(Re)Starting Small

Photo: Hannah Whitaker/New York Magazine

Joaquin Baca has opened restaurants before. You might have heard of them: Momofuku Noodle Bar. Ssäm Bar. Ko. As David Chang’s original co-chef and eventual partner, Baca rode the monster Momo wave until, as he puts it, the company, and its ambitions, outgrew him. Last fall, Baca sold his shares back to raise money for his first solo venture, the Brooklyn Star, a southern-inflected spot (Dr. Pepper ribs, anyone?) opening this month in Williamsburg. So how does a solitary chef-owner working on a shoestring budget open a restaurant in this economy? By scrimping where he can, splurging on the stuff that counts, and exploiting the cheapest labor he can find (himself). It took Baca three months to find the space and four and a half to build it, and the best investment he made was a 1979 Datsun that he bought on eBay for $1,800—perfect for carting around building materials and general detritus, loaded to the hilt, “Beverly Hillbillies style.”

Baca raised cash the old-fashioned way: by maxing out his credit cards and borrowing about $70,000 from relatives. In lieu of a realtor, he was able to negotiate the ten-year lease directly with the landlord, beating out a rival bidder who coveted the space, a former bakery and pizzeria, for its coal-burning oven. Projecting a $25-ticket average, he expects to make the $4,500 rent by doing three turns on roughly 42 seats, plus lunch, eventually.

Before he started cooking, Baca had done house restorations, an experience that gave him the confidence to undertake a nerve-racking gut renovation. For tough jobs, like tiling the bathroom and installing stainless-steel paneling, he capitalized on the surplus of out-of-work laborers looking for temporary gigs. But even then, he saved a ton by buying his own materials, like tiles and mortar. Other chores, like blasting through Sheetrock and plaster to expose the original brick walls, Baca tackled himself, in two-hour stints, with a borrowed jackhammer.

The Internet proved an equally powerful tool. That’s where, on Craigslist, he found a freelance seamstress willing to sew banquette seat cushions for $750, and on eBay, a cache of lighting fixtures from an Army base. His biggest expenses won’t be seen by paying customers: $10,000 to outfit the kitchen, $20,000 on the hood vent, and $7,000 for climate control. “HVAC problems are just miserable,” says Baca. “I didn’t go with the cheapest quote.” 33 Havemeyer St., nr. N. 7th St., Williamsburg; 718-599-9899.

1. Wood paneling and 11 table frames (8 small, 2 medium, 1 large at center of restaurant), $2,500–$3,000
Pine and birch from Home Depot; crown-molding trim, gift from a carpenter friend.

2. Pots and pans, $600
Lodge cast-iron, about 30 pieces, bought online; All-Clad, Baca’s personal collection.

3. Two ceiling fans, $54
From Home Depot.

4. Kiln-dried wood for 100-plus-year-old oven, $100 for a half face cord
From thewoodman.com.

5. Lights, $114
Twelve cast-iron glazed ceramic fixtures, purchased on eBay for $9.50 each.

6. Slate tiles for bar and tabletops, ten boxes at $10 per box (six tiles to a box), $100
From Build It Green! salvage and surplus supply shop in Queens.

7. Floor, $0
Original oak. “It’s old but good.”

Chairs, $1,870
(Not shown), from Rollhaus, 22 chairs at $85 each.

*The figures do not represent Baca’s total budget.

(Re)Starting Small