Local Business

My Favorite Little Piece of Italy in NYC

Third SpaceI can be unreasonably sentimental about certain things. The Lower East Side and El Barrio, for instance (i.e. the real New York). The NYC subway (even when its latest track record doesn’t warrant it). Hole-in-the walls.

Gaia is another prized possession in this category, a small Italian cafe in the Lower East Side named after the force behind it, the matriarch, the WOMAN. In Greek mythology, Gaia is the mother goddess who presides over the earth. Similarly, Gaia Bagnasco presides over this near-hidden cafe nestled on the corner of Norfolk and East Houston Street.

As equal parts owner, head chef, and Italian maestress, she demonstrates meticulous control over every detail of the cafe. Prices are affordable, in part because she only has two kitchen staff members, but mostly because it’s written into the cafe’s mores: food should not be expensive. A sumptuous panini ranges from $5-$10; a small illy coffee is just $1.00. All this, despite being in a neighborhood where pencil towers are rising faster than new graffiti to cover it.

I discovered Gaia 5 years ago when I lived in Alphabet City. The place is easy to miss in its basement-level location. But one winter day on my morning commute, I happened to turn my head and see the OPEN sign flip. I descended down the stairs, eager to gain entrance into what seemed like a secret underground club. Immediately, the warm, welcoming waft of illy Italian coffee greeted my senses. Alas, there was a credit card minimum and I had no cash! As I began to leave, Gaia insisted I take my coffee & croissant completely gratis; I refused, but she persisted. Without knowing who I was or if I would ever patronize her business again, she trusted that I would be back.

And indeed – the croissant was the best I ever had. Over the weeks, months, and years, Gaia has become my go-to for simple, no-frills cooking. What it lacks in propriety and small talk, it surpasses in value and authenticity. Fresh is the theme: from the perfectly flaky Nutella croissants, to the bread baked each morning (oh that bread!), to the panini that she executes using the finest Italian-imported cured meat and cheeses.

Gaia’s perspective is fresh in abundance too. One day, I worked from home and ordered lunch to-go. She remarked,

“You Americans. No wonder you are all fat and unhappy. Always on the go, never stopping to just eat and enjoy.”

The menu states that “service is not a priority”, and that is sometimes the case  –  but thisundersells its authenticity. You may be promptly rushed out at 7 pm on weekday evenings and chided for ingredient substitutions. But so long as you come with a basic respect for the space & food that Mother Earth provides, you’ll receive more unsolicited acts of kindness than you probably deserve. Kind of like eating in your mother’s kitchen.

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Gaia’s best hits include her fresh salads, spinach & ricotta tegamini, gnocchi, ravioli, black pepper linguini, and paninis; my absolute favorite is the fresh-baked focaccia bread that comes with every dish, often on crumpled foil, along with plastic serving spoons. Wine is served BYOB-style in cheap plastic red water tumblers. A bit reminiscent of a hostel cafe, but I’d be hard-pressed to find a better backdrop in NYC.

I love Gaia for its fresh ingredients and heart-nourishing food. It is the remnant of a NYC that is quickly becoming a relic of the past: affordable, raw, you-get-what-you-ask-for candor.  Dine here as you would like any respectful guest invited to a home-cooked meal; drop the ego, be hungry for community. You won’t get special treatment. But you will absolutely get what you pay for: a meal with real food.

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What does it take to work at a start-up?

Abhi Lokesh and Alex Theodore are co-founders of Fracture, a start-up company based in Gainesville, Florida, and are constantly searching for the perfect team. They both agree that finding the right people to join the company is their biggest challenge.

“To me, it’s somewhat personal,” says Lokesh. “I want to prove that Fracture can be the best decision you ever made as a young professional, and that we can turn you into the best version of yourself.”

So, what do you get out of working at a start-up? Well, we all know you get free lunch at Google. But don’t expect that at all start-ups. Correction: don’t expect that at most start-ups. Do expect a never-ending workload, a lot of stress, and very few resources.  Though you may not get free lunch, there are other perks.

 Here are select responses from members of the Fracture team, who reveal some of those perks and what it takes to work at a start-up like Fracture. They work hard, but they also appear to wholeheartedly love their job, which might make you wonder what this start-up culture breeds.

What is it like to work at Fracture? 

Matthew Bivens, Marketing: It’s like no other place I’ve ever worked at, that’s for sure.  Our culture has evolved organically, and has become more defined as we have grown.  Our office environment is relaxed and casual: employees can decorate their work spaces and really make them their own (can also set up shop wherever they like); we wear what we want for the most part, still maintaining a somewhat professional demeanor (no “free mustache rides” t-shirts); and we’re allowed to bring our pets into the offices, which is a huge plus.  In typical startup fashion we have instruments of all kinds in our office, we host poker nights and try to make a point to get out and enjoy each others company outside of work on a regular basis.  We’re a family, and that’s apparent after only a few minutes of hanging out with us.

The workload here is consistently high — this is a startup, so everyone has a to-do list with more work than there are hours in a day.  Each of us was hired for a specific job, but inevitably we all wear many hats.  It’s typical to see a marketing person helping out in production, or a customer service rep brainstorming to improve packaging workflow.

Sarah Ludwig, Custom Orders: It can be really fun.  It can also be stressful, it gets intense, but it’s worth it.  It’s the first time at a job where I’ve been accountable on this level.  Everyone I work with is accountable.  I mean, I’m twenty two, and I have a key, and I have my own entry code for the alarm system.  If I do a bad job, everybody feels it; Fracture is going to feel it.  I am directly responsible for the success of Fracture.  Every person who works here is.

Honestly, that can be overwhelming.  Sometime I miss not caring about what I do.  And then I remember that I have a key.  And an alarm code.

We all work a lot, I personally work more than most of my friends.  I also get to listen to Cabaret on the speakers at the little laser (how great is that sentence) as loud as I want.  Where else can I do that?

When we were going crazy to get orders out the door during hell week, we took a break to build a robo-mascot out of a broken water cooler.  I feel completely fortunate to work with people that I feel happy around.  People I can make a robot with when things get crazy.

Matt Santmyers, Business Development: Fracture has truly best the best and most challenging job I have held. I have learned more in 1 1/2 years with fracture than four years of college. Every day I am pushed to be better and to work harder constantly pushing to improve fracture. But at the end of the day, everyone here can still kick up their feet and relax and enjoy a night out with each other. It really is a great environment to work in.

What type of person does it take to thrive in Fracture’s work environment?

Barry Miller, Production: Three words: tenacious, hard-working, innovator. When working for a growing company, the words “normal work week” do not apply. Often times, orders need to be printed, processed, and fulfilled outside of the cushy 9-5 workers in America face. It can be taxing when equipment fails, supplies arrive late, or you encounter situations that leave your best laid plans in shambles. When those situations arise, you have to be able to dust off, find a solution, and carry on with the company mission. Finally, when you are helping get a company off the ground, you must be constantly looking for ways to improve. It can be tempting to just take things at face value and go with the flow. But without constantly looking for ways to do it better, you ultimately end up hurting the company, and with a young company, small injuries can lead to major problems.

Matthew Bivens, Marketing : We’re all young here, and although we have varying degrees of experience at what we do, this is our first startup experience.  So immediately you have to check your ego at the door and realize that you might be asked to do something you have never done before; you might be asked to master something you never thought yourself capable of; and you might be asked to do it yesterday!  The great thing is that, when you have a team of people that are cool, calm, and capable, no challenge is too large to tackle.  Intelligence is a must, but I think having the capacity to learn and the hunger to keep pushing is much more important.  It starts at the top with our co-founders, and their passion and enthusiasm has definitely trickled down and influenced the rest of us.  We’ve assembled a team of Jedi here, individuals who were hired not just for their intelligence and ability to do a job well, but because they possessed the intangible skills that would allow them to thrive in a high pressure, fast paced startup environment.  

You print pictures on glass, but running a business these days involves more than simply offering said product/service (marketing, follow-up, producing relevant content, etc.). Run me through day-to-day tasks that each Fracture team member works on, apart from handling orders. 

Sarah Russell, Customer Service: We are continuing to grow and develop, and as we do that we assimilate more into our “official roles.” But that hasn’t completely detracted from one of my favorite parts of the start-up life here at Fracture – we all wear many hats. We’re a small team, but that just means we all have to be experts at what we do and then a few other things too. We’re all collectively writing the manual on how to do this. Everything about Fracture is proprietary and crafted with our customers in mind.

There is nothing typical about the day-to-today, but tasks include stocking, cutting and packaging materials on the production end. There is also printing, cleaning and shipping, which is of course crucial. There is planning and research and development projects for the future, along with web development and programming to update the site. Behind the scenes, marketing initiatives focused on the customer experience and business to business partnerships are being built and focused on. We try to keep open communication with our customers, as well, with the office phone, email and social media to stay connected and help them with anything they need. All in a good day’s work. And then there’s Watson and Sierra, the office dogs. Their jobs basically consist of tackling a few chew toys in between corporate naps.

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This article was published on NextGen Journal on April 6, 2012.

To learn more about the Fracture team, read about the company on their website.


Fracture- A New Standard in Wall Decor

Edgy, stunning world-domination.”

It is not quite the description you would expect for a photo printing company. Then again, the goal is not to simply print but to make memories tangible on glass, according to Sarah Ludwig, a Fracture employee. Fracture, a term coined by the company’s founders, Abhi Lokesh, 23, and Alex Theodore, 26, is defined as a one-piece glass picture frame that mounts easily to your wall. Based in Gainesville, Florida, the term has now become a 10-person company devoted to changing the way people print and share their digital memories.

“The idea of Fracture originally came from our desire to work with digital imagery,” explains Lokesh. “We kept circling around the concept of disrupting the photo printing and framing space by creating new, innovative, photo products that were affordable, eliminated all the traditional hassles of photo framing, and could be used by multiple demographics.”

While we are apt to snap away, many digital images remain littered on our hard drives.

“Each picture has a powerful, unique story to tell, but we really don’t have a compelling reason to print and frame any of them,” says Lokesh. “It is just too costly and inefficient.”  Glass emerged as a perfect medium for the two University of Florida graduates to experiment with, mostly because of its modernity and cost-efficiency.

Consumers seem to agree.  In its inaugural year, between 2009 and 2010, Fracture processed approximately 2,500 orders. In 2011, the numbers grew more than five-fold, as the team processed close to 13,000 orders from around the world and generated more than $400,000 in revenue.

Some of that growth can be attributed to a Groupon promotion, which exposed Fracture to over 5000 customers across the country. Ironically, it is also what Lokesh cites as one of the company’s biggest failures and learning experiences. After being overwhelmed with thousands of orders they could not fulfill, Fracture was forced to delay thousands of orders by several months.

“It was incredibly hard for me to watch my teammates be put through something that they couldn’t do anything about. I felt like I failed them by not understanding what exactly we were getting into,” says Lokesh. “We tried to be as transparent as possible with our customers through the entire process and learned an indescribable amount regarding customer relations and company transparency.”

What seemed like a setback turned into a positive growing experience.

“We committed to following through on all the Groupon customers,” says Lokesh. “We didn’t run and try and find the easy way out, as simple as that could have been.”

That is just one of many scenarios that start-ups like Fracture face on a daily basis. Co-founder Theodore says there is no one single lesson you can learn from starting a company. “Entrepreneurship is a mess of lessons that you earn an understanding of only by experience in battle,” he says.

Within the next year, Fracture plans to solidify its production process and branch into new products.  In the long-term, the founders are thinking big.

“We want to be the Apple of photo decor…We’re really just scratching the surface of our potential, and we’re on the edge of some great things”, says Lokesh.

To see the lasting pieces of photographic art you can create, upload your photos to the Fracture website.

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Support the little ones

I never knew how tough it could be to say goodbye to a business. My boss closed a restaurant in Harlem on Wednesday. Hoards of people came to pay their respects with a glass (or two or three) of wine, toasting to the restaurant’s 4.5 year run.  It was a sad occasion, though by the number of people who came out (standing room only) you wouldn’t have guessed the economy was so bad. If only everyday were closing day…

All irony aside, the outpouring of support was incredible. After we officially announced the close through Twitter, tweet after tweet expressed dismay. Retweets, blog posts, and articles were written. My heart was warmed after reading about how many lives were affected by this cozy wine bar on the corner of 21st and Frederick Douglass. For many, this was their Cheers. One saddened customer wrote,

“Today is a sad day all around. It’s raining and my favorite neighborhood bar is closing. I go to Nectar because it’s my Cheers. Yes, sometimes you just want to go where everybody knows your name…There are so many things I love about Nectar, but most importantly I’ll miss seeing my friends and making new friends over a glass of Seven Sisters.”

To fully disclose my affiliation, I work for Jai Jai Greenfield, the former Wall Street trader-turned wine entrepreneur, owner of Harlem Vintage and now-closed Nectar Wine Bar NYC, as her digital assistant of sorts. It was amazing to see her strength during this difficult time, and my respect for her as both a businesswoman and individual has only grown.  She is a strong supporter of the Harlem community and always dedicates time and money to philanthropic causes. Now that Nectar is closed, all efforts will be channeled to Harlem Vintage but you can be sure that Jai Jai will still make her presence known in the community.

We drafted this letter explaining the close to customers:

After the tears are wiped, let’s put our money where our mouths are. In her farewell toast, Jai Jai emphasized the importance of supporting small businesses.

“Most small businesses are resource-constrained. It’s not just money constraints; it’s that plus time and people constraints.”

Small businesses are the heart and soul of the American economy. These places need your support. If they don’t have it, they cannot survive, let alone flourish.

So, remember to support the little ones folks.  We are lucky to have options and the ability to dine anywhere we want but in order to build a sense of community, we must support the businesses right in our own neighborhood.

Let’s toast to that.


In Defense of Technology

Some of you may be familiar with Foursquare, the fast growing location-based mobile application that encourages people to explore local businesses and check-in for points, potential discounts etc.  Like many, I was initially a bit hesitant with the check-in service because I couldn’t quite understand its value.

Two years ago, I asked an early Foursquare adopter what he got out of Foursquare.  His response- “It’s the future”- didn’t quite satisfy. Recently, I took another unscientific poll. Responses ranged from: “It’s pretty cool- I get free shots checking in at a bar!” to “It’s pointless.”

Well, let me take a stab.  This is primarily an argument for Foursquare, but can also serve as a general defense of technology.  It is inspired by a thoughtful post from my dear friend Sarah Kaiser-Cross’s blog about Modern Day Nomads.

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In prehistoric times, humans peeked their curious heads out of their caves and thought, “Maybe there’s something beyond this cave.  Let me take a look.”

They found rivers to swim in, branches to swing from, and tribes to powwow with. Boom- the world became their playground. Barter systems were established, log cabins constructed, new hunting practices developed.

The world was changed.

Today, we operate on slightly different terms. We peek out of our mobile devices and think, “Maybe there’s something beyond the www. Let’s go out.”

We then venture into the concrete jungle- vastly more commercialized than that of our predecessors -and experience a world replete with social transactions.

The digital sphere thus serves as a supplement. Correction: a lifestyle.  We garner Foursquare badges, spout tweets, and virtually check-in. The world whizzes by. It seems like the future has arrived before we’ve fully appreciated the present.  But I’d argue it’s not much different from the days of the past.

To me, Foursquare check-ins are just new ways of saying “Hello. Check this place out. And hey, did you know x y & z about it?”- almost like a simple hand wave from one caveman to another. Almost.

In our ‘shrinking world’, it’s easy to decry information overload. Enough! Among my less technologically-inclined friends, I am often sub-consciously in defense mode when it comes to my technological habits. Why do I blog? Why do I tweet? Why do I check-in? Who cares?

Here’s my response. With or without all this virtual chatter, we are all explorers.  Discovery is not new; it’s a prehistoric disposition.  Foursquare simply aids an innate quality.

Since coming to New York, I’ve used Foursquare to explore my surroundings.  I’ve gained helpful tips from user reviews of restaurants I would otherwise know nothing about. Last week, I discovered a new restaurant (The Masala Wala) through Foursquare’s Explore tab, which afterward became the first addition to my list of “regulars”- a compilation of my favorite ‘highly recommended’ places.  Just as I have gained value from the opinions and feedback of others, I share and publicize so that others may find my tips helpful as well.

Foursquare is also being used at universities to enhance knowledge of historic buildings on campus. Some universities including the University of Florida are looking into leveraging the Foursquare API so locations on the map can have user-generated content, such as photos, according to Bruce Floyd, lead social media specialist at UF.

We don’t live in an information age, we live in an age of networked intelligence.  Foursquare is at the center of this movement to help us discover good things that are worth our time and money through the most basic additions to our existence:  fellow humans.

As our world grows smaller, I understand why skeptics continuously ask, WHY?  And I appreciate it. To retain our humanity, we must continuously ensure that each new tool truly adds value, lest our minds be inundated with clutter.

For me, Foursquare’s value lies in its ability to tie the past, present, and future.  We live in the future with the virtual check-ins, yet engage in communal practices originated from the past, while enhancing our experience NOW.

As Sarah describes, the modern day nomads are the people more businesses will want to resonate with:

The modern day nomads come in every shape, size and color. We are the people who break barriers. We are the people to introduce ourselves to someone who has never met an American, we are the people who eat tongue or intestines and enjoy it, we are the ones who learn the cultural dialect no one else speaks, we are the ones who are changing the world. Never staying in one place, the desire to experience the new, the unknown is unquenchable. Packing up and landing in the next place, the modern day nomads are a continuation of the nomadic developments since the beginning of time. We, however, are different in one very important way. We’ve got Facebook. ha. Just kidding. But really, we have the ability to spread our new-found knowledge, self and cultural awareness to others. Understanding is the only way to stop war, suffering, stereotypes and misinformation. So, fellow nomads, lead well, learn much, and share what you’ve learned so the world can learn with you.

We are explorers.  Complain all you want, but technology like Foursquare taps into our human drive for discovery and social connection. Use it and you might find yourself saving money, time, and learning more about the world around you. What can be more basic and beautiful than that?


Lesson #3: Beyond the transaction, connecting is key.

How did we ever find good restaurants and services before the Internet?  I remember the days when observations like “Mrs. Smith told me that her friend’s son’s girlfriend’s mother’s ex-husband recently opened an Italian restaurant that’s pretty decent” were considered highly useful.  Based on these sole recommendations, off we’d go to the pizzeria- such adventurers- usually only to be…disappointed.  Ah, back to the same old Chinese takeout then.

These days, not a whole lot has actually changed.  We still discover places through word of mouth but the web of connections is definitely not single-sourced, and certainly not expressed so confusingly.  Instead, the tangled web of connections is known simply as “Yelp”, “Foursquare”, or “Foodspotting”.

I’ve always been a fan of trying new places. When I reviewed food in my little college town of Gainesville, I was like Mowgli exploring the Amazon.  So you can imagine what fun I’m having exploring a metropolis like New York.

Yelp and Foursquare have been my travel partners in crime. They’re like those trendy friends who know the ins and outs of the city. They are the go-to experts on everything ranging from the best peppermint cocoa in Brooklyn (Gimme Coffee!- thanks Yelp) to the cheapest salon in the area for an urgent eyebrow waxing need (thanks Foursquare).

However, amid all the plethora of choices, I’ve begun to yearn for a regular go-to place. You know, like that favorite neighborhood diner you frequent far too much?  In Gainesville, that was my dear Maude’s (coffeeshop with the best cheescake).  Today, I think I found the first locale to start my New York list.  The Masala Wala is located on the Lower East Side just a block away from the famous Katz’s Deli. It greeted me with rich brown decor, reminiscent of the aromatic spices of India.  The place is small, but that adds to the appeal.  I felt comfortable whipping out my laptop and working like I was at Starbucks, even while people around me formally dined.  Certainly helped that there was free wi-fi.

My first night here, the waiter gave me a free sample of mango lassi.  I ordered the Masala Chai (their staple drink), which paired well with the vegetarian kofta (a pan-fried dish with carrots and beets, pictured above).  I returned for the second time today not so much because the food was delicious (though it certainly was), but because of the impeccable service. My waiter last time was so attentive and I couldn’t forget the owner’s welcoming smile, a friendly Indian man who encouraged me to stay as long as I wanted for good food or even just the free wi-fi.

While sipping on Masala Chai today, I met the vision behind the restaurant, Roni Mazumdar, who emerged from the kitchen to tell me the story behind its opening just a month ago. A joint venture between him and his now-retired father, The MasalaWala is the product of years of experimenting and loving authentic Indian food.  With a flair for India’s street food, it brings you fast-casual with the usual naan but also some lesser known dishes found under Chat-Pat (Street-Side Favorites).  The menu is a mere two pages, not too overwhelming, which thankfully means it might actually be possible to try every dish here at least once.  Deliciousness cannot go to waste.

As if I didn’t already like the place enough on taste and decor alone, after hearing Roni’s passionate recount of why he opened the business, I felt more compelled to write and share the goodness of it to all.  Roni is a man of many trades- engineer by day, an actor on the side, owner of a production company, and now entrepreneur- but that’s not much of a surprise because you can see all of this incorporated into the restaurant with its sustainability (100% biodegradable tableware) and technological know-how (e-receipts and iPad point of sale!) Super impressed. This is how local business should be done.

I should mention that I stumbled upon this place through a TastingTable newsletter titled “Triply Good Chai in New York” (which by the way was forwarded to me from a friend in Florida).  After reading the article, I perused Yelp for reviews (perfect 5-star rating!), Foursquare for tips, and the restaurant’s website for general information and presentation.  When a place gets high marks from nearly all parties, you’ve found a gem that cannot be missed.

With the unveiling of some exciting new additions in the near future (Happy Hour with South Asia-influenced drinks, plus Indian-Chinese fusion dishes?!?!) , I am certain that The MasalaWala will be at the forefront of some up-and-coming fast yet sophisticated Indian street food movement.

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In a city like New York where transactions are done in 1-2-3, connection is still key.  Most customers will come back to a place for its great taste and value, but the most loyal ones are baited for far greater reasons: strong purpose translated into action, a vested interest in customers, and serving them well.  Beyond the transaction, connection is key.

My experience today would not have been possible without modern social digital tools. Thanks to TastingTable for notifying, Foursquare and Yelp for verifying its legitimacy, and the thousands of people for writing, rating, and recommending, allowing places of real value to surface.

By the way, The MasalaWala hasn’t had to spend a dime on advertising.  When the product is good and you have an engaging online presence, there’s no need. May the word continue to spread.