Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Something New: Pushcart Cafe

Look back periodically and realize where you are now.  
Interview with Jamie Rodgers (owner) and Maggie Rodgers (sister)
Pushcart Café, 221 East Broadway, NYC

by Jeff Yoskowitz and Kathryn Gordon

Kathryn:  Hi Maggie, I know Jeff has seen your very appealing, very neighborhood-oriented space here before.  Pushcart is all new to me – can you tell us how you started baking here?

Maggie:  I graduated ICE (Institute of Culinary Education) in May 2012, and finished my externship at Dominique Ansel Bakery.  After college and before I started at ICE, I lived across the street from this coffee shop that wasn’t particularly well run.   I got a job there, but I also “kind of knew” the owner would want to sell. 

Jeff :  Jamie, you then decided to get into the coffee/café business?

Jamie:  I was living in this neighborhood and working downtown in corporate law.  I wasn’t happy and wanted something more entrepreneurial. I just wasn’t fulfilled by my profession.   I approached the owner of the coffee shop and then Maggie decided to join forces with me.

Kathryn:  So Maggie, where do you bake?  The coffee shop seems to be mostly retail counters with tables for customers?

Maggie:  We built a production kitchen in the basement of the building. It was a long process, because we did the build out from scratch.

Jamie:  It was actually a little frightening because working in a basement, there are many health code issues to be aware of.  I had the entire facility sealed. It’s very “buttoned up.”  We have instituted very strict policies to keep it sealed against any possible pests.

Jeff:  Are there venting issues?  How hot did it get in the summer, doing production in a closed facility in a basement?

Jamie:  We installed very good air conditioning.  The ovens are electric, so there is no need for a hood and there is simple in and out venting. 

Jeff:  How did you find contractors to get the work done?

Jamie:  I talk to other business owners in the neighborhood, and through word of mouth used their contractors.  I mostly just showed the contractors what I had and what I needed. 

Kathryn:  How many people do you work with, Maggie?

Maggie:  It’s often just been me baking, but wholesale has been picking up.  Before Christmas I started to bring in some of the guys from Cowboy Pizza after their shift to help shape cookies!  (Cowboy Pizza is also owned by Jamie and just around the corner from Pushcart).   

Jeff:  How many locations are there of Pushcart?

Jamie:  I have 2 Pushcart locations, and we are also in the New Amsterdam market and covering events on weekends.  I opened the second location in mid October, near 21st street and 2nd Avenue. 

I make impromptu visits there throughout the day; I can get there by bike in 11 minutes.

Kathryn: How do you get the baked goods to the other locations? 

Jamie:  We use our mom’s old station wagon for our delivery truck.  The system works pretty well.  Maggie plans the production and preps.  Some Cowboy pizza guys do the bake off, and some bring the product uptown, boxed up in health-code safe boxes.  They unpack and the process begins again.

Kathryn:  And Maggie, do you have enough kitchen and storage space here to sustain production growth like that?

Maggie:  We’re still getting to know how much to bake:  the uptown location does 2 ½ times the volume of baked good sales.  Production space is tight; I am often rearranging the equipment to fit in more tables, storage, etc.

Jeff:  Can you talk about the New Amsterdam market?

Jamie:  It’s near the old Fulton Street fish market, and focuses on locally sourced and artisanal food purveyors.  I find it to be good exposure for us to bring new people to us directly, as well as a good sales outlet.

A lot of our employees will ride the pushcarts there, since it’s only 1 ½ miles away!

Kathryn:  What’s next for you guys?

Jamie:  We’re focusing on wholesale accounts and delivery.  Schools, hospitals etc. 

Maggie:  I would like to grow the bulk order pastry business.  Holiday cookie boxes sold well; I am working on a Valentine’s selection now.   About 25% of sales are currently wholesale.

Kathryn: Jamie, how helpful is it that you were a lawyer before this career turn?

Jamie:  I find the law degree a good asset.  I’m basically in practice now for this business.  Running a business is to a large extent figuring out the regulatory (for the health code, permits, etc.) and negotiating leases.   It takes hours to navigate, even with the skills.

I find it really exciting to put everything you have into something to make it successful. 

Kathryn: Maggie, how much of the menu does your brother let you decide? 

Maggie:  It’s up to me.   I developed the menu to maximize on the roots of this neighborhood; the pushcart itself evokes nostalgia.  The baked goods are along the same lines.  Everything is the best it can be, but they are products the customers know and love.  Chocolate chip cookies is sometimes all one wants.  I think chili powder and cumin are fun ingredients to bake with, but I sell classic brownies.

Kathryn:  Does everything sell equally, and do you know what your ingredients cost for each product?

Maggie:  I have a background in statistics so I do my own excel analysis of sales and cost of goods sold, and I tweak the margin on each product given my recipe formulas.  But some products have surprised me – peanut butter doesn’t sell.  Gingersnaps won’t sell, but molasses cookies will!

Presentation details count:  if I sprinkle confectioners’ sugar on the almond croissants, more sell.

Jeff:  Do you have a standard profit margin you try to meet?

Jamie:  It’s a moving target.  The growth in our outlets and our wholesale accounts has meant that we’ve had to shift our labor schemes.  Probably it’s 200 percent of the labor cost, not including labor and other overhead.

Jeff:  How did you name the business?

Maggie:  We threw out names for months amongst the family, but Jamie came up with Pushcart – and knew it the moment he’d said it.

Jeff:  What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned since you opened Pushcart?

Jamie:  I have 3 outlets now.  It’s really hard in NYC to “make it small” here.  You’re encouraged to go big because rents are too high.  So are wages and cost of goods.   Each week, whatever was challenging last week is now behind you.  I like facing the new challenges, but being “in food” in this city – it’s easy to get discouraged.  Something will always go wrong.  You need strength.  Look behind you periodically and realize where you are now.  

Kathryn:  And what’s the biggest secret for success you’d share?

Jamie:  If you’re the guy in charge, always let your employees know they can always get a hold of you.  It’s key for morale and good business culture.  For example, last night I got a call at 3 am from the guy making up the cream cheese packets for the bagels.  I’m always available via phone to answer questions.

Kathryn:  Can you talk about the phone apps you’ve implemented at Pushcart?  They’re technical – but they actual seem to foster community.

Jamie:  We utilize a lot of apps.   Our POS is “Lavu” which is a very versatile Ipad system that facilitates modifying menu items.  We allow customers to use “LevelUp” to pay for their purchases with a tap of the phone.  I was the first shop in NY to implement “Perka,” which works as a multi-coffee shop punchcard app.  The latest app is a tip system; customers dip their card in a “DipJar” cylinder; $1 is put via direct deposit on a debit card for the employee on duty for that shift, or pro-rates the dollar for every employee on the shift.   With these user-friendly trends, I think we might be getting rid of the cash register in a few years! 

Jeff:  Thank you. Great seeing you again. Make sure to let us know about your next location!

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