From barback to business mogul, Brooklyn born Matt Levine has been dazzling the New York scene since his teenage years. This atypical downtown impresario, entrepreneur and restaurateur has created more unforgettable nights at his round table than most can dream.
What's Your NativeAdVice:
How did you get into the Culinary industry?
I was a bar back in middle school, a server in high school, and then a bartender through out college. I’ve always enjoyed the hospitality business—creating an experience, orchestrating an atmosphere, the satisfaction of team building and the detail in operations always challenged me daily.
Tell us about Chalk Point Kitchen. What inspired the idea and what is your vision for the restaurant?
My approach to the restaurant business has always been local first, build inside out—it’s that entrepreneurial spirit in me. Living on the LES [Lower East Side of New York City] for the past 8 years, I was truly impacted by the multicultural influences. If Manhattan is the melting pot of the world, the Lower East side is the melting pot of Manhattan. With markets such as Asia Market Grocery and Hong Kong Market, not to mention the Hester Street Fair, New Amsterdam Market, and in Union Square, the Green Market, it’s inspiring to see the possibilities you can bring to a menu. Yes, New York City is a concrete jungle, but there’s always an abundance of artisans, green markets, and purveyors just footsteps away.
I wanted to create a true “market-to-table” restaurant that provided a variety of options, a well-balanced, healthy menu with bold flavor profiles and high-level composition, which was also extremely approachable and creative. I met Chef Joe, and he shared a similar vision, plus he’s a pioneer in sustainable seafood and his resume not only includes a Michelin star, but a devotion to local and organic as well.
I like to describe Chalk Point Kitchen as “Chinatown meets Union Square Greenmarket.” Chef Joe really takes the edge and flavor of Downtown NYC markets and combines them to create a mix of local, heirloom, organic, seasonal, and sustainable menu items. We’re committed to this, we’re committed to local. Chef Joe implements that mission statement in the kitchen, and I implement it with the FOH [Front of House], and overall operations.
What strategic partnerships/marketing strategies have you implemented that have attributed to Chalk Point Kitchen’s success?
I am a true believer in collaborations and partnerships, building community and neighborhood first and foremost, inside out. Prior to launching Chalk Point Kitchen, rather than press tastings, we focused on our local residents, hosting neighborhood tastings, giving the community a first look. In similar fashion we have partnered with local organizations, such as SoHo Strut http://sohostrut.com/ in neighborhood centric events, engaging local residents and retailers, and on the more food-centric side, No Bread http://nobread.com/ in Gluten Free dinner parties.
To further dedicate our commitment to our community, as we get busier, we created an email address for our local residents to make last minute reservations, we always have a table ready for our neighbors.
And then with our adjacent cocktail lounge, The Handy Liquor Bar (http://www.thehandyliquorbar.com/) after GQ selected us at Top NYC Bar, we created this “How To…” Series to teach guests how to make some of our most notable cocktails at home, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6xmlpjLxco).
What industry trends are you noticing and how do you capitalize on them?
I don’t believe in capitiziation of trends, there is no consistency to trends, more so implementation of activations, ideas and initiatives to become a market leader-constantly creating new content. Trends go up and down, becoming a valuable brand, a brand your customers trust is much more of a commodity. Content and consistency are both important factors in gaining consumer trust. Our team is constantly creating content, not only from an operational perspective with our customized chalk boards, polaroid wall, sustainable selfie frame, but also from our marketing and social media perspective, creating daily content for our guests to share, teaching our guests “How to Make…” their favorite Chalk Point Kitchen dishes at home (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uwh1a1jLQ2A) to giving our guests an inside look into “A Day in the Life…of Our Staff” Series (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sn4iQAVUwkU) , but most importantly our ‘market to table’ concept lets us re-invent our mission statement on a daily basis, with ‘market’ specials, and new menus weekly.
While our customer service and operations are uniform day to day, we get to reinvent ourselves everyday, giving our guests a new experience each visit, consistently with the hopes to exceed their previous visit.
You have to think beyond just quality food and sound operations, you really have to create a memorable experience in a modern day-information [fast] laden and social media driven world.
“Don’t read the book, write your own book.” You’ll never truly become an innovator and market leader if you’re constantly following someone else’s path, create your own lane, take risks, don’t be afraid to push proverbial limits, thinking outside the circle, while everyone else is attempting to think outside the box. While it’s also important to take a “sponge-like” approach, absorbing content and information as you go, it’s also important to follow your own heart and gut. Seek advice, get inspired, then do it on your own terms.
Chalk Point Kitchen’s Motto?
“Cucumber Water For All” (kidding kidding), hmmm, if I had to sum up our motto, “you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression,” and that applies to every aspect of our operations. The life of a restaurant is purely a series of constant first impressions. From the demeanor of the reservationist on the phone, to the Matire’D smiling at the host stand, from the lighting to the level of music, the details in the place settings, the table greeting of your server, the food delivery of the runner, to the presentation of your first dish, there are so many introductory moving parts, each initial ‘first impression’ layer synchronizing with each other, makes for a memorable dining experience.
Your advice to an aspiring restauranteur?
Trust your instincts, stay true to yourself and your concept, live your mission statement, and don't be motivated by cents and dollars (it should make sense for the future, not cents for you right now). Be motivated by staying true to the brand you set to create and that will eventually lead to rewards.
Also, it's the attention to details which separates one operation from another when building a brand and a business. It's important to create the company culture and brand identity in the beginning stages, from there, once the foundation is built and strong, management can deliver a shared vision.
Describe the ideal experience at Chalk Point Kitchen.
Leaving with a smile, and seeing you back for dinner later in the week…
Most popular dishes/drinks and your favorites?
Now that summer is quickly approaching, I would have to our most popular Chalk Point Kitchen dish is our Grilled Watermelon featuring feta, thai basil and lime, while our most popular cocktail is our Pomegranate Mojito, yes, Pomegranate.
How do you motivate your employees?
As you grow, it's important to build the team around you and it's hard to find team members that share the same work ethic and goals. Yes, a lot of people are looking for work, but one of my biggest challenges starting up was finding the right management team and staff to fit the brand and concept. I like to hire ambition and creative enthusiasm, it's not what you've accomplished yesterday, it's what you want to accomplish tomorrow. Don’t hire to fill job descriptions and voids, hire added value.
I personally like to hire creativity and passion, over resumes—it’s not what you’ve done in the past, it’s about your goals for the future, and how you will translate that art or creativity or grassroots approach and passion into helping us grow our restaurant, and overall food and beverage platform.
With that being said, I believe giving employees artistic and creative freedom while also acknowledging employee strengths fully respecting their personal goals helps keep them motivated.
What literature is on your bed stand?
Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi
Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek
Now that summer is here, I have to hit those waves and surf a little!
Favorite travel destination?
Santa Teresa, Costa Rica, pura vida!!
What's next for Chalk Point Kitchen?
I honestly don’t even know what I’m having for dinner tonight, haha! But when it comes to business, I certainly have further aspirations and goals not only for Chalk Point Kitchen, but our overall Food and Beverage company, indieFORK (www.indieFORK.com). Much of that [currently revolves around] the development and growth of our staff. From opening my first lounge, The Eldridge, at age 26, to Sons of Essex at 29, now CPK at 32, I’ve realized that I can’t do this alone. It’s all about teamwork to enable growth. I really believe we have an exceptionally artistic, creative, innovative, and talented team here at indieFORK. I get inspired daily!
A personal goal for myself, for Chalk Point Kitchen—and the indieFORK team—is to break ground on boutique hotels with a “market-to-table” bed and brunch component, so we shall see. In the meantime, we’ve had a couple of pretty cool pop-ups and projects since opening Chalk Point Kitchen: we catered 9 Fashion Shows for New York Fashion Week, including Jeremy Scott and Opening Ceremony, as well as being chosen as the Official ‘IMG x Samsung’ Backstage VIP lounge at Lincoln Center https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=izvZQOkFYPQ. It’s important to create content for your restaurant brand through non-traditional outlets—for me that means using a grassroots approach, in similar fashion our “Southampton Summer Camp https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2CAFU26Afp0” and our #LESbeat series of events, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aL8ZzYcnDlk.
So what’s next you ask? We shall see…, staying creative and staying focused!
Follow Us: @ChalkPointNYC #ChalkPointKitchen @TheHandyBar #TheHandyLiquorBar @indieFORK #indieFORK
Chalk Point Kitchen:
“Ranked #1 out of 12,009 Restaurants in NYC” - Tripadvisor
“Top NYC Brunch” - Harper’s Bazaar”
“Hotspot, which serves organic, sustainable and locally sourced food” - Vogue
“Lords of Local” - WWD
“Delicious, flavorful ingredients” - Vanity Fair
The Handy Liquor Bar:
“The Handy Liquor Bar: Top 10 bars in New York City” - Bon Appetit
“The Handy Liquor Bar: Best SoHo Cocktail Bar” - New York Magazine
“The Handy Liquor Bar: Top NYC Bar” - GQ Magazine
“Best Display of Marketing Genuis” - Village Voice
“Levine’s celebrity-packed Rolodex offering up enough Page Six who’s who sightings to merit the “in” crowd’s stamp of approval.” - New York Magazine
“coop, hip and seemingly born with a gift for creating and launching the next big thing” - Bank of America
“named top 100 most eligible bachelor” - gotham magazine
“downtown influencer” - the fashion spot
“style innovator” - conde nast