New York

20 years after Diner, Andrew Tarlow & Co. have added social change to the menu

Diner opened in 1998 and effectively started the farm-to-table movement in Brooklyn. Photo: Kara Zuaro

On a recent very cold morning in Williamsburg, Andrew Tarlow sat at the back table in his restaurant Marlow & Sons next to his culinary director Caroline Fidanza. It’s clear pretty much immediately just how well Tarlow and Fidanza know each other; their easy and comfortable demeanor has them acting almost like siblings.

“So me and Caroline are going to fight over who gets to answer, you know that right? I’m also going to contradict everything she says.”

Fidanza laughed at the ribbing, and offered that their histories “may be different.” As it turned out, the two practically finished each other’s sentences when discussing what matters to them: food sourcing, fair and equal wages, sandwiches. And there’s really no shock there: they’ve been working together on and off since New Year’s Eve 1998, with the opening of Diner just a few doors up the block at Broadway and Berry streets.

Caroline Fidanza outside of her sandwich shop, Salties, which closed at the end of 2017. She’s now the Culinary Director of the Marlow Collective. Photo: Georgia Kral

The past year has brought milestones and challenges. Fidanza closed Saltie, her own casual sandwich counter of nine years, and returned to Marlow. Tarlow dissolved ties with the Wythe Hotel and the acclaimed restaurant there, Reynard. The Marlow Collective, the umbrella company comprising Tarlow’s empire of five restaurants and bars, bakery, butcher shop and event company, reverted back to a tipping model after two years trying to convert. Diner celebrated 20 years in business on New Year’s and Marlow & Sons turned 15 last week.  

“Twenty years brings introspection and forward thinking,” said Tarlow. “How do you gain new momentum?”

What’s next for the team that effectively started the farm-to-table movement in Brooklyn is a question on many minds, and on this winter day—wearing a bright yellow sweater, faded scarf and chipping nail polish—Tarlow talked about expansion. But his passion really comes through when discussing his lobbying efforts. Tarlow hopes to change the way hospitality workers are compensated, and has been working with ROC United to try and raise the base minimum wage for tipped employees.

“The mission is now like how do we make social change,” said Fidanza.

“Yeah. How do we become a labor movement?” Tarlow quickly added.

In fact, after our interview he was headed to a meeting with his state senator to discuss fair wages and tax incentives for restaurants that buy New York produced products. Tarlow is a restaurateur, yes. But he wants to do more than feed people.

A focus on food—and community

The Castle, which opened in the spring of 2018, allows the events arm of the Marlow Collective a space to host events and consolidate its catering operations in one place. Photo courtesy The Marlow Collective.

When Diner first opened, Fidanza was the chef and brought with her a greenmarket, farmer-focused vision to the menu and to the kitchen. This is the prevailing ethos behind all the Marlow restaurants today, from Roman’s to Achilles Heel to the newly opened Marlow Events space The Castle in Red Hook. The new space allows the group to host weddings and parties, all with their food and aesthetics.

“We were on a mission. In those days I would have said we could change the world,” said Fidanza.

And maybe they did, a little. There is little doubt that at least some cursory interest in knowing where your food comes from is trendy now. But the team at Marlow’s commitment to local food is unrivaled. They follow Blooming Hill farmer Guy Jones’ treatise: “Don’t buy food from strangers.”

Described as their “spiritual guide” and “North Star,” Jones was one of the first farmer’s at the Union Square Greenmarket and still grows organic vegetables for the Marlow restaurants. Fidanza has been working with him since her days at Savoy in Manhattan in the 90s. The idea of buying food from people you know also extends to the community building the restaurants promote, from within employee ranks to connections with customers.

Fidanza’s burger, one of Diner’s most popular dishes, helped kickstart the whole-animal butchery trend in New York. The restaurant began buying whole animals from Fleishers upstate and Tom Mylan, then a manager at Marlow & Sons, and the future co-founder of the Meat Hook, broke them down in a trailer in back of the restaurant. Photo: Kara Zuaro

“From the beginning there was some commitment to having fun—and making everybody matter,” said Fidanza.

By bringing Fidanza back into the fold, Tarlow and team hope to keep the mission going. And part of that was leaving the Wythe, where he said his “social politics” were part of the reason for his departure. Now, he says, he can focus on projects that are a better fit. “I don’t know that I had the bandwidth to do anything else [while there]. Now I’m free to think,” said Tarlow.

He added that being an owner along with others was a challenge. “I don’t have partners, I have relationships.”

What expansion could look like

Andrew Tarlow’s next restaurant could be as far as Philly or as near as Long Island.

While Tarlow didn’t commit to any future plans—”We’re looking everywhere”—some specifics were laid on the table. Something less scrappy, for example.

“Aspirationally, I would like to open a fine dining restaurant. I would do it my own way, or our own way,” said Tarlow. What does that mean, I inquired. “Well we wouldn’t be sitting on stools,” he said, laughing. “We’d have nicer bathrooms.”

“That’s part of the evolution of the business,” Fidanza said. “Over the years the food has evolved to a place where we could put somebody in charge of that kind of a menu. We could have that kind of a wine program. That level of service.”

Tarlow also mentioned Philly. He recently visited the city and joked about how someone asked what his “concept” for a space was. (His response: “I try to play by the old rules not the new rules.” Meaning he prioritizes the food and community first, and the restaurant’s image second.)

And what about following in the path of other Brooklyn spots that have trekked west to California? “LA would almost be too obvious at this point,” he said.

A restaurant based at H.O.G. Farm on the east end of Long Island in Brookhaven is another idea. Tarlow lives close by and said the farm and its farm stand are truly the heart of the town. “It’s been intriguing to me to see a farm be the center of a community versus a restaurant, or a church in the old days or a coffee shop. For the people who live there, that’s their hub. They have trails you can walk on,” he said. “What if we took that farm and really made a restaurant that was really focused on that farm? And then get local fish.”

The farm is surrounded by the Peconic Land Trust, he added, with locals working to preserve it.

“It’s really special,” he said. “It’s farming community activism.”

And for the group that has lived by an ethos of local first, this sounds about as close to that as you can get.

Employees first

The evolution of the Marlow Collective is very much a commitment to social change, too. While Tarlow gave up his two-year quest to convert his establishments into gratuity-free businesses at the end of last year, he’s searching for a way to create a more equitable workplace for front- versus back-of-the-house employees by getting involved in activism.  

There were no menus printed for the opening of Diner, an oversight that servers made up for by handwriting the menus themselves on the butcher paper covering each table, a tradition that continues to this day. Photo: Kara Zuaro

As for going back to a tipping model, Tarlow said raising the prices of food was difficult for some customers to stomach. “We were up against behavioral economics,” he explained, and trying to change how people think about dining wasn’t sustainable. “The decisions started to become about, do we start buying food from strangers? We were up against our own moral walls,” he said.

In the end, the commitment to local, organic food was too great—and the cost too high—to continue with the new business model.

Fidanza said that moving forward, the group wants to channel its ethos about sourcing directly into how employees are taken care of. “What are we talking about when we talk about wages?” said Fidanza. “We tried that in the beginning with sourcing things… but now the mission is how to make social change.”

And as the Collective moves into its next phase, Fidanza’s role has become increasingly important. Although her title is Culinary Director, her job isn’t so much about the food as it is about the people making the food. She’s a mentor to the chefs. She steps in where needed. She runs a tight ship. Tarlow says she was brought in to support the talent. And keeping talent within the collective, especially as it grows, will surely be a goal.

Much of the Brooklyn restaurant scene in the past 10 to 20 years, in fact, can be traced back to chefs and staff who graduated from Tarlow’s restaurants, from Stephen Tanner (Egg, the Commodore) to Sara Kramer (Glasserie, Kismet in LA) to Mike Fadem and Marie Tribouilloy (Ops) to Nick Perkins (Hart’s, The Fly). Perkins, who worked for Tarlow for 7 years at Diner, Marlow & Sons, Roman’s and Reynard, says Tarlow knew for two years that Perkins eventually planned to leave the collective to open Hart’s—and he was supported and given guidance the whole time.

That company has been pretty transparent with how the sausage gets made, how you run a restaurant,” said Perkins. “We were involved in decisions, and we had a lot of control. He [Tarlow] is aware that he’s very much teaching people to open restaurants.”

The Marlow ethos—sustainability, eating local food, supporting community—has surely extended outside the restaurant group. Time will tell if a progressive labor movement can grow out of it as well.
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