Iconic NY Restaurant’s Secrets To Success Uncovered
By Richard Crawford
For tourist and native alike, New York City offers more choice, diversity and style of cuisine than any other city in the world. It’s a utopia of sensory experience for the millions of diners who visit and frequent the thousands of eating establishments located on every street and avenue. From fine dining to the street cart vendor, choices are abundant, but ask any proprietor of an eatery, bistro, café, diner or restaurant will tell you it is no easy task keeping the lights on and the doors open.
Ultimately there are significantly more failures than successes in the NYC restaurant business. There are countless pitfalls and sometimes even the most minor infringement can be the kiss of death to a restaurant whose very foundation encompasses the heart, soul, blood, sweat, and tears of its owner.
When you realize the odds against the success of a restaurant in New York City, it imparts a greater appreciation for some of the more iconic establishments that have weathered everything that the city has thrown at it, and the original Palm Restaurant is a prime example.
Established in 1926 and still operating in its original location at 837 2nd Avenue, New York, The Palm lays claim to a success and longevity that is unprecedented, especially in the playing field of fine dining which typically holds higher standards and expectations. The original Palm is an establishment that is so successful it now boasts 28 other locations throughout the country, as well as an additional couple of international locales.
One of the more fascinating facts about the original Palm is that despite the transient nature of the restaurant industry The Palm has had only seven General Managers since it opened in 1926. That is a pretty impressive 88 year run and it wasn’t until the 1960s that the restaurant reached outside the family for management, with Nicholas Maracz, the current GM, as one of only four non-family members ever to serve in the role of General Manager.
I recently had the opportunity to interview the Cleveland, Ohio native who, after moving to New York City 14 years ago, now finds himself at the original location of The Palm as the General Manager; an honorable place to be with a list of predecessors this short and exclusive. Maracz is a relatively young man for the gravity of his position but he performs his role with the confidence and professionalism of those who came before him. Here he shares stories of his beginnings, inspiration and his insight into the secrets of the Palm’s success, all of which started at 837 Second Avenue in New York City.
RC What brought you to NYC?
NM Art School. I attended college at The Ohio State University for 2 years and visited NYC for the first time on a road trip in the fall of 1999. After seeing the Architecture and the art scene, I immediately realized if I wanted to be a serious artist this is where I needed to be. I enrolled in The School of Visual Arts in January of 2000. I still try to paint as much as possible, usually late at night after work and my work varies from the surreal, to portraits, to cityscapes, especially 2nd Avenue. I use it more as therapy, a way to escape from the day-to-day ups and downs of restaurant life.
RC Do you think that the hustle of NY helps as an influence?
NM Without a doubt!
RC How long have you been with The Palm?
NM I started in January 2002 ….12 years this January. I started as a bus boy, or server assistant as we call them, over at Palm West on West 50th Street in the Theatre District. I was still in school and paying for my tuition, room and board, and supplies. Being the starving artist is only fun until you are really starving, hungry that is, so finding a restaurant job helped.
RC When you first started in that position at The Palm on the West Side, did you think for a minute that you would be in the position that you are in today?
NM No, not at all. It was means to an end. I wanted to make as much money as I could, and working close to Times Square was exciting. It was energetic and confident and the people I worked with were just as energetic and confident as the city itself.
RC When did you realize you were in it for the long haul?
NM Yesterday! (He smiles). I realized I really fell in love with what I was doing when I transferred from server to assistant manager
RC Can you explain why?
NM At that point you need to make a major decision and weigh your personal goods vs bads. You learn what is important to you. On one hand you take a financial pay cut and learn to manage paychecks versus daily cash tips- but on the other hand you get to “suit up” and look great every day you come to work. I enjoyed the opportunity to experience more, grasp a fuller understanding of proper food and wine service, and learn how fun this industry can be. You are now also in a position to teach and encourage others which I really enjoy. At that point you know that it’s either “for you”, or “not for you.”
RC Who were the original owners of The Palm?
NM Two immigrants from Parma, Italy named Poi Bozzi and John Ganzi. They opened up the doors in 1926 together. Poi was the manager and John was the chef.
RC I understand that there is a comical story about the origin of the name of the Palm.
NM Yes. The gentlemen wanted to pay homage to their hometown of Parma when they named the restaurant. So, when they went to the registrar’s office, they repeatedly said the name of their restaurant was “Parma”, “Parma” in a thick Italian accent, but the official couldn’t make it out and heard “Palm”, “Palm”. The papers were stamped Palm, a legacy was born, and the rest is history.
RC One of the amazing facts about the Palm restaurant is that it has only had 5 non family General Managers since early 1960’s. Do you think you will be the general manager of the Palm 30 years from now?
NM I would be honored to.
RC Based on your last answer and my personal dining experience there seems to be a very loyal atmosphere here at The Palm on a staff level, especially in an industry that is typically very transient. Why do you think that is?
NM I think we really set the standard of a family atmosphere. We have been fortunate enough to have real New Yorkers and real good employees who work here because their fathers and even grandfathers worked here, both on the ownership and employee side. It’s just a precedence that has been set since the 1920’s. It’s just how it has always been. We take care of our own and promote within and I don’t think you see that much anymore. There’s an old school pride in coming to work, doing a good job and passing that work ethic on to your son or daughter. Ultimately it’s about setting an example and its alive and well here. We have waiters here who have been with us for 30 plus years.
RC As well having a very loyal staff I noticed on several occasions that I have dined here that there is a very loyal customer base also. To what do you attribute this?
NM People come to The Palm for a number of reasons. They come to celebrate special occasions, celebrate accomplishments and great business deals, so this is a place that has been built on happy memories. When you celebrate happy memories with your family you tend to want to go back to that place whether it is a birthday, a promotion, or an anniversary. People just keep coming back and they want to keep bringing their family and friends with them.
So as our staff grows as a family so do our guests. We have generations on our walls of grandfathers, sons, and grandchildren and some on the same wall because this a place they can go and celebrate those memories and constantly have a good time each and every time they came back.
RC You have been with restaurant for 12 years. You have worn the hat of many roles. As we discussed, you have had numerous friends, associates, fellow employees and I assume bosses over the years. Who do you feel has been your biggest mentor?
NM Honestly, because I’ve had the pleasure of rising through the ranks from server assistant to server to training server to Assistant Manager to Assistant General Manager, and finally General Manager, I have been very fortunate to have several key mentors. When I first had the opportunity to take the step from server to manager there where two very influential people for me. Janice (Pic) Sheil, and Augustino (Gus) Lusardi. They not only taught me the important lessons in the restaurant business but also important lessons in life. Especially when it comes to how you treat people. They have been in the business for over 65 (combined) years so to pick up the little things here and there that you can’t learn from a book a was invaluable for me. Another major influence (even as a server assistant on my very first day of work) is current restaurant owner, Bruce Bozzi Jr. What a class act and a true gentleman. He and his family have been taking care of people and their families for years and just seeing that example of how to treat people and motivate anyone has been a true inspiration. As long as you treat them the right way and encourage them in achieving their goals they will always strive to work their hardest for you.
RC What’s your most memorable experience as an employee?
NM I’ve been fortunate to have met superstar athletes, dignitaries, celebrities etc. but I think from a more personal point of view my most memorable experience is when I made the transition up from server assistant to server, because it really is a big step – and this is still one of those old school places where in some instances it could take several years to make the transition from server assistant to server. That feeling of just knowing that it was my first step of going forward and I could see that there was an opportunity to grow was exciting. Not only was it financially beneficial but also I learned so much and I knew there was potential to keep going up and up. I knew that if I just keep coming to work on time, bust my butt do my job, then there’s opportunity to grow and it just kind of catapulted from there. It helped solidify in my mind that the sky’s the limit.
RC If you had a time machine and could go back and work any decade here at The Palm as a general manager, when would that be and why?
NM Well, from the stories I’ve heard and the photos I’ve seen, every decade would have been a hit, from the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s all the way up to now. If I had my choice I would love to have worked here during the 1960s’s. In a time when Roger Maris and the Yankees, Sophia Loren, Muhammad Ali, and The Pan Am flight girls would frequent this place; all the hip cars parked outside, and all the fashion and clothes – I just love the 60’s in New York and this place was booming then. Everybody who was anybody was here, a time of “hip” suites and 3 martini lunches- totally “Mad Men” style. I would have just eaten that up.
RC One of the iconic traditions of The Palm is the caricatures on the walls. Can you give me a little background on how this developed and their origin or significance?
NM This particular neighborhood back in the 30’s and 40’s was surrounded by a lot of newspaper industries like the Daily News, Times, King Features Syndicate, and other syndicates that did a lot of cartoons in their publications. At lunch a lot of the artists, writers, and freelancers would come into The Palm and some would exchange a doodle for let’s say a bowl of spaghetti (remember we started off as an Italian restaurant). It began to catch on with some of the regular customers and then some of the wait staff. We have some classic originals such as Popeye, Beetle Bailey, Batman and Denis the Menace, even the guys who first started doing the jumbo crossword puzzles has an original on the wall. In the late 90’s we developed a frequent diner loyalty program called the 837 Club and one of our famed reward levels offers guests an opportunity to have their face added to a wall.
RC So is your picture on the wall?
NM No not yet.
RC What is your favorite dish?
NM My favorite dish actually is not a steak or lobster even though that’s what we are more known for. It’s our Chicken Parmesan just because it’s a bold, yet classically simple dish. I think it’s by far the best in NYC. It’s pounded thin and we use both Parmesan and Gouda cheese melted just right with a little crust on top, its dynamite! Our sauce is made fresh every day- you can’t beat it! For a legendary steak and lobster place our Italian dishes are really something I strongly suggest repeat diners should explore. It’s not uncommon for true Palm fans to have one in the center of the table for everyone to try.
RC If you could change one thing at The Palm what would it be?
NM …Not a thing. We’ve been doing it since 1926. There’s a new steakhouse on the block every year and we see them come and we see them go.
RC You just mentioned the fact that new restaurant come and go, and in some cases come and go quickly. It’s a very tough business, but The Palm is an iconic staple of NYC. What in your opinion are the three main factors that play into The Palm’s longevity?
NM First it starts with consistent high quality of food, only the best of the best. If you are going to serve steak it should be the best steak, if you are going to serve wine it’s the best wine, but consistency is key. Next is our over the top personalized service. Our staff knows your name, your family’s names, and what you enjoy. We take pride in the bonds we form and making our guests feel right at home, in our home. Lastly it is our relaxed but lively and friendly atmosphere. When you walk into a Palm you feel it, no matter what city you are dining in- you feel it! The energy is always high and you truly feel a part of a party that has been going on for over 88 years. Without a doubt those are the staples and the consistency of all three of them are the triple-header. People have so many choices of where to dine and they will always go back to what they know is a quality experience. You know you will get the best steak, you know when you come to The Palm the server will know your name, your birthday where you’re from. It’s always going to be a great atmosphere, it’s never going to be a dull night; all these factors are what I feel are the reasons for the longevity of The Palm.
RC The Palm is a staple for New Yorkers but you also get a lot of tourist business. For example a guy from Rome comes to NY and seeks out The Palm. How do you account for that?
NM I think it’s a testament to the wait staff and the building itself. It’s a piece of American history. I mean the artwork and the stories that happened here the stories that our walls tell. It’s a restaurant but it’s also, basically a museum. It’s a movie projector or canvas full of rhetoric and content. You can’t duplicate that history. You can’t open up a place that immediately has 88 years of history, stories, spirits and laughs. There is no short cut to that. And ultimately you can’t really mention New York dining without mentioning The Palm.
RC One last question. You are now a seasoned Palm employee. I know from experience that general managers spend the major part of their day, week, and in-fact life at their restaurant. Are there any daily rituals that help get you through the day?
NM I’m definitely a creature of habit. And so every day as far rituals within the restaurant are concerned we all have early lunch together and all have dinner together. Having meals with the staff gives us a chance to forget about work for a little bit. We eat together, laugh together, and discuss the day’s events. It is a way for us all to remember to take some time to regroup and enjoy our family meal. It’s nice to just sit down together, dishwashers, managers, cooks- everyone, and eat as a family. Having the ritual of sitting down together keeps us close, keeps us on our toes, and keeps us bonded. And honestly when on the rare occasion I miss a family meal, I don’t feel right, I feel a little off.”