Q&A: Alan Rosen of Junior’s

Q&A: Alan Rosen of Junior’s

Just a few minutes into our conversation, Alan Rosen and I hear a friendly knock on the glass window behind us: a family friend. After a brief intermission, Alan returns to our sunny corner table, smiling: “He just wanted to say congratulations.” Such has been the norm for the 45-year-old owner of Junior’s since news broke earlier this month that he had refused — after nearly accepting — an offer of $45 million from a developer, who had plans to turn his pastrami-and-cheesecake emporium into a high-rise. Many handshakes and thank-you letters later, Rosen is convinced he made the right decision for himself, his guests, and the neighborhood.

Alan sat down with BKLYNR to talk about the area’s past, Junior’s future plans, and what he called “the best two or three weeks” of his professional career.

What was it like to grow up with Junior’s in your family?

I thought it was wonderful. This is where my dad worked seven days a week. This is where I went with my dad. We weren’t going to ball games — we were going to Junior’s. If he knocked on my door at 4:30 in the morning, you never saw an 8-year-old get dressed so fast. I loved coming here. I remember the drive over the Kosciuszko Bridge; now, I can pronounce it. I remember sitting in the back of my dad’s car. I couldn’t wait. I’m serious: I remember it vividly. I remember the people I was with. I remember busing tables during the 1977 blackout and having a bus box that was made of metal up against my legs and I’m going like this with the dishes. And I dropped it and started crying. I remember my dad coming up to me, and I thought he’d be mad because I broke some cups. He said it was okay.

This was part of my childhood, frequently. I started working here when I was 5 years old! What was I gonna do? I remember my dad putting me behind the bakery and counter — wherever he could dish me off. He wasn’t holding my hand, trust me. I have two older brothers, and they worked here, too. I don’t remember coming here together, because we’re separate ages, but I certainly remember them coming here with my dad quite a bit.

Where did you grow up? In Brooklyn?

I grew up on Long Island, in Great Neck. Everyone always thought we lived in Brooklyn. My dad grew up in Forest Hills! I felt like I lived in Brooklyn, because I spent most of my waking hours in Brooklyn. Not that I’m sleeping here anymore, but I’ve slept in my car outside, and in my office. That’s what happens when you come here 20-some odd years. We never lived in Brooklyn, always in Great Neck. My grandfather lived in the Lower East Side. I’d like to consider myself a Brooklynite at heart, but the truth is my father could never afford Brooklyn, and I certainly couldn’t afford it today.

Back then, what was Downtown Brooklyn like growing up?

Way back then, I thought everything was glorious. But as I got older, I remember one day in the late 70s when my dad came home with a black eye. So you get perceptions that things are getting a little rough when your dad comes home with a black eye in the suburbs. I said to my dad, “What happened?” And he said, “Someone wasn’t being nice to the waitress.” And that’s it. I’m sure that other guy didn’t get the best of it, judging the size of my dad.

I remember once working here behind the counter and some crazy guy coming in, screaming a whole bunch of nonsense, and my dad taking him outside and cops showing up. There were times when it got a little dicey and physical, but if you didn’t ask me that question, I’d say it was always great because inside these four walls, it almost felt like an oasis. It still does, in some respects. As you and I are sitting here, we could be anywhere. We could be in France, we could be anywhere. All you hear is the music and see a nice, clean restaurant. It’s mostly a pretty pleasant place, and it’s comfortable.

That building over there was the Albee Square Mall. It was actually a real mall. I remember walking around there. It was edgy but I was a kid. I wasn’t thinking like that, especially when you’re holding your dad’s hand. There’s people who walk around here today and call it edgy. I’m not one of them, because I’ve been here my whole life.

Over the past 40 years, how you seen this area change, particularly with the rise of the Barclays Center, Atlantic Yards, and Downtown Brooklyn development plan? Do you think these are positive improvements to the area?

In a lot of respects, it’s the same. But I walk past these buildings going up everyday and I can’t believe it. It’s shocking, but it’s awesome, at the same time. They need housing, entertainment, and life here. They never had anything like that down here! Now I’m going to Barclays after work to see a show, or to see a game. What’s so bad about that? Okay, yeah, I understand there was an issue with housing, but they’re gonna have housing. It’s gonna take time! Nobody predicted that the economy would collapse the way it did, but it’s come back, and there will still be ups and downs. I think, in 25 years, Brooklyn will still be great. It may be a different type of great, but it’ll still be great. Even Brooklyn 25 years ago, the Dodgers weren’t here. But now the Nets are.

I swear someone said to me, “If you sell this place, it would’ve felt to me like when the Dodgers left Brooklyn.” Can you imagine? I was speechless, and I’m not easily made speechless. It’s probably been the best two or three weeks of my professional career, to be honest. It’s nice to be loved for what you do.

How has the restaurant business changed in that time?

The restaurant business is certainly more professional now than it was 60 years ago. But you gotta remember: my father and my uncle were here every single day. Back then, they had a few managers, but they ran this store, day in and day out. Even when I started, I worked six days a week and my brother worked the other six days. One of us took off one day and one of took off another. Periods of the year, we’d work seven days a week up until my kids were five years old.

We’re the first generation of my family to go to college. I went to hotel restaurant school so I always knew I wanted to be in the restaurant business. After college, I actually went to work at other restaurants. I worked for the Charter House in Alexandria, Virgnia and then went to California. Then I went to work for Chili’s, if you can believe it. Then I begged my uncle for a job and came back here. I guest-managed in different places because I was single, and they’d move me around.

Do you feel like you have more competition now that Brooklyn itself has become a “brand” for food?

That’s funny, because there are some times when I have these moments of self-doubt. Is what we’re doing what people want today? And then I have to straighten myself out and say, “Of course it is.” Because it is what it is, and it’s not contrived. Obviously customers like it. And then all of a sudden, these places are doing highfalutin stuff, and I’m like, “Are we missing the boat?” And I think the answer is no. We’re in the boat already. We can’t mess with people’s memories. For the guy at the counter eating pastrami and corned-beef on twin pumpernickel rolls, you can’t change that.

We have to be careful with what we do. We can add, and we have over the years. We’ve taken away some Old World favorites, as I like to say, like stuffed derma and stuffed cabbage, because it didn’t quite sell, frankly. I love it, but me loving it doesn’t mean anything. I had a lady last week ask, “When are you gonna bring the stuffed cabbage back?” But the chef who made it is retired! He worked here for 40 years!

I think we’re just gonna stay the same, from a food perspective, and keep doing great corned beef and great pastrami. We have red snapper in here and jerk chicken now, so we’ve adapted. We have barbecue ribs! We didn’t have barbecue ribs a hundred years ago. We have escabeche sometimes, and we do specials.

We’re gonna have Le Colombe coffee soon. We’re gonna have a draft beer program with some craft beers and IPAs from Brooklyn and New York breweries. So you’ll see those influences coming in just by doing some touches to the coffee and adding to the bar. It’ll give us a bit more of a current feel, because people aren’t just looking for regular coffee anymore. I ordered a La Marzocco machine for that center counter, and it’s gonna come in bright orange. It’s gonna look cool!

In February, news broke that you were considering an offer of $45 million for this property. What was going through your head when that happened? And what made you change your mind?

This was the process from start to finish. People were calling, and they still do. The original thought was, “We’re gonna sell this, but we’re gonna stay in it.” And that was indisputable. But as the numbers got bigger and bigger, I started to flex my muscles a bit when they said, “Well, we’ll pay you this, but we don’t want you back here.” I was shocked. I was like, “What? How can you not want us back here?”And the final bidder had a $45 million offer for this property. So that’s the decision you’re faced with at the end of the day. And I got that before Memorial Day weekend.

It sat heavy with me because now, all of a sudden, talking about selling your building and selling your building are two totally different things. And so I stewed on it for that weekend, and probably two or three more weeks. My dad was a really good sounding board for this. I told him what I was thinking to do, and just his agreement… It’s weird when you get an agreement or a blessing from your father. Rare that I get it, anyway. And so I felt like he got what I was saying, like he understood how emotional and how hard this was to do for any amount of it. He said to me, “You’re doing the right thing.” That means a lot to me. I don’t know the word I’m searching for, but it gave my decision validity.

There was no single nail in the coffin for me with the decision. Putting people out of work was probably the number one thing. And I said this to someone this morning: my great-grandfather worked in a slaughterhouse and made bunk beds on the Lower East Side. That job enabled him to have sons that ended up doing great things in the restaurant business, which turned into this, which turned into the first generation of my family to go to college. At the end of the day, money is money. But I couldn’t live with myself. It just didn’t sit right with me. I was up all night. I sat with someone and they said to me, “It sounds like if you love something, you can’t sell it.” If you love something, how can you sell it?

You never know you’re making the right decision. So we let it rest and let it stew and we had these talks. Then when we announced it, I knew it was the right decision. All of a sudden, I realized how many people had so many great memories here. I can show you letters upstairs. Unsolicited, people are writing me letters that say “Thank you.” Thank me for what? For staying in business for another 25 years or 65 years I hope?

You lose sight of what you do everyday, because I love it and no one’s ever gonna dispute that. But when something like this goes on, you realize maybe there’s something more to it. It’s not just like, “Oh, what do you do?” “I own a restaurant,” or “I own Junior’s.” Maybe you take it for granted. Then all of a sudden, you realize wow, people really love what you do. Sometimes, there’s an expression: you don’t really know what you got till it’s gone. I think people were telling me that. Maybe they didn’t appreciate me so much until they thought I was gonna be gone. So it’s nice to hear, because all too often in this business, I feel like it’s all problems and troubles and getting knocked in the teeth or the balls. It’s rough — it’s not easy running a restaurant for anybody, or working in one.

But I don’t run this restaurant anymore; I don’t wanna misrepresent anyone. I own this company, and spend time in the restaurant, but I have fantastic people running this restaurant. I’m taking credit for overseeing the business and making sure we stick to our roots of food and service of quality, of tradition, and all that stuff. That’s my job.

Do you think you made the right decision when you see similar institutions like Katz’s selling their air rights?

Selling your air rights isn’t necessarily a bad thing. That’s just air. I could do that right now, too, and it wouldn’t affect this place. I’m not doing it. Could I do it? I have no idea. I haven’t speculated on it. I don’t think Katz’s selling their air rights is a bad thing. I think they’re preserving their restaurant for another generation. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I’m also not gonna pass judgment on a person who might take the money. That’s life-changing money to someone! How can you hold it against somebody who bought a piece of property in the 70s, 80s, whenever, and then made a profit by selling it? There’s nothing wrong with that. People make their own decisions in life. I’m not making a statement about anything except our love for this restaurant: its employees, its guests, and that’s it.

John Surico is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Village Voice, and BKLYNR. He lives in Crown Heights.

Eric E. Anderson is a web designer and front-end developer at Squarespace. A resident of Bedford-Stuyvesant, he is also a freelance photographer.

Also in this issue

The House on Middagh Street

At the end of a sleepy street in Brooklyn Heights, the ghost of a once-famous house. By Gabriela Geselowitz

Space Jam

Charter schools, lacking buildings of their own, have moved in alongside two Brooklyn public schools — but not without local communities first putting up a fight. By Rebecca Pattiz