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The Profit Calculator

The wild risks, unexpected niches, and day-in-day-out grind behind making a dollar in New York...for everyone from a drug dealer to Goldman Sachs.

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You can’t live in New York—arguably, you can’t spend an hour in New York—and remain oblivious to the machinery of profit pumping away under every surface. This city makes money, loses money, houses money; lately, with luxe condos stacking up like casino chips along the waterfront, the city looks like money. What’s amazing, then, is how little we truly know about the inner workings of this beast we feed, and milk, daily: How does New York make its money?

Every company setting up in the city finds itself plugged into its myriad historical, cultural, and regulatory quirks. The biggest one, of course, concerns our island’s most precious commodity and its most enduring obsession: real estate. New York businesses live and die by the rent; if you’re a retailer leasing here, “making the rent” becomes the yardstick of solvency. The unofficial golden rule of restaurants dictates that the rent be made in a week and take up no more than a quarter of revenue. The bar version of the rule is even simpler: The rent should equal your Friday-night take. With each year, another company succumbs to the strange realization that where it sits may be more valuable than what it does. Even Macy’s, that icon of consumerism, may be worth more as a building than as a store. We’ve picked a disparate cross section of New York institutions and examined their inner workings. Some are nonprofits (a soup kitchen, a private school), some are not profitable (a fledgling yoga studio, the Yankees—at least on an annual basis), and at least one, Goldman Sachs, is stratospherically lucrative (though a lazy meth dealer ekes out a higher margin). A note: Where companies wouldn’t provide figures, our estimates are based on analyst reports, tax filings, and interviews with former and current employees.

We also asked Edward Glaeser, a pioneering urban economist at Harvard, to analyze the New Yorkonomics of the businesses we profile. His insights are in italic. Glaeser is an expert in how New York’s great density makes our lives—and livelihoods—hugely dependent on one another. We’re all plugged, at different entry points, into the same awesome web. A failing restaurant keeps a printer in the black with its incessant flyering. The sex-toy market rises and falls with the consumer-confidence index. An eight o’clock Nobu reservation provides a cabdriver with his golden hour. And everyone—everyone—is cursing the rent. Except the landlords.


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