They soon realized what many small businesses in the neighborhood have: SoHo is no longer a place for small bakeries and cafes peddling only coffees and quiches. If they wanted their little Sullivan Street cafe and restaurant to survive, they said, they would need a beer and wine license.
“It felt like we would be shorting ourselves if we did anything less,” she said.
The committee had already rejected a license for the Tart once — prompting the previous owner to close after more than two decades in business — before Stern and Walter even entered the picture.
Stern and Walter went before the committee five times — sometimes together, sometimes individually — over several months to finally secure the license, running a gauntlet of skeptical board members and frustrated neighbors who were wary of another alcohol-serving establishment opening in a neighborhood saturated with them.
Walter had smiled and nodded calmly throughout the final two meetings, and made a clear attempt to patiently address all concrete concerns.
The only time she wavered was at the last meeting, running on no sleep after spending the previous night working in the bakery, when one resident accused her of not caring about the neighborhood. Walter teared up, and her equally sleep-deprived friend and business partner Luke Krisch attempted to take over.
When he also became choked up trying to explain how much they cared about contributing positively to Sullivan Street and the Village-SoHo area, the angry neighbors laughed at him.
Walter has since avoided speaking critically of the board or the neighbors, and explained her tolerance as a product of her experience in restaurants.
“You’re working in an industry where what you do is openly criticized all day long,” she said, “[by] peers in the kitchen, guests out in the restaurant.”
The Tart's lawyer expects they'll receive their license from the State Liquor Authority by Nov. 1. In the meantime, the restaurant is up and running, after weeks of design and construction work by Stern, tastings and menu-tweaking, and working out all the little details, from flower arrangements to tables and chairs, and even high chairs.
Breakfast and lunch are served Tuesdays through Fridays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., and brunch on the weekends from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The menu is driven by Walter's love of food all along the "Mediterranean spectrum," with toasted Pullman bread dressed with dark chocolate, olive oil and sea salt, bowls of ricotta decorated with stone fruit, hazelnuts and cinnamon toast, tartines laden with tuna and ratatouille, and poached eggs accompanied by lamb sausage, tomato sauce, feta and toast, as just a handful of the offerings.
She wants diners at her 25-seat eatery to pull her out of the kitchen and ask her things like, “Where’s this meat from?” and “What are these greens?”
Walter has “always been interested in food education” and her experience as the chef of Eataly's culinary school, teaching cooking classes for kids, nightly classes for adults, and private dining courses, taught her how to be a patient and engaged educator.
“It helped me find a way to teach people about food, and not in a didactic, preach-y way,” she said.
An Ohio native and graduate of the Natural Gourmet Institute, Walter has lived all over the country, and did a cooking apprenticeship in Boulder, Colorado, before spending a couple of months in Italy.
Most recently, she worked for three and a half years at Eataly, where she started out as the "Vegetable Butcher" and worked her way up to being the chef at the Eataly culinary school’s restaurant, Pranzo, which means “lunch” in Italian, where she crafted a new menu each month to feature cuisine from a different region in Italy.
She has a cookbook in the works, too, though she expects it won’t be done for a few more years.
In the meantime, Walter wants Once Upon a Tart to embody her approach to food.
“Eat like you give a darn,” she said. “We want it to really mean something.”