By Chris Mohney
Howard Kalachnikoff and Ben Howell met while working at New York’s iconic Gramercy Tavern—Kalachnikoff in the kitchen, Howell in front of house. After separately winding down their time there, they collaborated with three other former colleagues and an enthusiastic Gramercy Tavern patron to open Rolo’s, a neighborhood restaurant in Ridgewood, Queens.
HOWARD KALACHNIKOFF: Gramercy Tavern is an enormous place, and we all ended up meeting one another there over the course of 12 years or so. We were very careful not to leave all at once. It didn’t have to work out that way. Rafiq Salim left three or four years before me. I left a year before Paul Wetzel. Ben left a year before me. Kelly Mencin left six months after me.
BEN HOWELL: You were there the longest. It was kind of organic, how it all came together. Like a lot of things about Rolo’s, it came together slowly and not rushed. And I think Howard was the first person to envision the project.
HOWARD: Stephen Maharam and I met by accident. We met because Stephen was a guest at Gramercy. I turned down his request to cook for him personally for an event at his house.
BEN: Every good story starts with a little rejection.
HOWARD: Meanwhile, one of our line cooks had double-booked two events on his day off. I told him I would help him out and pick one of them up. That was the event I turned down from Stephen. He and I really hit it off. I enjoyed working with him, so I cooked for him a couple of times after that. He just said, “Look, whenever you’re ready, give me a call.”
I had worked on a very simple idea of a neighborhood restaurant where we could put down some good cultural roots and serve delicious, simple food. It was more about who I really wanted to work with—who I thought was really special. I approached Rafiq and Paul separately, and the three of us got together to chat. Then the three of us met with Stephen, and he was pretty excited. By that time, Rafiq had already left Gramercy. I had given a year’s notice. Ben was about six months away from leaving.
BEN: I was there for five years, so I started when Howard had already been there for a long time. You were promoted to chef de cuisine while I was there. I was in the front of house, and then I went to cook for a year and a half. They gave me a chance, even though I had no back-of-house experience. I did spend the first four months picking chili peppers and shucking oysters. I got to know these guys working for them in the kitchen.
Then I went back to the front of house as the bar manager. Rafiq and I started doing some private events together. We were a good team—I could cook, but he could cook significantly better. I could help prep and talk about the menu, then I could go do front-of-house stuff.
As these guys started working on this project, I started helping out with how the bar should be laid out and the mechanics of the dining room. It was the kind of restaurant that I was always hoping to be a part of. It was a talented team. Step by step over the course of years, it all came together.
HOWARD: When Paul and Rafiq and I heard that Ben was interested, it was like our front-of-house dream had come true. Ben was the person we wanted most. It just came up in conversation and worked out.
Rafiq and Paul are both very talented and specialized. Rafiq has a knack for working with a wood fire—for very ambitious, soulful cooking that includes bread baking. Paul is very exact in his charcuterie pursuits. So we all have our own specialties, and when we put them together, we can cover a lot of ground and not step on each other’s toes, but help each other out.
I think a lot about doing simple food in New York. If you’re truly going to do simple food and have people be delighted by it, it needs to be thought out and intentional in a deep way. If you’re half-assing the ham and cheese sandwich, it’s going to be a drop in the bucket. But if you bake the bread, and you smoke the ham in-house, then it starts being a ham and cheese sandwich that is memorable. That’s definitely part of the philosophy of why there are so many specialists in the kitchen. Kelly and Rafiq spent a year making the dough for the focaccia. The tomato sauce on top has to really be dialed in.
BEN: I think it was Marco Pierre White who said simple does not mean easy.
HOWARD: We were all drawn to the grill because of working at Gramercy. Once we started working with the grill, we realized that less was more—that some piece of meat or grilled vegetables drizzled with the right vinaigrette didn’t need a whole lot more. There were a couple of restaurants that reminded us of—not so much with the grilling aspect, but of the neighborhood aspect of simple food that we wanted to keep going back to. The one that comes to mind is Frankies on Court Street. The two Franks worked with Paul Bocuse, they worked with David Bouley, and yet they opened up a red-sauce joint. But it’s a really good neighborhood red-sauce joint.
Today I was thinking about how we spent all this time learning how to cook, but what we like to talk about—me, Rafiq, Paul, and Stephen—is eating. We learned how to eat, and most importantly, how to put together and eat a simple, sophisticated meal. We recognized that that’s enough—a well-dressed salad, a simple bowl of pasta, delicious bread that comes out of the oven slathered with Calabrian chile butter, a full plate of thinly sliced charcuterie, some fresh-made pickles, and then maybe a whole grilled fish. That may not be the most thrilling and coolest food that chefs want to cook, but that’s how I want to eat.
BEN: Part of the ethos of Rolo’s is that everything is kind of understated until you look under the hood and see how much work goes into every part of it. But the food itself—how we’re presenting it—is not meant to necessarily be something people are Instagrammiing because it’s so wild or wacky. Howard never envisioned a temple to cuisine. He envisioned a restaurant that was less about ego and more about the experience of the guest.
We don’t want to reimagine the pub classics—like some kind of Scotch egg with homemade chorizo in it. It’s more like delving deeper into the technique to make the best grilled chicken or pasta, and go from there. But there is a little bit about the design reminiscent of a bar and grill in a charming way. We have slatted shades on the windows, and there’s a lot of wood. Rolo’s feels almost like a living room.
We’ll feel successful if people in the neighborhood come here twice a month. That’s the goal.
HOWARD: And back when the pandemic broke out, we thought we were two months away from opening.
BEN: It was March 2020. We were thinking we would open in May. We were about to make those calls to the staff that we were talking about hiring. We had already gotten all of our china and glassware and silverware and all those details ready to go. So when we realized in March what was happening, there were two months that were a blur of fear and craziness.
When we started meeting again regularly in May or June, we spent the whole summer figuring out every possible way that we could feasibly do business in a pandemic world. When we saw toward the end of the summer that we’d really be opening in midwinter, that’s when we realized that we had to think about opening as a grocery store and take-out place, because that’s the only way to have people inside of our space that we had spent the last three years building.
Then the conversation was like, okay, how do we present the philosophy and food of Rolo’s in a grocery store setting? And that’s how we ended up where we are now.
HOWARD: We enjoyed spending time coming up with all sorts of different scenarios and the branding for the grocery. A couple of us are quite visual, and we all understood the impact of that approach.
BEN: We had the advantage that we were about to open when lockdown hit, but we weren’t open yet. A lot of our colleagues had to go from being open, to switching to a whole new concept, while we were—business-wise and philosophically and mentally—still in this ramp-up period. We didn’t buy half the tables we were going to buy. We didn’t buy all the silverware we were going to buy. We didn’t hire staff and then have to let them go. We had all this runway to say, “Oh, shit. Don’t turn the thruster on and take off.”
We were able to put resources into how we could play grocery store in a way that’s compelling and feels intentional. We could see what was working for people, and what wasn’t, and what people wanted out of a food and beverage business in the pandemic.
HOWARD: Or so we think.
BEN: Or so we think. From the feedback we’ve gotten, a lot of people have said that prepared food stores should be somewhere between ordering takeout and going to the grocery store. It’s all these products that are made for you by people you trust. It makes cooking dinner for the week or getting a quick lunch a little bit more fun.
HOWARD: The weirdness of having three chefs in the kitchen really helped out here. The three of us represent the culinary side, plus Kelly, who is our baker and pastry chef and ice cream wizard. Plus Stephen. The six of us created a collaborative effort to come up with what’s in the grocery store.
BEN: We bring in each of our specialties.
HOWARD: And what we like to eat.
BEN: And what we like to eat. How can all of us share our different expertise on a shelf as opposed to in a restaurant? Howard created a pasta program, and we have this incredible retail fresh pasta and pasta sauce. Kelly and Rafiq created a baking program and ice cream. Paul leaned more into creating products for the grocery store. We wouldn’t have been able to do all that if we didn’t have as many areas of expertise.
I was able to take my restaurant beverage knowledge and stock a wine store and liquor store, and bottled cocktails, and have fun stocking our refrigerator full of beer and soft drinks. It’s like the bodega of my dreams.
HOWARD: Just like with everything about the pandemic, we’re trying to make the best of what the current laws are, with the knowledge that they could change at a moment’s notice. But right now, we find that a lot of people don’t notice these changes as specifically as we do. It’s not like, “Oh, you can sell wine to-go and pasta to-go in the same store.” It just happens naturally. People are like, “I just ordered delivery from this restaurant, and I got fresh pasta, I got sauce, I got freshly baked bread, I got ice cream for dessert, I got a bottle of thoughtfully chosen wine.”
BEN: And a grilled chicken.
HOWARD: “ … and I got a grilled chicken for dinner. That saves me a lot of time and energy.” And as for our space and building, we own it. A non-negotiable part of the founding philosophy was that we were to own the property.
BEN: To build a neighborhood restaurant that you want to last for a generation, it’s hard to do that with the way the market can change in New York. You can be a really small ship in a crazy sea. That aspect of how it’s put together helps anchor the restaurant.
HOWARD: Charles Masson of La Grenouille is an old family friend. One of the reasons for the success of La Grenouille is that they own that little townhouse. The husband and wife partners and owners of Al Di La—their business partner is their landlord. So they own the place together. Those two places, plus Le Veau d’Or and a couple of others like the Franks, stood out as something really smart. I try to stay positive, but on the other hand there are tragic stories of what can happen when you don’t own the property.
BEN: How many landmark New York restaurants have turned into Chase banks? I can think about five that are personally upsetting to me. Howard and I both grew up in New York, and there’s a part of the city, part of the culture, that we mourn and wish could have stayed in these neighborhoods. We want to be beloved like that, to stay like that.
We don’t know exactly what the future will bring as far as the space and the rules and otherwise, but we all would be really excited if there was a grocery store or prepared food store like we’re doing in our own neighborhoods. People like coming by during the day. We’re going to try to keep the grocery store as long as we can while we transition into full-service dining, as long as we can make it work in terms of staffing and the production space. We were surprised by how much storage and extra refrigeration space you need. There’s a much bigger volume of stuff that you sell at a very different margin. The amount of pasta sauce that Howard needs to make is at an entirely different level.
We have learned not to get too focused on one plan. The rug gets pulled out from under you. It’s like you’re running on the Indiana Jones lava trap floor. That’s what it’s like to operate a restaurant right now. We’re trying to look at this as an opportunity to open up a little bit at a time, and make sure that we are underpromising and overdelivering, nailing the details. We don’t want to be in a situation where we roll the dice and go for it, and do outdoor and indoor dining, and one day we have six servers on the floor, and it’s raining, and no one wants to sit outside, and all of a sudden it’s a complete disaster.
So we said, “Do you know what? Let’s do outdoor dining when it’s warm, when people want to sit outside. Then we’ll reassess indoor dining based on what the city looks like.” It’s at 35 percent now. Come May, it could be 50 percent, it could be 75 percent, it could be back to 25 percent.
HOWARD: It could be back to zero.
BEN: Right. Who knows? We’ll do outdoor in May, and maybe very soon afterwards we’ll do indoor at night, too. And then it’ll be the grocery store in the morning and afternoon, and full-service dining at night, and maybe full-service brunch on the weekend in addition to the store. That feels like something that we know we can do.