Industry Insiders: Sean Meenan, Going Greene
Fifth-generation New Yorker, Sean Meenan, owns NoLIta’s constantly-packed Cuban wonder, Cafe Habana (with arguably the city’s best Mexican-style corn). The former amateur boxing champ purchased a lot in Fort Greene for a second location, Habana Outpost, where the focus is on sustainable, green initiatives. The bustling, solar-powered cafe also functions as a marketplace for local artisans and will tentatively expand to Malibu this year. Meenan calls himself a tri-borough (Manhattan, Brooklyn and Far Rockaway) citizen these days and commutes from home to work in a Lincoln that runs on used French fry oil. The socially and politically-concerned entrepreneur is also a partner in online marketplace, Etsy and The cashmere clothing company, The Elder Statesman. More on Meenan’s bumpy road to Brooklyn and back after the jump.
On beginnings: I’d always worked in film production or in restaurants. I was a wayward kid. Working in the restaurant business you get a couple dollars in your pocket, you’re working around a lot of cute girls. It’s not a bad vibe. I was like a bartender with a bad attitude, but I was like, “I can open a restaurant.”
On first attempts: I had no idea how to open a restaurant. To my partner, Sam Martinez, I was like “Yo. Sam. We gotta do it. Now is the time.” He had the expertise, but I had the inspiration. Together, we opened up our first restaurant up the block, this place Rialto. The guy who owned the building knew that we had no money. We’d get dressed in our suits and try to pretend that we were fancy people. He could tell that we had nothing. He used to drive around in an old, 20-year-old station wagon with no back window. So, we brought him a window and kind of touched his heart. Finally, he was like, “Alright. I’m going to give you guys a shot.” It was kind of a nasty, garage space and it was going to be our restaurant. We showed it to people. There was a big sinkhole in the backyard. We got this Brazilian crew to open it up for us. It was all smoke and mirrors. I was trying to get money from anybody I could. If I just met you, I’d be like, “I have this plan. Could you spare $50?”
On frustration leading to expansion: Everything at Café Habana was going well. But, after awhile in the restaurant business, your days end up being days spent in the basement arguing over things you never thought you would argue over — like the price of a quart of milk, the price of a case of toilet paper. You’re in a basement. There are no windows. It wasn’t the glamorous restaurant life that I wanted to have. At that point, I’d started boxing again in Bed-Stuy. I used to cross over the bridge, go through Fort Greene to Bedstuy. I saw this old parking lot that was another big hole with a For Sale sign on it. I don’t know why I thought I could afford it, but I thought I could make this happen. I became friendly with the guy who owned the lot. I was a stalker. I found out where his office was and sweet-talked the secretary. I kept going there every afternoon after I boxed. He wouldn’t talk to me in the beginning. That’s kind of how the Outpost happened. I was driving through Fort Green to see the pretty girls on my way to go boxing. Then, I ended up buying the building where it is. The whole world literally lives in Brooklyn. And everyone in Brooklyn now has a reason to go downtown to Fort Greene
On streamlining the back of house: The hardest position to keep staffed at a restaurant is the dishwasher.You’re a dishwasher for about then minutes until you’re trying to figure out how you can be the prep guy or the bartender or the waiter. It’s an entry-level position. You have to plan on somebody wanting to wake up every day being paid whatever they’re being paid to be the dishwasher. There are a million reasons not to come to work: You’re hungover. You think you can get another job somewhere else. You just don’t feel like working. If the dishwasher doesn’t show up nobody wants to be the dishwasher. At the Outpost, we don’t have a dishwasher. I was able to find environmentally friendly plates made of sugarcane. We compost them in the lot behind the restaurant. It’s a way to subliminally make everyone understand that you need to take individual responsibility.
On side projects Etsy and The Elder Statesman: Both Greg Chait my partner in the Elder Statesman and Rob Kalin, the founder of Etsy, are worried about society at large. They’re worried about the artisans that are making products. Greg is very interested in who is making the product and how they’re being treated. Through Etsy, we’ve changed the process in order to go as close as possible to the person who is actually sewing that blankets. That’s the person that we want to deal with – not somebody who is standing over them getting all the money. It’s being able to cut out the middle-man. You’re an artist. You’re a craftsperson. You should be able to sell it yourself. It’s become a community. If you are selling on Etsy, you have the opportunity to really let that be a focus of your life and talk about other sellers.
On Going Green as the new trend: You can tell when someone’s sincere and when someone is not. Some people that are environmentally inclined or really passionate about environmental movements are some of the last people you would think of. The most surprising one for me is WalMart. They realize that reducing packaging, worrying about idling trucks, putting in solar power, to and even just skylights saves millions and millions of dollars. Are they still worried about the actual mother earth or are they worried about the bottom line? Some people say that with their history, it’s not even debatable. But, at the end of the day, they can actually go to the Chinese manufacturers and say, “You’re going to have to change the way you do business.” They’re the largest retailer in the world. So, they’re going to make a bigger change than some guy in Brooklyn selling tacos. Sustainability and environmentalism, at the end of the day, does come down to human beings and society in general.
Go-to spots: I’ll go to one restaurant way too many times in a row until I almost can’t go there anymore. Then, on to the next spot. Around the corner, I go to Ballato’s. Great Italian food. That used to be one of Andy Warhol’s spots. I also like Gloria’s.
Worst habit: Wow. I’ve got a lot of bad habits. I’d say, making it a deep question when I know it’s not supposed to be.