Location: Steve, you’re opening a second Magnolia Bakery on Columbus Avenue this week, and Danny, you just opened a second Mermaid Inn on Amsterdam Avenue this past November. Both of you used to live here on the Upper West Side. What is it about the neighborhood that brought you back for these new endeavors?
Danny Abrams: I think that we both knew the neighborhood about as well as anybody did. And we both felt—at least I did—that there was a lack of good places to go. And the demographic has changed and the neighborhood has kind of evolved over the years. The people who were 25 and living in very cheap apartments are now a little bit older and married with children.
Steve Abrams: Including us!
Danny: And we’ve both owned businesses up here over the years. It’s just a really wonderful market for what we do.
What other businesses?
Steve: I own a construction company, high-end residential construction, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous sort of stuff. My clients are Samuel Jackson, Annie Leibovitz, Jeff Gordon …
Does Sam Jackson have snakes in his apartment?
Steve: No. Seriously, we have a long history in this business. We started as young guys, so we opened a bar because that’s what’s you do when you’re 25 or so. The bar was called Wildlife at 77th and Amsterdam Avenue. After that, we both jointly opened a dance club together called Live Psychic. And then we sort of split up. And I opened a restaurant called Flowers on 17th between Fifth and Sixth. And Danny started to take over the Upper West Side a little bit and opened up a place called Prohibition and then a place called Citrus. I came back to the neighborhood and opened a place called It’s a Wrap. And then I got out of the business for 10 years. And Danny went on a tear. …
Danny: I didn’t go on a tear, but I opened a bunch of joints.
Right. The Mermaid Inn among them.
Danny: Opened the Mermaid, opened the Red Cat, opened Harrison, opened a restaurant called Pace. About a year ago, I bought everybody out of the Mermaid Inn so I could sort of expand that, the way I felt it should be expanded.
Why did you focus on that particular concept?
Danny: I just felt like it had more potential to be a neighborhood joint than the high-end restaurants that I was doing. If I wanna be a part of the neighborhood, you have to be a certain price point. The price point that would be O.K. on the Upper East Side, it would be O.K. in Chelsea, it would be O.K. on the Upper West Side, so that I could have four of those in Manhattan, of all the same name.
Is it hard to be a neighborhood place when you have several locations in different neighborhoods?
Danny: No, I think it’s actually kind of easier because, if you have one location, then you might draw people from all over the city. When there’s two of them, the people from the Upper West Side that are thinking, ‘Let’s go to the East Village and go to the Mermaid Inn. Eh, I don’t wanna go down there, it’s a $15 cab ride. I’ll just go to the one around the corner.’ So it’s easier to focus on the neighborhood, when you’ve got more than one.
What is the difference in real estate terms between downtown and the Upper West Side?
Danny: The rent, the size, the number of seats are all pretty similar. I think you’ve got to be patient to find the right opportunity. I could have taken a more expensive place on Broadway, or further down on Columbus Avenue or Amsterdam. But it didn’t work with the price point that I have. I’d have to charge more money.
Steve: Amsterdam versus Broadway is the difference between a mercenary restaurant and a neighborhood restaurant. [The new Magnolia space] is exponentially more expensive [than the original]. I bought [the original store] last year, inherited a very reasonable rent. But I think that Magnolia was a victim of its own success downtown. When it went in 12 years ago, it got a very good 12-year lease with good rent.