Saturday, February 17, 2007

"Dubrow's is no ordinary cafeteria"

In this article, about a year after the death of Irwin Dubrow, we find out what happened to the Manhattan Dubrow's that Irwin ran for many years:

"Leo Martin got in an awful rut a while back. Like any other businessman in this inflationary era, his costs were galloping upward and his profitability - indeed the very existence of the cafeteria he operates at 515 Seventh Avenue and 38th Street - was threatened. This was no small matter to him because he not only operates Dubrow's cafeteria in the garment district, but since last October he has owned 30 percent. "Every time my costs went up, I would try and pass it on to the customer. Each time I raised my prices, I served fewer and fewer customers," he explained.

Business dropped from 5,500 customers a day to somewhere between 4,300 and 4,600 by the third week in May. We were starting to lose money for the first time since I took over full management last October on the death of the grandson of the founder," he said.

(New York Times, October 26, 1971)

The article goes on to give us a good detail about Mr. Martin, as well as the history of the changes in owners and managers over the years:

"The other Dubrow cafeteria, at King's Highway and East 16th street, is owned by a relative of the founders. It's a separate business. Mr. Martin was no newcomer to the business. He began as an assistant manager in the Dubrow cafeteria on King's Highway in 1939. He had been general manager successively of three Dubrow cafeterias, the last one being the Seventh Avenue one. He left Dubrow's in 1959 to become general manager for the Arthur Maisel restaurants. When the Maisel restaurants liquidated, the Dubrows asked Mr. Martin to come back. That was in October, 1968, and he's been there ever since. " (Ibid.)

The article is not just a character piece about Leo Martin, however, as it goes on to try to understand the realities facing the cafeteria in New York City:

"Mr. Martin was not only in a restaurant where business was falling, he was in an industry that failed to adjust. At one time, there were perhaps 300 cafeterias in the city as big as the Dubrows Seventh Avenue one - it seats 450 - now there are 25 of them and many are in trouble.

"I realized the fact that the cafeterias had outpriced themselves and were not competitive with the average man's eating place, " Mr. Martin recounted. "Hamburger stands, pushcarts in the street, small coffee shops, and even some medium-priced restaurants were all outselling us."

It was easy for Mr. Martin to fall into the trap of raising prices. Dubrow's is no ordinary cafeteria. At dinner, a dessert cart serves the tables directly. The pastries on that cart art all produced on the premises. Dubrow's employs 11 bakers who make Vienna rolls, stangell, a salt stick, pletsl, a thin crisp roll garnished with on-"

Here the article continues on another page that is apparently not included in the download. But it picks up shortly thereafter and explains how Leo Martin helped Dubrow's survive when other cafeterias were faltering:

"...Mr. Martin naturally expected to get good prices. Yet the fact remained that, while quality was high, the customers just weren't coming into the restaurant.

Of all things, New York City's extending of a 7 percent sales tax to meals below a dollar proved to be fortuitous. The customers resented it naturally, and this didn't help business. Mr. Martin, a 55-year-old slim man with wavy black hair and a mustache, knew he had to do something drastic to regain his business. It wouldn't be easy. The garment district, in which the restaurant was centered, had become more and more depressed...He decided to use one of the oldest gimmicks in merchandising - the loss leader. What's more, he tied it to the 7 percent "hot dog" tax, as the levy, which starts at 15 cents, has been called.

He explained: "We decided to absorb the 7 percent tax on a selected list of specials on which we reduced our prices substantially. For example, a hamburger and coffee at lunch, which used to bring $1.02 including the 7 percent tax, we now featured for 69 cents."

...This kind of special is enough to make any restaurant man apprehensive. Mr. Martin admits that, if his customers bought nothing else, the specials would put him out of business. It didn't work that way - about 25 percent of the customers are ordering specials - and it almost never does, he explained..."We have reacquainted old and new customers with Dubrow's and our tremendous selection of food. Consequently, we have people coming in daily who eat the special once a week or twice a week - but not all the time. The rest of the week, they buy regular items.
" (Ibid.)

Essentially, Dubrow's saved itself for another decade and a half, while other cafeterias were closing, by building on its strength - loyal customers.

"The reason production is so important to Dubrow's is that an establishment as big as this must have a large basic production crew. The solution was increase dollar volume without increasing the payroll. When the specials began on September 22, volume soared immediately, Mr. Martin said, adding: "We're now serving about a thousand customers a day more than we did before the loss leaders. Our average day - we're open 16 hours, until 10 PM, we serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner - brings in between 5,500 and 5,600 customers a day"..." (Ibid.)

Mr. Martin goes on to crunch the numbers - I presume this article was written for the business section of the New York Times, as it has a decidedly business feel. I also imagine that the publicity garnered from the article didn't hurt business, either, so that was a good business move as well. He also goes on to note that not all the employees were so happy about the changes, as for them, it meant more work and not any more money.

1 comment:

Rick Festa said...

I am Leo Martin's Grandson and my memories of Dubrow's are so vivid.. The stuffed roasted chicken really stands out in my mind, and have never found a stuffing like that since. I spent many hours there with my Grandfather as a young boy, and i can still remember that special smell of the place. I still remember the faces of the cooks and the cashiers and that cool change returner attached to the side of the register..Rick Festa