The Community Minded Restaurateur & Film Buff with the Midas touch
Is there anything entrepreneur, Henry Rich, can’t turn to gold?
After graduating from college, Rich started a breath mint manufacturing business, worked in a wine store, and toured with his band. When the breath mint company took off internationally, he ensured they were the best mints around by inventing new flavors and custom designing the packaging. After devoting eight years to the business, Rich sold the company and parlayed his knowledge of running a food business into opening his first restaurant, Rucola in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, named after his favorite bitter green. Known for its intimate atmosphere and relaxed neighborhood vibe, Rucola quickly became a beloved institution. Since then, Rich has imbued his laid back style coupled with culinary excellence to a string of popular restaurants in Brooklyn, Fitzcarraldo in Bushwick, June Wine Bar in Cobble hill, Cassette in Greenpoint, and Purslane Catering, in Gowanus).
Now, after a mid-career foray into film (he recently associate produced The Seventh Fire, a documentary about Native American gang culture, along with co-executive producers Natalie Portman and Terrence Malick), Rich has opened The Metrograph, a new indie cinema art house (the first new independent cinema to opening in New York in ten years) in the Lower East Side.
With so much going on, we were eager to capture Rich’s insights. Here he shares some of his most coveted secrets for success and more.
Do you have a philosophy that unites all of your restaurants? If so, why is this so important to you?
I do. I make everyday neighborhood restaurants that attempt to reflect the values of a specific community. In my neighborhood restaurants Rucola and Cassette, we’re open from 8am-midnight so that people know we’re always here for the local community. At Rucola, we stayed open during Hurricane Sandy as a place for people to check-in and connect with their neighbors. At Fitz, we serve the local arts community, non-profits, and the Bushwick party scene. At June Wine Bar, we serve as an affordable industry gathering spot and local Cobble Hill wine bar. We always need to reason to exist and a community to serve. I also push my own values, which are that people should be eating more vegetables, more environmentally sustainably and pay less for a great meal – going out in New York shouldn’t feel like an excessive luxury. Soon people will realize that they’ll need to switch to eating more plants not just for health reasons, but mostly to lower the carbon footprint of industrial agriculture, meat production in particular. That awareness about food consumption is coming and our menus try to reflect that.
Generally, I try to make spaces that engender a party that feels like and is about something other than just serving people food and drink. Just selling something isn’t a good enough reason to pull together all the energy you need to open a place. There needs to be a vibe, a purpose, something extra and different people can’t get from sitting in their homes. It should feel like a party that’s intimate and familiar, but a party where you had to do nothing other than walk in with friends. We need to host a great party and put on a great show every night in multiple locations—that part is exhilarating.
Also, I tend to focus on micro-regions in Europe that have a very local, but universally appealing style of cuisine and an incredible wine culture. I generally get inspired by border regions; they tend to be more local than national since usually they’ve been swapped back and forth between nation-states. Piedmont/Savoie, French Catalonia, Italian Riviera – these cuisines I get really excited about and use for inspiration.
What are you thinking about when you choose an area for a new restaurant?
Context, immediate and more generally for the location. In order to establish a good vibe, it helps to have everyone on the same page. Having a unique threshold is essential to easing people into a great experience. The threshold can be the neighborhood, it can be the first thing people see when they walk in, it can be the long walk-up, it can be a shock when you walk in the door; but you want it to be as impactful and as long in duration as possible. If you’re going to transport people over the course of an evening, you need them to be prepped for it, it’s hard to do that without a very strong opening.
I also think – does this community need, want, or value what I’m trying to do? For example, The West Village doesn’t need another neighborhood restaurant; our commitment to accessible pricing, smaller meat portions, and intimate interior would get completely lost and they already have some great historic places like the Ear Inn. But Greenpoint, a neighborhood in rapid transition with many cultural, artistic, and artisanal identities all converging is perfect for what I do.
You’re an associate producer on The Seventh Fire, a documentary about Native American gang culture co-executive produced by Natalie Portman and Terrence Malick. What drew you to this subject, how did you get involved and where can we see the film?
I knew the filmmaker from college and he was looking for a few partners to finish out the post-production. He originally was just asking if I knew anybody, but in the end I thought it would be fun to just get involved myself. Prior to watching the Seventh Fire, I knew nothing about the Native American gang culture; I figured helping this doc get out would be helping that story be told. Also, I’ve always been interested in issues of income inequity, poverty, and cycles of incarceration; the Seventh Fire portrays the issues with our criminal justice system about as well as I had ever seen.
What is the Metrograph project and what will be on the schedule for March?
Metrograph is a two-screen movie theater that will screen repertory classics as well as new independent cinema. There will be two bars and a restaurant called the Commissary that’s open from 9am-3am. The Commissary food is based on the old studio commissaries of 1950s Hollywood where they would have a chef in-house, who would make food for everyone working on a film, the movie stars and the entire crew. The food isn’t fancy, but it’s very good.
Metrograph is also a 100% integrated hospitality environment where every interaction one has with Metrograph staff, including the ushers and ticket salespeople, creates a feeling of warmth, intimacy, and commitment to quality. Where most movie theaters are aesthetically generic ad vehicles, we hope the design of the Metrograph lobby, restaurant, and bars, and the theater itself to show we care about a guest’s overall experience before and after the film, not just during it.
Where do you live in NY? What do you love about your neighborhood?
Cobble Hill. The long lines of brownstones on my block. I first lived a few blocks away on a brownstone lined street and I think I developed an early addiction. I’m a bit on the outside of the social circles of my block without children, but living on a beautiful street is wonderful.
Can you share three of your favorite local hang out spots?
I’ve been enjoying my micro-neighborhood in Greenpoint a lot lately, within one block of Cassette I can go to Ramona, The Pencil Factory, or Broken English for a drink, go shopping at Wolves Within or Home of the Brave and eat at Cassette (obviously) or Paulie Gees. I’m not moving, but if I were I’d move to this intersection, Franklin St and Greenpoint Ave.