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The Influentials: Food

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Rob Sopkin
Director of new stores, Starbucks
This is the man who made the made the coffee shop an endangered species. Starbucks shops have a way of changing a block. They bring gourmet joe, of course (at $1.79 per cup). They provide public space for first dates, wireless office work, and emergency bathroom stops. And they can be a magnet for gentrification (they’re definitely a marker of it). The man responsible for where the Seattle-based Godzilla leaves its footprints in New York is Sopkin. Leading a team of twelve location scouts, Sopkin has added 200 Starbucks to the landscape in the past eight years, from such obvious places as Times Square to such formerly chain-averse neighborhoods as the Lower East Side and Brighton Beach. This is influence through ubiquity.

Rick Bishop
Owner, Mountain Sweet Berry Farms
Bishop isn’t the only farmer who sells ramps—the pungent, sweet wild leeks that ate Manhattan menus a few years back and return, to food fanatics’ delight, for a few short weeks every spring. But Bishop, along with fellow forward-thinking Greenmarketeers like Alex Paffenroth and Ted Blew, deserves much of the credit for Manhattan’s fresh-produce revolution. Over the years, Bishop has brought not just ramps but fragrant little local strawberries, wild watercress, fiddleheads, and Italian shell beans from borlotti to zolfini to the streets of downtown Manhattan. Paffenroth, for his part, pushes formerly rare roots like salsify and burdock. Blew’s Oak Grove Plantation has thirteen varieties of basil, from plain-old Italian to Mexican and Armenian. Together, Bishop and company (with the help of Danny Meyer and other fresh-ingredient-obsessed chefs) have helped awaken New Yorkers’ palates to the pleasures of fresh, locally grown, seasonal ingredients.

Audrey Saunders and Sasha Petraske
Lounge owners, mixologists
Saunders and Petraske have made high-end cocktails the new recreational drug. Their respective watering holes, Pegu Club and Milk & Honey, bring four-star seriousness to what, for the past 40 years or so, has been a Shake-n-Bake approach to drink-making. They revive forgotten quaffs (ever had a cobbler?) and invent new ones (the Gin-Gin Mule) to such delicious effect that ambitious bars, and even restaurants, around town have begun hiring their own top-shelf mixologists to keep ahead on the cocktail curve. That these two would usher in the next wave of cocktail culture should come as no surprise—both are disciples of the original master, Dale DeGroff, who invented a drink or two of his own back at the Rainbow Room.

Saru Jayaraman
Executive director, Restaurant Opportunities Center—New York
Up until April 2002, potato peelers, dishwashers, and other low-wage restaurant workers were among the most powerless laborers in New York. But Jayaraman’s Restaurant Opportunities Center is changing that. At age 17, the activist prodigy founded her first organization, Women and Youth Supporting Each Other; today WYSE has twelve chapters in six states. Now a Harvard-and-Yale-educated lawyer, she files lawsuits and leads protest marches against any restaurant—Brooklyn delis as well as places like Cité—that won’t give its workers a fair shake. In two years, Jayaraman’s efforts have won more than $300,000 in judgments, and though she tends to deflect praise onto those she represents, the oversize checks on her walls speak volumes.

Frank Bruni
Chief restaurant critic, the New York Times
In this Golden Age of restaurants, in which one or another famous four-star chef or talented upstart seems to open another notable establishment every day, the Times remains the publication of record for restaurant owners looking to impress. And when the high priest of star-giving confers, or withholds, his blessing, the cash registers ring, or don’t.

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