David Rabin: Partner at Cafe Clover

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David Rabin is currently a partner in Cafe Clover, Jimmy at the James, The Lambs Club and The Skylark.  In the past, he was known for being a partner in Lotus, The Double Seven, Union Bar, Rex and other hospitality projects.  He attended Tufts University and Columbia Law and practiced law for 3 years prior to jumping into the restaurant and nightlife arena. He served for 9 years as President of the NY Nightlife Association (now NYCHA) and was founder and president of The Meatpacking District Initiative (now MPIA) from 2003-2009.  He now serves on the executive board of The Times Square Alliance, and served for 20 years on the board of NY Cares.

How did you get into the hospitality industry?

I was pretty unhappy as a lawyer and my good friend from college was pretty unhappy on Wall Street.  He had a lot of pretty prominent friends in fashion and modeling and I knew a lot of people in the music world, so, we basically took a shot at it, figuring, in the worst case, in a couple of years, we'd go back and get corporate jobs.  

Tell us about Cafe Clover. What inspired the idea and what is your vision for the restaurant?

It came up through a conversation with a friend of mine who is a trainer.  He mentioned that some of his clients felt that while NY had a lot of healthy places to grab an informal meal or a quick salad, there was no great downtown, beautifully designed spot with a bit of a "vibe," that had great food that wouldn't negate their last two work-outs.  So that was the vision: take a centrally located downtown spot, throw in some great music and a friendly staff, hire Steven Gambrel to design, and most crucially, find the right chef to implement this concept.  We were lucky to find David Standridge for that role.

What strategic partnerships/marketing strategies have you implemented that have attributed to Cafe Clover's success?

We've followed the normal route of hiring a top-notch PR firm (Baltz), but, we've also seen tremendous impact through social media and word of mouth.  We've done some high-profile private events (for Eva Chen, for Sarah Jessica Parker, for Olivia Wilde).  But I think we've hit a nerve within a certain community and their social media commentary has been great for us.

What industry trends are you noticing and how do you capitalize on them?

I'm not sure that in the case of Cafe Clover we were looking at "industry trends" as much as "lifestyle trends."  Everyone I know is at Equinox or  SLT or Soulcycle or yoga or Barry's Bootcamp or some combo of them all.  Our partner owns the gym Peak Performance which is about to expand.  It just seemed to be the right time to create a restaurant for the crowd that used to come to my former spots Lotus and The Double Seven and are now interested more in dining and eating well.

Life Motto?

Hmmm...easiest is probably to quote Spike Lee: "Do the right thing"  

Your greatest success as Proprietor of Cafe Clover? Most difficult moment-how did you overcome and what did you learn?

It's early to know what our greatest success will be--we're only 4 months old.  It's very rewarding to see that my notion that the same guests I see all the time at The Lambs Club for lunch would follow down to dinner at Cafe Clover if we gave them something that "spoke" to them.

The biggest thing we had to overcome was that my partner Kyle and I were initially partnered with another company to do Cafe Clover.  We realized about halfway into the process that we had a different vision as to the chef we wanted and the vibe we wanted.  We had to amicably part ways and join forces with another group, Main Street Restaurant Partners.  We were very lucky and grateful that our investors understood and trusted our intuition.

Your advice to an aspiring restaurateur?

You have to be very passionate about it because it is a never-ending job.  It's not like you create a product once and bring it to market--this is a product that you have to recreate hundreds of times a day, and depends on the work ethic, mood, and commitment of dozens of employees from head chef to busser and everyone in between.   There are lots of ups and downs and not much of a safety net.  My best advice is to align with great partners because I don't think it's possible to do it well on your own.

Describe the ideal experience at Cafe Clover.

I'm loving brunch--a LOT--so that's pretty perfect to sit outside on a nice day for lunch or brunch.  But for me, dinner would be a Tropic Thunder (my fave of our drinks) followed by the ivory lentil risotto, a 6oz steak, a side of broccoli, and some dark chocolate from Cacao Pietro for dessert--all with a nice glass of red wine.   I spent a lot of time on our music with our programmer so I really enjoy the music too.

How important is the architecture/design to the success of Cafe Clover?

Crucial.  The space had failed twice before.  It needed to be completely re-invented.  And Steven Gambrel did an amazing job, in concert with our partner Kyle, who has a great aesthetic.  It was collaborative and they let me speak up a bit, but, Gambrel and his team+kyle are pretty darn good. 

Most popular dishes/drinks and your favorites?

The risotto is a fan fave--I love the cauliflower steak and the halibut.  But I have to admit a weakness for our burger.  And the quinoa pancakes at brunch along with a smoothie is pretty hard to beat.

How do you motivate your employees?

It's harder to attract great staff now with the proliferation of restaurants not just in Manhattan but also all over Brooklyn.  As in all businesses, I think it's most important to treat them with respect and provide them with the opportunity to give constructive feedback.  We try to ensure we don't work them to death and that they get good shifts so they make good $.  It's always a little hard in the first few months to figure all that out, so, you have to preach patience and explain your vision.  I think we're so busy now that most of those who have stuck around see that we were able, thus far, to execute the concept we set out to create.  And it would never happen without our team. 

One food and drink left on earth, what would you choose?

Wow.  Toss up.  A perfectly charred medium rare steak.  Or, nova on a toasted sesame bagel with cream cheese from Barney Greengrass.  Both followed up with a cookie from Levain. Coke Zero (I know...what a contradiction...but I love it unfortunately).

What literature is on your bed stand?

My next book is the bio that just came out on Elon Musk.  Unfortunately, reality right now is catching up with the last 2 weeks of the Sunday NYT and an article on race in The New Yorker.

Role model - business and personal?

I'm not sure I have one role model.  I was very lucky to have great parents and along the way up, some amazing teachers, professors and camp counselors--some very wise, very kind, very funny, very smart, very nurturing people.  I wouldn't single any one out in particular but I'd say my parents made every effort to make sure I was in the right place to meet amazing mentors.  And I still meet them to this day.

Current passion?

My passion is my son.  I'm lucky to have a great wife who has done wonderful job being "mom".  I love a lot of things--I still play touch football, tennis, a little bit (stupidly) of lacrosse, I love poker--and I love to quietly read.  But the thing that I'm most "passionate" about is trying to be a good dad.

Favorite travel destination?

I don't know that I've found it yet.  I tend to go where I have to go for work--LA, Miami, Las Vegas.  I'd like to go back to Europe with no work agenda.  And while I've briefly been to Shanghai and Tokyo, I'd love to see Bali and some of the other Asian destinations.

What's next for Cafe Clover?

As soon as we catch our breath, we'd like to take the idea to LA.