Location, location, location is the name of the game some say...well, most say. But there needs to be that one venue to pave the way in uncharted or previously problematic areas. Off the beaten path in New York’s North Little Italy lies Ken & Cook and its micro-club Lil’ Charlie’s did just that. Now, the hottest crowds are flocking to the spot and Nightclub & Bar wanted to get the inside scoop on how owner Artan Gjoni made it work. He has anchored the area and now new venues in the area are gaining traction as well.
Nightclub & Bar (NCB): What lead you to where you are today with Ken & Cook and Lil’ Charlie’s?
Artan Gjoni: I came into the city at a very early age and was always the guy who loved going out and meeting people. I started working for you Steve, at LimeLight, but after a few years of working at the nightclub, I decided it was best to move into the restaurant, hotel and bar scene. The first big break I really got was working for Ian Schrager and after that, I was in. That position opened many doors for me in the restaurant, hotel, lounge scene and helped me to make relationships with the socialites around town. After that, I started working for Jean George at Mercer Kitchen and helped open many other venues. Working for Jean George was probably my favorite time in the food and beverage industry.
NCB: Many operators have tried the location you are in before, however you were able to make it work. Why is that?
Gjoni: One thing that attracted me to this place was the location. It's something that living in this city and being in the F&B industry, you have this inclination of where the next "it" place will be, and I knew Nolita (North Little Italy) was the place in this case. I'm a big fan of bistros and what we have done different than the previous owners is create a loud, buzzing type restaurant (like a bistro should be!) rather than quiet dining. By getting the outdoor seating, it made the restaurant more visible. Also, the first thing I always pay attention to is the quality of the food that we serve to guests. I always thought of Ken & Cook to be a casual place, with an amazing food menu that focused on the highest quality and taste.
For Lil’ Charlie’s, I liked the idea of having a small lounge area where we can serve food, have music and cocktails all in one. We changed the decor at Lil Charlie's, and by being a small room, we implemented mirrors on the walls to make the room seem larger. With a great sound system, we have achieved the perfect after dinner spot for guests, along with a great lounge for night time clientele. Speaking upon great sound and music, Lil Charlie's has the best Monday night in town! I'd like to thank the entire team for making this possible, including, JP Jimenec, Yura, Josh, Edoardo and many more. We've had some great acts playing here from Matthew Decay, Carl Kennedy, Circo Loco and many more that I cannot even begin to mention.
NCB: You’re a Jean Georges alumni. The club isn’t Jean Georges; however do the fundamental things still apply?
Gjoni: Fantastic question, Steve. I'm a big believer that the club and restaurant should never exist together. That is why by adding additional changes from the original design, I created separate spaces. We do start a bit later than most lounges in town, but it works to our advantage! Food is sacred, and that is what my main focus is. This is true as we did not open Lil Charlie's until six months after Ken & Cook opened. The fundamental things do still apply as I still strive for the highest quality. Sometimes in larger nightlife spaces, the hospitality gets lost from the pressure of the crowd and amount of patrons that come to enjoy the space. Here, we do not forget that the small space of Lil Charlie's which allows us to know our guests and never forget their names. Plus, having a wonderful team behind the scenes makes us a little different than other places.
Ken & Cook
NCB: Has the venue anchored the neighborhood or is it catching a new wave where other venues are embracing the area?
Gjoni: The location is everything! My most important goal is to be a neighborhood restaurant. I think my priorities were my neighbors. Do we feed off of each other? Yes, I believe we do, but that's a good thing.
NCB: Are many of your clients popping bottles after dinner?
Gjoni: Yes! One thing we have noticed as a change in trends, people are consuming alcohol earlier. They are enjoying their time at the restaurant, drinking and eating with friends, and not necessarily running to the pressures of a lounge where they have to only drink and dance. We offer music, food and beverage all in one spot, which makes us extremely marketable and attractive to our guests.
NCB: The venue is small compared to most places. Do you wish you were in a larger space?
Gjoni: I think our space is just right. Sometimes we are so busy that we wish we had a bigger space, but it's just right and fits our "bistro" mentality.
NCB: How do you remain a serious contender for the foodies when so many club are implementing the same atmosphere.
Gjoni: My priority is to always be a food place and attract foodies, so we focus on this. The food will outlast the “it” factor and we're here for the long hall.
NCB: Lil’ Charlie’s and Ken & Cook are two separate brands. Describe the thought process and the name origins for us.
Gjoni: Lil Charlie's was named because the space was formally known as “Little Charlie's Clam Bar.” I met the previous owner, a mother and son pair, and I asked them if it was alright to name the down stairs space as an omen to their restaurant. I originally wanted to name the restaurant "Little Charlie's" and the downstairs lounge "Clam Bar", but as you can tell, that didn't go over well with the rest of the team (lol). Because I did not want Lil’ Charlie's to overshadow the restaurant. Ken & Cook got its name partially from its location, Kenmare Street. Cook stands for the chef.
NCB: Is the brand exportable to other locations or big cities?
Gjoni: Yes, definitely. We absolutely think Ken & Cook, along with Lil’ Charlie's can make it in Miami or the Hamptons. We recently brought the restaurant and lounge out to Sundance, hosting cast dinner parties and late night lounges, with socialites, industry and film execs, and it was a huge success.
NCB: How do you go about staffing?
Gjoni: I have always had a good sense of character, and that is one thing we cannot teach someone. The knowledge regarding food and hospitality never ends; it's a constant thing we strive for and is necessary in this industry. Most of the staff has worked together and for me for long periods of time, many 10 years or so. The beauty of management is allowing our team to be creative and create valuable experiences under the standards of Lil’ Charlie's and Ken & Cook.