It’s late in the afternoon, and Jean Claude Iacovelli’s executive chef, Joe Armatrudo, needs $15 to buy ravioli for the night’s 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. “I’ll give them to you for two-fiddy, Jean Claude. Sell them as filet,” he bargained. Iacovelli declined. He’s not above cutting corners, but he tries to hold the line on food. It’s 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 he’s turned his string of SoHo restaurants into the foundation of a hospitality mini-empire, he’s 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 Iacovelli’s 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 Iacovelli’s five previous ventures, successful bistros like SoHo Steak and Jean Claude, in the city’s 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 city’s biggest developers to open their trendy downtown hotels.
He’s 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 he’s looking to the hotel to generate the steady stream of cash that even his popular restaurants don’t provide. “When you open a restaurant, you always worry about things you can’t control – the weather, the day of the week. If it’s raining, you worry about business. If it’s snowing, forget it,” he says. “A hotel is not like that. Can you believe there are 365 days that I won’t have to worry about the snow? Maybe I get out of the restaurant business, you know?”