Thursday, February 17, 2011

Beyond Bristen's - What's Next for Franklin?

After three years on Franklin and several menu overhauls, Bristen's Eatery is closing shop for good this month. While their departure isn't a complete surprise (as posters below have noted), it is, in some ways, emblematic of how rapidly the Avenue is changing. Laurel from Nostrand Park put it best in response to Friday's rah-rah-new-businesses post:

"However, with the rapid changes, I think it is also important to also step back and look at the macro perspective on this, and consider whether the retail mix as a whole is reflects the needs of the broader community . . . while the wants, needs, and spending power of the newer residents are and should be a very real factor in determining the success of Franklin Avenue as a commercial district, it is just as important to factor in the wants, needs, and the collective economic potential of residents of lower-incomes."

Laurel also pointed out that the retail environment on Franklin has gotten increasingly competitive, a factor which drives development but which can also produce a here-today-gone-tomorrow business environment, one that damages communities by damaging continuity. Mike F commented that "the city is changing. To try to stop it is futile; the goal is to try and keep up," but I'd argue that the real challenge is to harness, direct, and channel change in ways that benefit and strengthen neighborhoods. This doesn't mean standing athwart history yelling "stop," but rather thinking about strategies for engaging local residents, retailers, and landlords in conversations to address the questions Laurel is raising (on Franklin, the CHCA and the Franklin Avenue Merchants Association are brainstorming about these issues). To add my own concerns to the mix, I think a retail mix that serves our heterogeneous community is important, but I also think businesses have the potential to act as public spaces where members of these diverse groups come together and actually build community.

This brings me back to Bristen's, which, for all its faults as a restaurant, was a civic-minded business and node of community interaction. The owners went out of their way to play this role, organizing the Franklin Flea two summers ago, drawing attention to Franklin when they were one of the few sit-down places on the Avenue, and acting as a meeting space for everything from MLK Day volunteer groups to Halloween parades. We're lucky to have quite a few of these businesses on Franklin, but in an atmosphere of heightened competition, we can't take them for granted. Supporting local merchants that make these efforts, whether through constant patronage, Yelp reviews, or expressions of gratitude, is an essential part of making the area livable for everyone. (As an aside, I'm a big believer that this includes constructive criticism - if a business is doing something wrong, LET THEM KNOW. Nobody wants to the guy sending his soup back five times, but a discreet piece of advice or information is helpful, and improves both your experience and their business model. You can't tell McDonald's to put more pickles on a Big Mac, but you can, hopefully, get that kind of responsiveness from your local spots.)

Ultimately, Bristen's didn't have the goods to match their do-gooding. So where to from here? From what I understand, the Bristen's space will be replaced by a Caribbean place called "Island Thyme." Some posters worried about "another Caribbean joint," but I think this place, in this space, would/will be great. When ILFA got started two and a half years ago, there were three Caribbean places on Franklin between Eastern and Park (The Spice is Right, 3D's, and the space now occupied by J's Wong), and a fourth, JamRock Kitchen, opened shortly thereafter. Today, only JamRock remains (though supposedly 3D's is not gone for good). In a month or so, Franklin will have more coffee houses, Mexican places (Chavella's opens next month), and Thai places (once Sweet Basil opens) than West Indian joints, a change that gets to the heart of Laurel's concerns. In a historically West Indian community that remains majority Afro-American and Afro-Caribbean (according to the most recent census), having a nice new Caribbean restaurant in a cozy space does two important things - it demonstrates that gentrification/revitalization/neighborhood change doesn't just have to be about nice things for newcomers, and it provides a place for social and cultural exchange that benefits all parties involved.

I realize this is a lot of aspirational language to pin on a new merchant who's likely more concerned about his/her bottom line than being part of a blogger's Kumbaya project. Still, returning to Mike's point, communities in this town are inherently transient things, and their fates can swing on tiny hinges. Maybe Island Thyme won't have us all holding hands around a bowl of stew peas, but it can, I think, provide the opportunity for interaction. What we make of these interactions is up to us.

27 comments:

  1. Great post, Nick. I was thinking along the same lines about the upcoming changes at Fishers. I hope his new inventory will meet the needs of the entire community, not just its newest, youngest, and most affluent members.

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  2. I give Island Thyme six months...

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  3. If Island Thyme can make it until the new court officers training complex opens, and then get them as customers, I think it will do fine.

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  4. What are the changes at Fishers? You mean that grocery store? I've never been inside...I have to admit that I've only shopped at Nam's and Pine Tree on Franklin Ave. Um, I bet you can guess my skin color now.

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  5. The changes are more than welcome. I do think that potential biz owners might need to take an informal survey to see if their biz is wanted or will be supported. Bristens first menu was good, until the quality of products took a dive. There are a few types of business that might be welcome on the Ave, other than dining establishments. For instance, the tattoo store seems to be doing great. I have friends looking for the right space, but leases seem to be snapped up as soon as they're available.

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  6. I'd really be curious about the demographics of this blog's readers - race, age, and how long they've lived in the neighborhood.

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  7. I am hopeful that Fisher's will become more produce-centered. Nam's is good -- glad it's here since when I moved to the neighborhood it was hard to find fresh produce and I'd walk down to Pioneer just to get something fresh looking -- but maybe some healthy competition will make things even better.

    And for the above person, I'm white, lived here since 2006, and work in the area as well. The changes (stores, restaurants, bars, and people) have been crazy - I barely recognize the area and I've only been here for 5 years!

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  8. In addition to Bristens having irregular hours, it also did not have one of the things that many of restaurants in the area offer: BEER.

    ....it is getting hard for sit down places that do not offer BEER to compete.

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  9. I believe Island Thyme is Bristen's new venture and it will NOT be located on Franklin

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  10. Hmm . . . I may well be misinformed. If that's the case, I wonder what will end up in the Bristen's spot. A place with a kitchen already built in is a deal for someone looking to open a restaurant.

    And who knows - maybe whatever comes in will be a phenomenal node of community interaction, or maybe the food won't taste good and no one will go. I think it's always worth giving new businesses a chance, and it's definitely worth giving them feedback to help them improve.

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  11. I thought the same thing as the 5:01 Anonymous -- the sign on the window made it sound like the Bristen's people were opening a new place elsewhere.

    Personally, I'd love it if Veggies moved there so that they could have a bigger menu and sit-down place. They are really really nice people and I love having a veggie/vegan option that is affordable and tasty.

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  12. while all of you are fretting about the disappearance of West Indian food from Franklin, a new West Indian Place is being build on Washington.

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  13. What's it called, where is it, and when does it open (I'm curious about these things, as you may have noticed . . .)

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  14. The new West Indian place will be located by the former Crown Chicken. Brownstoner scooped you

    http://www.brownstoner.com/brownstoner/archives/2011/02/washington_ave_1.php#comments

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  15. It happens . . . the people who are really owning me these days in terms of scoops are the Prospect Heights Patch crew: http://prospectheights.patch.com

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  16. No it's going in the old Raw Star space.

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  17. Tonight I got an email from Groupon that says:::

    "Thank you for purchasing the Oaxaca Taqueria Groupon. Unfortunately, the Prospect Heights location has closed. However, you may still redeem your Groupon at any of the other 3 locations. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause"

    Well, I guess they are closed now too.

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  18. I was just coming over to bemoan the closing of Oaxaca. too soon!

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  19. I'm surprised they went under so quickly - I figured they were mostly a takeout and delivery spot, but I guess they just weren't doing any business at all. That's another restaurant space for someone to snap up now (though their kitchen is TINY).

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  20. Oaxaca was in an incredibly bad spot. Low visibility and no foot traffic. Bristen's was, unfortunately, unimpressive. I had brunch there when they served sandwiches. It was overpriced and unremarkable. When they switched over to a noodle shop my immediate thought was that they were desperately grasping for something.

    Maybe their strength lies in Caribbean cuisine, but there are so many Caribbean places already in the area that they're entering an oversaturated market. Personally I think a proper chip sop would be awesome.

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  21. Crazy. I just ate at Oaxaca for the first time last week. It wasn't as bad as I remember the Smith St location being. While their location was suspect, I think if they could have waited out a couple month, things would have really turned around. All those new developments are turning people's minds West off of Franklin. The foot traffic was definitely going to begin picking up.

    As to Bristens, their main problem was that they were never open when I needed them to be. I swear they were always closed too early or open too late. I never got to try their noodle soups for that reason. At the end of the day, I will think of Bristen's fondly, because it was a somewhat idiosyncratic spot that did business on its own terms. The service was amateurish, the food so-so, the space homey but not comfortable. But they stayed stubborn to the end.

    This leads to another point, which is that this neighborhood doesn't yet have the critical mass of businesses to keep newly-arrived people in the area at night. So as a business you have to be focussed on catching people getting on and off the train- no matter what time it is. No restaurant or market will be successful shuttering before 10pm.

    -Spnder

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  22. Oaxaca never really advertised as far as I could see. Once they opened I grabbed some of their menus and placed them under the door of a nearby apart complex myself when i found out that people in the immediate area did not even know they were open and there. The Indian/Bangladeshi place around the corner for example - when they opened we received MANY fliers under our door. They were out there. Oaxaca didnt make an effort. Also as a stand up joint (not a sit down joing) this wasnt so welcoming. They needed a different business model for the neighborhood. Bristens, well needed to be a bit more hip to get people in there. Alcohol/beer is key, especially for the young folk. You can have good food but if you are not hip people will not gather - and bring more people. They need to find a hook. Frankly I am not crazy about another caribbean place. I doubt I will go (except once or twice to make an effort to support a nab. business). I am waiting for a good French place a la Chez Oscar in Fort Green. So happy about the Thai coming (and I hope it is the real deal and not pseudo Chinese, with watered down curries like Udon Thai) , and Chevellas.... but a Frenchish spot would be lovely. A tapas spot (a good one) could also do us well - a place for young people to have a drink and have small plates of food/tapas/pinxtos, paella (which doesnt have to be expensive). Also there is that amazing building on Franklin at St Marks/Dean I think - this could be an amazing bar/music/arts venue for an investor....Dreaming.....

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  23. There's several Caribbean restaurants on Franklin, on the other side of Eastern Parkway - but there really needs to be a coffee shop on that Franklin stretch to maximize on the CUNY students and subway foot traffic. I'd also really like a hardware store. Mayday on washington is too far...

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  24. We need a "Choice" Franklin - like the one in Fort Green and Lafayette ! This is exactly what Franklin needs and would do well...Heeeeeellloooooo Choice people..........

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  25. Whenever I see "we need" in relation to my neighborhood, I consider who the commentator means in using the collective pronoun. My conclusion is that almost always the pronoun "we" is narcissistic, and the commentator is really talking about her own perceived needs (and possibly those of people like her).

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  26. perhaps the better word is "support"

    I.E. What would the current neighborhood "support" as opposed to what the current neighborhood "needs".

    ...when one thinks about it, everything but food and shelter is a preference, not a need right?

    I suspect this neighborhood could support a lot more businesses than it is presently.

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  27. Apparently Oaxaca's twitter says they had to close "due to the Landlord failing to get the right permits from the city and getting shut down" and that "he was warned, given numerous chances to legalize electric and didn't so ConEd was called and pulled meters."

    Who knows, they also might have been doing poor business, but the armchair speculation is not needed. I actually thought they had a great spot, right off the Prospect Pl Shuttle stop, there's no other good fast food in a two-block radius to pick up on the way home. The pizza place on the corner is terrible.

    The Indian place is amazingly good, but not fast...

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