Brooklyn Warehouse – Ten Years In The Making
I had an opportunity to sit with Leo Christakos, long time board member of Slow Food Nova Scotia and talk to him about his restaurants, the local food community, and food policy.
It’s a long article (sorry), we spoke for over two and a half hours.
Act 1: The Backstory and Beginnings
Since its opening a decade ago, Brooklyn Warehouse has continuously been ranked one of the best restaurants in Halifax. It’s the brainchild of the father and son team Leo and George Christakos. Since then they’ve opened another two restaurants: Ace Burger and Battery Park Beerbar & Eatery, to rave reviews.
To say it’s in their blood would be an understatement; it’s really a major part of their family story or ethos. George will be the third generation to work in the restaurant business.
It all began when Leo’s parents arrived from Greece in 1956; that’s why there’s a reference to “1956” everywhere in their shops. Leo’s father; known as “Mr. George” and George’s namesake, had worked as a waiter in Greece and quickly found similar work in Canada. Within a year in Canada, he’d opened his first restaurant. By 1977, when he retired, he had opened three, along with helping other family members do the same. It’s the classic immigrant tale.
Leo can still remember, as a kid back in the ’60s, peeling potatoes in the back room, and later still; when his dad switched from farm potatoes to something new and very convenient, McCain’s wholesale frozen fries. Up to that point they were hand-cut, but to save time and money he switched; it was simply more affordable. In a twist of irony; Ace Burger has won “Best Fries” year after year, for their daily hand-cut fries.
For a while, Leo got out of the food business, studied graphic arts at NSCAD, and later went on to open Blowers Street PaperChase; a newsstand in 1986, with his brother-in-law, which they eventually expanded into a popular downtown cafe. Around 2003, Leo decided to get out of self-employment and work for someone else for a while; which didn’t last long; he soon had the itch to be his own boss again.
At about this time, George was attending engineering school and had just landed a manager’s position with the newly revamped Armview Restaurant, after working at Opa! Greek Cuisine as a waiter and studying for his sommelier creds. He wanted the same thing as his dad – his own restaurant; to be his own boss.
They decided on a family road trip to Brooklyn, NY, that they would partner-up and make it happen; and in 2007 they opened the Brooklyn Warehouse at the corner of Almon and Windsor.
At the time, it wasn’t where you would expect to find one of the best restaurants in Halifax. It was a risk, for sure, being off the beaten track, some distance from downtown and no other casual dining rooms nearby. But it thrived. Named the Coast’s Best New Restaurant in 2008, it has continuously been ranked in the top three restaurants in one category or another ever since; raking up over 60 awards to date, along with other regional and national awards – like Taste of Nova Scotia’s Prestige Award and Gold Medal Plates.
What is it like running a father and son family business? According to Leo; “Tough. Good. Great! I’m full of big ideas; I get an idea and I want to run with it. George is more methodical; he says, “hold on, Leo” – he puts numbers to the idea, comes up with a plan. He executes with style!”
It’s all about execution.
Act 2: The Burger
Four years into Brooklyn Warehouse, Leo and George wanted to do something different; something cool and simple. They wanted to do a pop-up restaurant over a weekend. They built the idea around one of their most popular menu items at Windsor Street; the Brooklyn Burger. The idea was to run a quintessential burger joint for three days in someone else’s kitchen! The venerable Gus’s Pub, located on the corner of Agricola and North, was looking to outsource their kitchen. Dimo, the pub’s owner, good friends with Leo, just happened to mention this during a camping trip together. That was it! George and Leo decided this would be their pop-up location, and the rest is history.
From their website:
Ace is literally a business inside a business; started as a popup and due to popular demand was invited to come back and take over Gus’ kitchen permanently. Ace Burger is based on the classic burger joints of the 40’s and 50’s; made popular with tasty, simple, handcrafted eats from local ingredients; farm to table cooking.
Some may not have noticed, but Ace has a seasonal menu. It changes some items based on what’s available from here throughout the year. Leo says, “We don’t use tomatoes at Ace at all, because they still typically come from somewhere else year-round. We might preserve sun-dried tomatoes in the fall, or prepare homemade ketchups and other preserves when tomatoes from here are available, but there are no tomato slices on hand as a regular condiment; typical for other burger shops. This raises an eyebrow or two from customers; but that’s a good thing – it makes people think!”
“I remember shopping at a supermarket one day, and there were these funny-coloured tomatoes.” Leo pretends to pick one up, turning it left and right. “It was so dark-red, and hard as a rock. I looked at the sticker to see where it was from and it said Israel. Israel! It’s summertime and we’re importing tomatoes from across the world.”
Leo told me, “There’s a map of NYC framed at Ace Burger, with thirty-eight pins on it. We went to thirty-eight restaurants there before opening Ace. Not only New York though; we also went to Toronto and Montreal. The trips weren’t just about burgers, though. We wanted to see what was working in these towns. We spent most of our time avoiding the tourist areas and went into neighbourhoods like Williamsburg and Red Hook, Boerum Hill, Park Slope – where people lived. In Toronto; the College Street area, the Junction, Trinity/Bellwoods. When in Montreal, we got away from Rue Ste-Catherine and checked out the Plateau, Mile End, and Little Burgundy.”
“In New York we found this burger joint in a hotel lobby. You walked down this hallway and the restaurant was hidden behind these heavy black curtains. On the outside it was like every other hotel lobby, quiet and proper. On the inside, behind those curtains, it was crazy busy. The place was packed. All they were serving were burgers, fries, sodas, and shakes. That’s what we wanted to do.”
“The same thing happened in Toronto. We came across this hole-in-the-wall place on King Street, now called Big Smoke Burger. It was this tiny space, maybe 500–600 square feet, but it was packed and had a line out the door. Small, simple, straightforward menu with combos and local, hand-crafted pop . . . that’s all.”
Act 3: The Beer and The Bar
For a while Leo and George had been eyeing Dartmouth. But the perfect opportunity just never came along. Zane Kelsall offered them the second floor of Two If By Sea (which eventually became Renee Lavallee’s, “The Canteen”). They just couldn’t see the space working for what they had in mind.
Instead, they decided to put their resources into adding a four-season patio onto Brooklyn Warehouse, doubling their seating. Just after breaking ground on the patio space in 2010, the owners of Nectar Restaurant in Dartmouth, called. “They wanted to move on and offered us their space. We were just too tight financially and time-wise to do anything right then: we asked them to keep us in mind if they didn’t find someone else. They kept calling every year after, seeing if we were ready, or still interested.”
While running Ace Burger, Leo and George got to know Peter Burbridge from North Brewing Company just down the street. Peter convinced Gus’s Pub to stock his beer, eventually brewing their own Gus’s 65m, a Belgian blonde. Not long after, Peter approached Leo and George. “He wanted to open a second retail location in Dartmouth and wanted to know if we were interested in partnering up with a food element. George and I looked at him and said, ‘Well, don’t we have the perfect location for you.’’’
“Battery Park had some unique challenges from the get-go. After opening, we kept hearing, “why do you open at 2 pm and not for lunch?”, and “why are you closed on Tuesdays; what’s up with that?” We have good reasons for what we do; from the beginning we wanted to complement the other businesses in the area, not compete. We told Zane and Renee that we were opening a new restaurant next door and let them know we wanted to help grow the area; we didn’t want to take away from what they were doing. We wanted it to be collaborative. We wanted to be a part of the community they built, not disrupt it.” So, we eased our way into the neighbourhood; into their marketplace.
And it’s worked.
Food For Thought
“There needs to be a shift from the way these strict regulations are interpreted and applied; put trust back to the small scale producers. We take responsibility for everything that comes out of our kitchen, it’s on me to make sure it’s safe.”
That’s what Slow Food is all about. Good. Clean. Fair.