Seth Leifer is the Owner of the Black Derby in New York, New York, and every Saturday for almost 15 years, he passed the future location of The Black Derby on West 4th Street on his way to play ice hockey. It was almost meant to be that he was to take the location and turn it into a stylish bistro that emulates the old-school New York atmosphere of places like the 21 Club and the Minetta Tavern—but with a true neighborhood feel.
Leifer practiced law for almost six years, but it was family influence that got him into the restaurant business. At the start of his law career, he helped his father open the Brandy Library in New York City, which is when he met his friend and mentor, Flavien Desoblin. In 2008, he stopped practicing law to open a fast-casual restaurant in Connecticut that serves hamburgers and hot dogs. He opened the doors of his latest venture, The Black Derby, on October 18 of last year.
1. What’s the story behind your name?
It’s a nod to the traditional nature of the hat. It has different connotations; it can be classy, but it can also be for real, working people. It’s also a nod to the cocktail. I don’t think you really see the Brown Derby or the Black Derby as classic cocktails around the city. Obviously because it’s our name, we tried out a couple different recipes, and we ended up going with the traditional. It’s bourbon, pink grapefruit juice, and molasses. I was surprised to learn the molasses is actually less sweet than the honey someone would use in a Brown Derby. It’s one of my favorite cocktails now. (Note: The Black Derby cocktail will be one of the four “Official Select Cocktails” of the 2017 Manhattan Cocktail Classic.)
2. Your menu is filled with classic cocktails. Why?
I wanted to master the old-school, classic cocktails. Our Head Bartender Ashley Sprenkel will make you, I think, one of the best Manhattans in the city. We are thrilled to have one of the best classic cocktail bartenders in Manhattan on West 4th Street.
3. What makes The Black Derby stand out?
The restaurant scene has become uber competitive, and people are always moving on to the next big thing. I’m looking to create this place that regulars will want to keep coming back to. The neighborhood folks, they’re repeat customers. The staff is a huge part of it, but it’s also the menu. We’re not trying to do anything crazy—it’s the stuff you’ll want to eat on any given day, at a reasonable price, with a neighborhood feel. For example, it’s always been my dream to put a chicken parm sandwich on a bistro menu, and I worked with the chef to put that on. I’m also beginning to see a switch with younger people in general—sort of a return to wanting that old-school feeling. So that’s what I want to concentrate on next. I want to let them know that I have this classic, chill place.
4. How do you plan on reaching out to that younger crowd?
With our late-night program, which is most of our small plates with a couple different additions. Being on an iconic street like West 4th, we’re right next to the Meatpacking District. With the late night menu, we want to get more of the groups of younger people who want bites and to socialize and have some drinks on their way to some of the clubs in the Meatpacking District.
5. Since opening, what has been your biggest challenge?
Getting our legs under us and getting new systems in place—staffing, training, getting everybody on the same page. I have an amazing staff, and I ask them for their input. It’s not a dictatorship. At the end of the day, yes, as the owner I do have the ultimate say, but that’s not how I operate. I like everybody to be involved. There is the owner, and there is the glue and talent that makes it all run and that is Maire McCrea, our manager. We are who we are because of Maire.
6. Any advice for other bar owners/operators?
Everybody talks about why the restaurant business has such a high failure rate, but I always go back to people and say show me any entrepreneurial venture that doesn’t have a high failure rate. Do the legwork before—button-up your numbers, and if you’re going to get into a business relationship or partnership, really get to know that person. And make sure that you go in capitalized because that’s the reason why a lot of people fail. They go in with unrealistic expectations of how long it’s going to take to ramp up business and be profitable.
Photos: Margaret Pattillo