was that of the stainless steel restaurant appliances crowding the sidewalk. Today, the streets are still full, but hipsters, tourists and wannabes have almost entirely replaced the punks, pandhandlers and chefs. Only a few restaurant suppliers continue to push their hundred-pound wares outside each day.

    The Bari Equipment and Restaurant Supply store at 240 Bowery is one of the few suppliers with no plans to leave their Bowery home. The Bari’s have been shipping pizza ovens to pizzerias all over the city since 1930, when the founding Bari invented a cheese grater that catapulted the store into notoriety. They’ve seen a lot of people come and go in the last 80 years, from a host of unsavory criminals who once populated the Bowery to the shiny new gallery and restaurant owners who now rent some of the Bari-owned properties across the street.

    Today, past the shiny new and used appliances pouring onto the sidewalk, past the cheap pans and giant colanders and whisks, foisted by numerous attendants eager to help new customers, three living generations, Franklin Bari, Anton Bari, and Anton Bari Jr., still run the business from a wood-paneled office at the back of the store.

    “People walk in every week with offers to buy,” the eldest Mr. Bari told The Observer as he rifled through his desk, eventually locating a recent proposal of $6.25 million. “But we’re not going anywhere.”

    However the Bari’s are an exception to the general Bowery restaurant supply store rule. Many of their neighbors have already traded in their Bowery addresses for homes in the outer boroughs.

    Last week, construction began on the flagship Paulaner brewery in America. A beachhead for the Munich beer (No. 8 in Germany!), the brewpub is being built at 265 Bowery, where it is the newest business to replace yet another supply store. Paulaner rents the property from Simon Attias, who moved his store Attias Oven Corp from that location to its new home in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. “We got a good offer, and we feel that the restaurant equipment people there are all moving out one by one,” Mr. Attias told The Observer. “We decided to leave too.

    Mr. Attias’ brother, Ben, owns an oven supply store next door. He told The Observer that every time a dealer moves out of the area, it makes things worse for the businesses left behind. “At one point it was just the Bowery, so if you needed the equipment you knew you had to come here,” he said. “Now these dealers are moving out to Queens, Brooklyn and New Jersey so you don’t have to come to the Bowery anymore.”

    Mr. Attias founded his business 30 years ago. He and his ten brothers all worked in the same industry, though his brothers who didn’t own their spaces on the Bowery were forced to relocate when the rents skyrocketed a few years ago. According to him, the feeling is that New York City authorities do not want the suppliers in Manhattan anymore, evidenced by an increase of sidewalk obstruction tickets in the last three years. Where once City Hall had neglected the street and left its denizens to their own devices, now it is nagging them, and providing yet another reason to move away. “They did the same thing with fabric supply stores on Orchard street,” he said. “Now it is happening here.”

    Mr. Attias told The Observer that though he doesn’t miss the criminals and drug addicts that used to hang out on the bowery, he misses the days when the streets were filled with other restaurant supply stores. “At this point I’m the only restaurant supplier on my block on my side,” he said. “We used to be nine dealers selling the same equipment. Now it’s kind of quiet.”

    According to Mr. Attias every time the dealers move out of the neighborhood, it gives customers a new locale where they can find supplies. Rather than decreasing the competition, it moves it somewhere else, bringing less foot traffic into the bowery and possible bringing the supplies closer to possible customers in the outer boroughs.

    If things do not work out, Ben Attias said he would rather adapt to the new Bowery than lease. “If all of these businesses become restaurants, I would have to open a restaurant,” he said. “I don’t want to rent because I’m a young guy and I want to do something. I want to go to work, I don’t want to sit on a beach all day.”

    He is not alone in feeling alone. Across the street, Simon Fung and his son Felix own a glassware supply store. The younger Mr. Fung told us they will not be leaving their Bowery home because the rent offers they have received were too low. “We’re business men,” he said. “If we have to change the business we’ll change the business.”

    The older Simon Fung said though he likes his home on the Bowery, and misses some of his friendly competitors, he doesn’t have any nostalgia for the old restaurant supply mecca. “You know, the new Bowery is better than the old,” he said. “There used to be a lot of bums on the street.”

    The Baris aren’t planning on changing their business plans any time soon. Bari Equipment is the biggest restaurant supply store in the area, and Mr. Bari told us that the business is more profitable than any renter or other endeavor would be. But their decision not to move or change their business is also rooted in their history. “We’ve got four generations in here working,” said Mr. Bari. “How could we say to a guy next door, the guy Patsy that works for us for fifty years, how could I tell him, ‘Go home?’”

    If the store is eventually the only one left in the area, it is poised to become a monument of some kind. The walls of the office showcase relics of the Bowery’s history, such as newspaper clippings about the store from decades past and photographs of the Bowery from the beginning of the 19th century showing the train tracks of the New York and Harlem railroad that once passed through it.

    Mr. Bari has also saved artifacts that embody the varied personality of their Bowery home. In addition to an antique catalogue selling the cheese grater and the pizza cutter invented by his father, Mr. Bari still has a stack of letters in his desk from a murderer in the early 90’s named Daniel Rabinowitz who, unbeknownst to the Bari family, was renting a room from them in a hotel across the street. “He boiled a girl and he ate her,” Mr. Bari told The Observer, grimacing. “That’s the Bowery for you.”

    The architect of the new Paulaner brewery that will soon sit across from the Bari’s historic supply store, Anthony Morali, said the new business doesn’t want to completely abandon that gritty history, but instead hopes to repackage it. He said the brewery would fit in nicely because before the property was an oven supply store, it was actually a bar called Sammy’s Follies.

    “That was the original location where vaudeville entertainers would come down from Broadway to have a few drinks and offer free entertainment,” he told us. “Sammy was kind to the bums on the Bowery and he would give them a little food on the side.” Mr. Morali did not say whether the brewery would be doing the same for those still in residence at the Bowery Mission.

    Mr. Morali has a picture of Sammy’s that he hopes to tie into the design of the Paulaner brewery with wrought iron, chandeliers and hardwood, so that it will look like it belongs in the Bowery locale, whatever that might be these days. All of it, even the restaurant supply stores, are a sort of manufactured history. Just like the rest of New York.

    In the meantime, his neighbors seem poised to accept the new variation of their old scenery—now the customer is just next door.

    Mr. Attias said that even if he will miss the supply stores he is not upset about his new neighbors. “This is the way of life,” he told The Observer. “It’s the way things move up. Different businesses move in. Nothing lasts forever.”

  • These guys helped put the Bower back on the map. Will they vanish from it?

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