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PODCAST: Jacob's Pickles Owner on the Changing Food Culture of the UWS

By Emily Frost | May 14, 2015 1:44pm
 Jacob Hadjigeorgis talked with DNAinfo about his restaurant and what's next for him. 
Jacob's Pickles
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UPPER WEST SIDE — Since opening in 2011, Jacob's Pickles has become a place where patrons can justify hauling in their friends from outer boroughs.

When owner Jacob Hadjigeorgis, 30, was looking to open a restaurant in the city, he was drawn to the Upper West Side for its sense of community and shared appreciation of food, he said. 

Since then, his Amsterdam Avenue spot dedicated to Southern food and beer has changed the neighborhood's food culture, he explained. 

Restaurateurs who have had success elsewhere are now opening eateries here, in part because they've seen the community's warmth towards Jacob's Pickles, Hadjigeorgis said. 

DNAinfo New York sat down with him to find out about the lessons he's learned, talk about his Greek heritage and memorable childhood meals — and, of course, his food. 

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Emily: I’m talking with Jacob Hadjigeorgis, the owner of Jacob's Pickles. It's the Amsterdam Avenue restaurant known for its Southern food, craft beer, cocktails and of course, its pickles. Jacob, you grew up in the restaurant business. Your dad owned a restaurant and your family grew up in Queens. What did you learn growing up in the restaurant business and watching your dad?

Jacob: It was tough growing up in the restaurant business. It was always tough to have both parents working together in a restaurant. For that reason, I thought I would never actually myself get into the restaurant business, but when it came to it and I was looking — a point in my life came when I was looking for my creative outlet, there was no other direction that I wanted to take. The culture of the restaurant business was embedded in me. There's something extremely fulfilling in being part of a community, nourishing people, dealing with your guests who become friends, who become family day in and day out. We really felt that was the culture on the Upper West Side, which is exactly why I came here. I grew up in Queens.

Emily: The restaurant was in Westchester?

Jacob: The restaurant was in Harrison, New York. That was the location that he spent most of his time in and when I wasn't at home with my grandparents, I spent a lot of time there as well. He would commute everyday about an hour each way to go to his restaurant. I myself even had a little room in case I needed to be with my parents on those days.

Emily: At the restaurant?

Jacob: At the restaurant, yeah in the basement. I think I picked up on a lot of what it took, the dedication, the hard work that it took to operate and to run a restaurant. It's a living thing. It constantly needs TLC, attention. A lot of love needs to go into it. You have to have the right character to be in the restaurant business. You have to love it.

Emily: You are Greek and your parents are Greek. Did you grow up on Greek food?

Jacob: No, I grew up around an interesting mix of food. I was always encouraged to try anything and everything at least once. It's actually to this day a way for me to gauge somebody's character, personality. I'm excited to try new things. I want others to try new things. Even with Jacob's Pickles, I think we were coming into the Upper West Side with a place like this. It was a little unexpected and I think we asked the community to give a try to something new, which thankfully, there's been a great response to it.

People have responded greatly too, but growing up with my grandparents on both sides of the family, interesting mix of food on my dad's side, a little bit different than my mom's side. My mom's side a little bit more mainland Greece, traditional, what you would expect, what you may recognize from restaurants that you find in Manhattan or in Astoria or other parts of the city. On my dad's side, Cyprus, having a little bit more of a Middle Eastern influence. I was exposed to exotic flavors, to spicier foods to spices and foods that sparked curiosity. A few more preserves on that side, proteins that were pickled or preserved.

Emily: That's an interesting link.

Jacob: Yes, absolutely, absolutely. I had seen preserves on both sides actually.

Emily: Your first restaurant was actually in Boston, in Faneuil Hall.

Jacob: Yeah, my first.

Emily: Mmmac & Cheese

Jacob: Mmmac & Cheese

Emily: With the 3 Ms.

Jacob: Many Ms, 3 Ms. We were trying to figure out how to get the word Mac and Cheese to be the name of the restaurant. We were in the venue, we still are in the venue at Faneuil Hall in Quincy Market.

Emily: That was back in 2008?

Jacob: Yeah.

Emily: Your first restaurant, what did you learn from that experience?

Jacob: I learned a lot. I thought I knew a lot more, having been raised in the restaurant business. You go in with the notion that it's second nature and you know it all. Thankfully, I've always had my father's support in Boston and New York. He's definitely my right hand man and he's taught me everything I know and I'm still learning to this day. When I was in Boston, the opportunity came up to develop this idea that I had dreamt about since college, again not knowing that I was going to go into the restaurant business. I was exploring different paths. I avoided law school even though I had given a lot of time to preparing and to deciding I was going to go. I realized that it wasn't the route that I wanted to take. It was a good foundation. I knew that even if I went to law school, I would end up not practicing. I knew that for a fact, and for that reason, I decided to follow a more creative path.

This opportunity came up in Boston. I was naïve going into it. I thought my heart was always in New York. I knew that I would do a project, not necessarily restaurants, a more involved project in New York City and naïve in the sense that I thought I would go there for a couple of months, set it up, maybe 6 months at the most and then I'd be back.

Emily: It would just run on its own?

Jacob: It would just magically run on its own, not the case at all. I actually ended up spending 3 years in Boston, setting up this sort of tiny — compared to Jacob's especially, this tiny place and it took a lot of hard work, a lot of dedication and I'm very lucky that I spent the time there. I learned so much being in Faneuil Hall, the ups and the downs of the restaurant business, dealing with the seasonal business, dealing with high volume, customer service in a quick service setting, embedding that in my employees, developing employees, developing training programs. For me, dealing with people and with food were the best part. That's when I realized that maybe I had a knack for it and this was my future and this was the route that I needed to take. It allowed me to be creative in so many different ways. It kept me excited, but what inspired me to really move forward in this industry and decide that it's a route I wanted to take and knowing that it was the right fit was the fact that we created this idea in Boston, this restaurant that really excited people.

It wasn't — the fact that it was mac and cheese helps, but it was the whole experience and the fact that people walked up with a smile and then would come back, because we didn't have seating, would come back and tell me how great the food was and how excited they were and seeing people multiple times on their trips.

Emily: Did a light bulb go off for you in the concept of Jacob's Pickles?

Jacob: The only light bulb that went off at that point was the fact that we wanted to create that experience.

Emily: Meaning a destination?

Jacob: Meaning that happiness that we gave to people, that excitement. At that point, I didn't know that it would be Jacob's Pickles specifically. I had all these ideas floating around in my head, this excitement.

Emily: What were some of the ideas that didn't make it?

Jacob: You're making me go back to 2008 now. The things that didn't make it were probably the things that I felt I didn't make as well in my own kitchen as I had tasted on the road just traveling and being inspired by the food that I discovered and a lot of things that I had tried for the first time. What are some things that we had tasted? Certain pickles that didn't work. We tried a pickle specific to each vegetable so that the brine pairs specifically to that veggie. We're not using a consistent brand for all our pickles.

We did some fried fish dishes that I liked but didn't really excited me as much as I was excited when I was traveling. A ton of fried food for sure, trying different batters and different breadings that we were doing for our fried food.

Emily: When you say you were traveling, was that right before you opened Jacob's Pickles in 2011 or did you just more over the course of your life?

Jacob: I wish I had more time to travel. It was just a whirlwind from Boston to New York and I have to mention that I'm grateful that I spent those years in Boston. It's a wonderful city. I had a great time. That's where I met my fiancee, the first year actually.

Emily: It sounded like you did some traveling to test out your next idea.

Jacob: I actually had the opportunity to travel around the country more than I would have expected, to be honest. It was short trips to different parts of the country, different states, different cities. A lot of times in obscure parts of the country, it was through fencing actually, family, family vacations.

Emily: This was like in high school and college?

Jacob: Even going farther back, I think I started nationals maybe around 11 or 12 years old, and then throughout college.

Emily: Wherever you went, you tried their specialty?

Jacob: I had to. My father actually specifically always would find the opportunity to ask locals where they recommended that we eat. It was very important for him to instill the culture of really partaking in what was real and what was honest about each place that we went to and we would often find places, discover places, get recommendations to places that weren't necessarily in a guide book at that point. It was a little bit different. It wasn't as easy as going on Google or Yelp or something. We discovered amazing food, things that I had tried for the first time.

Emily: Does any trip stand out to you or any meal?

Jacob: Yeah, actually I was with my dad. I was in Louisiana and we got a recommendation I think from our guide on the boat thing or a crocodile thing or swamp ride. It was close to where we were dropped off. It was his local hangout. It was almost like one of those scenes in the movie where you walk into a field, the music stops, the pin drops and the record player and people couldn't have been nicer and more welcoming. The food tastes better. It was just one of those experiences that sticks with me.

Emily: You had some seafood, like did you have crab or crawfish?

Jacob: We always tried the gumbo and the jambalaya and I tried some grits and they had been the first time I had grits. This is tasty. I remember just adding a pinch of salt actually and it was delicious.

Emily: You said Jacob's is actually the story of your life. What do you mean by that?

Jacob: The story of my interests, my passions, it's my creative outlet. The space walking into it was my blank canvas.

Emily: My question to you is why the Upper West Side? Beer, craft beer, cool interesting food might have back then typically been associated with Brooklyn or another neighborhood, not necessarily the Upper West Side. Why did you pick here and also maybe the rent would be cheaper in Brooklyn.

Jacob: The Upper West Side is extremely special and I think it was always recognized as being special by the people who knew the Upper West Side. It's nice for it to be discovered as being that place in New York that is unique to any other place in Manhattan. For me, it always had a little bit of a Hudson Valley feel, and that created great synergy with Jacob's Pickles.

Emily: The sense of like a small town feel?

Jacob: No, in the sense of a good food culture, in the sense of being surrounded by nature as much as possible in New York City. I love being near the water. I don't know, for me, it's always important to being near water. It's important to have that connection with the city. The sense of community and the lack of, as much as possible, the lack of gentrificatoin on the Upper West Side, especially at that time when we came in 2011. I was actually here, I was spending a lot of time in the neighborhood way before that. I always, at different points in my life, I always found myself on the Upper West Side so I had that connection to it.

Emily: You went to school here?

Jacob: I went to high school in the neighborhood, and also the original Fencers Club was on 71st and off of Broadway. The sense of community, it's had a local business feel to it. It just felt like the type of place that I would want to be in if I were to open a restaurant in New York. It just felt right. It wasn't the only neighborhood I was looking at. I explored every possible opportunity where Jacob's could have been at that point, and we were looking for a year before taking on this space. I didn't know specifically that Jacob's would be on the Upper West Side, but the moment, it was time to look up here and looking at some opportunities, I knew this was where I want to be.

I knew that if we did the right thing, we would have the community's support. That was very important to me.

Emily: What was that right thing, just the way that you introduced people to it?

Jacob: The way you treat people, doing the right thing. Putting love into the food. That's number one. Being honest, giving good service, having that ingrained as part of the culture of what you do as a business owner and a community member.

Emily: Were you nervous that your concept wouldn't take off? It was pretty different from other restaurants that were here at the time.

Jacob: Not at first. I felt really confident about it, then I was — a lot of people would drop in while we were doing construction and ask about the concept and offer their constructive criticism. They recommended certain things that should be done for the neighborhood and talking to me about how many businesses have not made it on the Upper West Side and how tricky it can be. For me, there was never a Plan B. It took us 14 months to get this space opened after taking on the lease.

Emily: When you first opened, in the months after that, are there things that are no longer on the menu now or approaches that you found didn't work?

Jacob: We're lucky in the sense that 90% of the menu, the core menu, the foundation is still intact. It ended up working. We had a really nice response off the bat. Definitely, we’re doing things better in terms of coordinating staff and managing guests and how we navigate through the restaurant a lot better. The logistics got a lot better, but the food, the food has remained the foundation of what we do. There was a great response to it. Our beer, biscuits and pickles notion still exists to this day. The Southern food, made from scratch, made with love, using whole ingredients.

Emily: You have grits.

Jacob: Grits, fried chicken.

Emily: Catfish.

Jacob: Yeah, we're doing catfish. A little bit of the twist in the catfish, we're doing catfish tacos, but yeah.

Emily: You have those preserves and the pickling of vegetables.

Jacob: House-made preserves, all the pickles are made in house. We're actually in the kitchen pretty much working around the clock to prepare all these things. Our condiments are house made, and ketchup and mayonnaise.

Emily: You must have a little bakery down there.

Jacob: Pretty much, a little bit of everything down there. I don't know how we do it but we always manage to find space. It's the New York way. You get really creative with your space. You go up, you find little nooks that you can use and again, my dad had a big hand in helping organize the setup and how we do things and teaching me how to do things in a more organized and efficient way, but we're always trying to figure out where we can hide more things.

Emily: More jars?

Jacob: More jars, exactly.

Emily: You talked about managing customers. Whenever I walk by, especially on a weekend brunch time, there's people hanging out outside that looks insanely popular. Is that something that surprised you or have you accommodated that?

Jacob: It's a constant effort to give the best service, the best hospitality to people. We're constantly evolving. We're still young. We're 3 years old. We're dealing with piquing the interest of more and more people, word of mouth recommendations. The goal is to always make every single person feel appreciated for thinking of us and for taking the time to wait to dine with us. There's nothing I appreciate more from our community and from our guests. We're constantly evolving. We're getting better with our service. We've hired a group of managers that are tremendously caring and helping shape the feel, the look and the approach.

Emily: In these years that you've been here, do you think Jacob's Pickles has changed the neighborhood? Do you think it's had an effect on the other kinds of restaurants that come here, the kind of people that move here?

Jacob: Food culture was ingrained in this neighborhood. It always was. There may have been a shift at one point where there was more of a food culture, a movement in other parts of the city. I think we may have had created a little bit more of an attraction to the Upper West Side again, sparked the interest of people to come up to the Upper West Side. I hear from my guests all the time, they're really happy that they can now convince people to come to the Upper West Side, their friends to come to the Upper West Side to dine with them in their neighborhood.

Emily: These are younger people who might live further away?

Jacob: Yes, some younger, some older. Food doesn't necessarily have an age, but people are excited that we're here and their friends are coming and they're organizing dinner parties and dates and it's become a hangout in the neighborhood and for people in other parts of the city. And in turn I think a lot of other restaurateurs that have made their mark in other parts of the city are now interested in the Upper West Side. I guess they see the potential. They see, I think really what it is when I say potential is it's the community support. It's great to see a movement, a food movement on the Upper West Side really.

Emily: Absolutely. Now you have E’s Bar next door and that's more of a drinking hangout. Do you guys compete with E’s Bar? How does your relationship work?

Jacob: I don't think you compete with any other business on the Upper West Side or any part of the city when you have a business for that matter. It's all about creating community and synergy. There's tremendous synergy with E’s next door to hang out. It's a place, it's another great place in the neighborhood really, and oftentimes our guests do grab a pint before they come and dine with us, and vice versa I'm sure. It's great to have E’s next to us. It's great to have a business that I think is doing well. We've seen this space change I think three times since we've come to the neighborhood so we'd love for something to really ...

Emily: Stay put?

Jacob: Stay put, to be successful ...

Emily: For people that are fascinated by how this all works, what is a typical day for you? Are you here everyday or do you ever take a day off?

Jacob: I'm here pretty much everyday. I've gone away from doing the 100-hour weeks as I was for about two-and-a-half years. We're nearing about three-and-a-half years now. It varies, it really varies. I'm where I'm needed. It could be in the early morning, crack of dawn day. It could be a late night sometimes. I always make myself available. I'm always there for my staff, for my business. Yeah, typical day, wake up between 8 a.m., 9:30. When I wake up earlier, it's usually a call or a text message or a message from one of my managers. Quick workout if I can fit it in, straight to the store to do a walkthrough, catch up on the day's events with my manager on duty that day. Walk through the kitchen, do a little quality control, which is also an excuse to eat and then go straight into a meeting, whether it be at Jacob's or offsite, find the opportunity to catch up on emails, on calls and then I really, honestly I like being involved with the service as much as possible, being on the floor, being involved, connecting with my guests.

I'm a small business owner. I'm a part of it and I think I'm a big part of the culture that we're creating in our restaurant. We have a tremendous staff. We're so lucky that everybody loves being here, loves working here, just the energy that we get from our guests and the feel, the vibe of Jacob's creates a great place to work in. As much as I can, I want to be a part of that and be involved with it. Then I'll stay, I'll stay as late as I can, of course trying to balance my own family and home life with it, but unfortunately sometimes you have to spend more time than you'd like.

Emily: How late does a typical night here go, maybe a weeknight versus weekend?

Jacob: An average night is 2 a.m. for the restaurant.

Emily: Even on a Wednesday night?

Jacob: Even on a Wednesday night. We've become a little bit of an industry place also.

Emily: Other restaurateurs and waiters and people who get off their shifts, they come here?

Jacob: Yeah, absolutely. They're looking for good food and they know good food, and of course they come to Jacob's. We have a great bar program, beer program. Our kitchen is open late so we've become a hangout for a lot of great people and really talented people. We're grateful that they choose us to dine here.

Emily: That's a long day.

Jacob: It can be, it can be but it's extremely fulfilling. I love what I do and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Emily: You said you do some quality control in the kitchen but what are your favorite things on the menu? What do you go to on a bad day?

Jacob: That's a tough question. A lot of first time guests try to go off of what I love. If I didn't love it, it wouldn't be on the menu. I think it's important to really — when you're feeding your guests, it's like feeding your family. I have to go with the chicken biscuit sandwich of course. It's the first idea of Jacob's Pickles, along with the pickles of course. When we're developing a food menu, it's about the biscuits, beer, biscuits and pickles. It's the cornerstone to Southern food in my opinion. Mac and cheese is the ultimate comfort food and biscuits are the cornerstone. It's bread. It's nourishment.

A lot of the menu was built on the biscuit, so I always go for the biscuit that came fresh out of the oven, chicken, pickle and honey I would have to say is my favorite sandwich. You get a combination of flavors and we're all about balance and just contrasting flavors that just work together so you get a little bit of sweet, savory, spicy, sour all in one bite. That would have to be my favorite thing on the menu.

Emily: It sounds delicious.

Jacob: It is, it is.

Emily: You talked about community and part of that for you is you're working with local schools. We're right next to the Brandeis High School complex, which has a bunch of high schools, and there's also a community garden, which you've contributed to help maintain and you said you also sometimes bring vegetables from there here.

Jacob: Honestly, it makes sense. It's a program that teaches urban farming next to a restaurant. It would be a shame not to take advantage of that opportunity to teach.

Emily: This is the School for Urban Careers.

Jacob: The UAGC, Urban Assembly for Green Careers. The UAGC and the teachers, Vice Principal Luke, Michele Andry are doing a tremendous job and bring tremendous dedication to the program. I really met the kids while they were selling their vegetables on the sidewalk and I remember specifically needing Edison, who was trying to give me the best deal possible so that I could buy all the vegetables at once so he probably could go home for the day, which I thought was amazing.

He was — they were teaching the kids tremendous skills and in connecting with nature, with understanding food and business. I think a lot of urban environments, this city in general has lacking programs such as this one, which is instilling tremendous values in their students. The fact that they have kids outside getting their hands dirty in New York City and spending time in the sun, I think in itself is an accomplishment.

Emily: You hired some of the students to become interns here?

Jacob: We've created, of course we created our non-profit, which is Jacob's Pickles Digs New York, and through our charity, we offered internships. The students that were slotted for the internship went through a rigorous evaluation to be chosen for our internship at the UAGC. When they came here, they came with absolutely no experience but instantly developed a relationship with the restaurant. They connected, they connected so well they were so proud to be a part of Jacob's and have done a tremendous job in developing skills, working in a restaurant and everything that comes with it, the hard work and in turn, the interns were offered a full time position, which one of them accepted.

Emily: What's next for Jacob's Pickles, here and in the city? I'm sure there are other neighborhoods that would love to have a Jacob's Pickles.

Jacob: I think Jacob's Pickles has a tremendous future. We are excited about opportunities that may be lined up for the future. People are contacting us constantly to do more with it. For me right now, the most important is to do the best that I can do here. It's about the community work that we do, about being in the Upper West Side, about getting better, building a team, making our experience, our hospitality even stronger. For Jacob's Pickles, you'll have to wait and see but I'm excited. I'm extremely motivated to do more. As long as people are excited about us, I'm excited about moving forward. Again, that's my ultimate motivator. I want to make people happy, good food for good people.

Emily: When your parents come in the restaurant, how do you feel about that? Are they happy?

Jacob: My mom wanted me to be a lawyer. Going back to that story, she wanted me to be the best that I could be in whatever path I chose to take. She wanted an easier life for me and for my family. When she walked into Jacob's for the first time in 2011, I think that's the moment she realized that this was my calling. She knew the work that went into it, the time that went into it, the dedication and the uphill battle really of building a new business from scratch in New York City and I think I had her blessing the moment she walked in. She loves coming here. She visits me all the time. She loves bringing her friends and it's a pleasure to have her here. Again with my father, we spend a lot of time together in the restaurant. He's my right hand man and this place wouldn't have come as far as it has if it wasn't for him and his help.

Emily: Thank you so much for talking with me.

Jacob: Thank you.

Emily: Congratulations on your wedding and your marriage.

Jacob: Thank you. It's a pleasure talking with you today.

Emily: Can't wait to see what comes next.

Jacob: I'm looking forward to it.