Its late in the afternoon, and Jean Claude Iacovellis executive chef, Joe Armatrudo, needs $15 to buy ravioli for the nights service at SoHo Steak. People have been trying to separate Iacovelli from his cash all day. First André, a freelance expediter, needed $250 to grease an unspecified palm. Then the local butcher tried to unload some rib-eyes. Ill give them to you for two-fiddy, Jean Claude. Sell them as filet, he bargained. Iacovelli declined. Hes not above cutting corners, but he tries to hold the line on food. Its impossible to say what his mute Polish contractor, Janusz Szylenko, needed cash for -- the two men communicated in a sign language of Gallic smirks and shrugs -- but Iacovelli peeled off two twenties and a ten. Finally, his old man hit him up for a C-note.
The 35-year-old restauranteur has always preferred to keep things liquid, and now that hes turned his string of SoHo restaurants into the foundation of a hospitality mini-empire, hes moving more cash than ever. To close a $1 million deal on a three-story tenement, he and his brother packed $800,000 into duffel bags and carried them over to the building, on Sullivan and West Houston.
Within a month the building -- which has already become his home, and the site of his new restaurant -- will be reborn as Iacovellis greatest coup: Velli, a seven-room bed-and-breakfast.
On the face of it, a small inn might not seem like any greater achievement than Iacovellis five previous ventures, successful bistros like SoHo Steak and Jean Claude, in the citys most competitive restaurant district. But he did it in a fraction of the time -- and with a fraction of the headaches -- that it cost some of the citys biggest developers to open their trendy downtown hotels.
Hes approaching his new vocation with his trademark cheapskate-chic formula: minimal redesign plans, and furnishings from antiques stores and junk shops. And his standard room rate will be $100 a night, which compares awfully well with the Ramada-esque SoHo Grand ($319 and up) and the luxe Mercer ($325 and up).
Nevertheless, he says hes looking to the hotel to generate the steady stream of cash that even his popular restaurants dont provide. When you open a restaurant, you always worry about things you cant control -- the weather, the day of the week. If its raining, you worry about business. If its snowing, forget it, he says. A hotel is not like that. Can you believe there are 365 days that I wont have to worry about the snow? Maybe I get out of the restaurant business, you know?