It’s not easy owning a restaurant business. It can be expensive just to get started and most restaurants fail within the first year. Even more challenging, is sustaining a restaurant business in the midst of a global pandemic.
That’s just what Black restaurateur Michele Gaton (along with countless others), has had to do. Gaton’s Extra Virgin is the beloved West Village restaurant that has been serving their neighborhood for 16 years. You read that right, sixteen. The eatery serves a playful menu of Mediterranean dishes in an intimate outdoor area (24 seats currently) in which the tables are set six feet apart and little trees are placed between each. The restaurant has remained open during the entire pandemic and have been helping to feed frontline workers during this trying time.
For ESSENCE, Gaton talks sustaining a restaurant as a Black owner on New York’s prime real estate, having to pivot during the pandemic and how other Black restaurants can thrive within the industry.
Starting a restaurant can be expensive and takes a ton of resources. What advice can you give to Black entrepreneurs looking to enter the restaurant industry?
Opening a restaurant is especially challenging because of all of the moving parts and unpredictability. You’ll purchase a new set of wine glasses, during service some of them accidentally break, and they all need to be replaced for tomorrow. As a restaurant owner, you have to be prepared for that. You need to be super organized and quick on your feet, ready to adapt. Controlling costs is everything. Separate what you need now to get open and what can wait. When we dream of opening a restaurant, we envision a big splashy start. The reality is profit margins are small, and it is a non-stop hustle from the day that you open your doors.
At Extra Virgin we started with the leanest version of the vision, and as time goes on we upgrade when we can. We operate this way because, so many things come up that you can’t foresee. On top of all of that, and financials aside, there’s that uncomfortable shift from creating your vision to trusting your staff to honor it. One off-night for staff—an employee who has had a bad day and brings it to work—can taint your mission. Those moments are especially tough, but you have to keep moving. My favorite piece of advice to give: I recommend sleeping with a pen and paper next to your bed for all of the thoughts that rush into your head when you’re trying to sleep. Because once you start paying rent… the race begins!
What inspired the menu of Mediterranean dishes?
My partner Joseph Fortunato is the chef at Extra Virgin. He specializes in Mediterranean cuisine, and we wanted the freedom to have influences from various countries and regions. After all, that’s the way we and most New Yorkers like to eat– a little Italian, a little Spanish, a little French, Greek etc. It’s my favorite kind of food in it’s clean healthy foundation. I’m aware that being a Black owner of Extra Virgin, it’s clearly a move from what is perceived as “black cuisine”. It further illustrates that we are not a monolithic group. Extra Virgin has been serving the West Village for 16 years — which as a Black business owner is no easy feat.
What do you think has sustained your business all these years, and how have you been able to pivot in the era of COVID?
So many people are just finding out that Extra Virgin has a black owner.
I’ve heard anything from, “this just doesn’t seem like a black run restaurant,” to which I ask myself “What does a Black restaurant ‘seem’ like?” and sometimes, I hear, “hey, do you know a sis owns this place?” The second one always makes me smile.
When I envisioned EV, I wanted to create a neighborhood go-to. While we wanted to serve great food, because at any restaurant that’s an obvious goal, I also really wanted to focus on the details: music, lighting, fresh flowers, a warm beautiful space. I wanted a visit to Extra Virgin to embody a really good feeling that was both inviting and intriguing to anyone who came in. It was also really important for us to know what we didn’t want to create. We had a strict no stuffy, judgy, or you ‘have to know someone’ to get your name on the list vibe.
The onset of COVID-19, for all of us, was a sucker punch. I remember we’d have the TV on, watching the news coverage of an empty St. Peter’s Square in Rome. It was so bizarre. It made no sense. No one knew what to do. The changes, the rules, the anxiety, came every day. They still do! In March, we were forced to make the extremely difficult decision that so many other restaurants had to make as well. We had to let go of all of our staff. (Yes, that staff that makes Extra Virgin shine). However, we planned to stay open with delivery and take out. Even though we had to let go of our team to survive, some staff came to volunteer. That’s when you know you really are hiring the right people—they show up when you need them the most.
What are some of your biggest failures and what did you learn from them?
At one point, we tried to launch breakfast at Extra Virgin and it was an epic fail. We hadn’t done it before and my intention was to increase the revenue stream. However, in the COVID conditions, so many people left the West Village, and it just didn’t take. Key takeaway: you won’t know if something will be a success or failure unless you try. Some of the best life lessons I have learned is after I have fallen flat on my face. I am a true believer that failure is one of the biggest steps towards growth.
What are your next moves?
I moved to Harlem last year. I love it. I’m just soaking it in, getting to know it. There is so much swagger and creativity here, so many delicious cuisines. I’m trying to conceptualize how to create something funky and cool and now, a restaurant or bar/ lounge. That just nestles in. That’s where my thought process is. What can I bring to Harlem?