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City Grit's Sarah Simmons on Her Kickstarter Campaign and Finding Guest Chefs

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Photo: Daniel Krieger

Last month, City Grit chef/owner Sarah Simmons got the bad news that the Kickstarter campaign to move her New York City "culinary salon" to a bigger space had failed. It's stories like these that temper the successes that have led some to ponder whether Kickstarter is the future of restaurant financing. But Simmons is still optimistic, not only that things will work out with her impending move to a new location — she's now raising money on the City Grit website — but also for the future of Kickstarter. Eater met up with Simmons last week at Feast Portland for an interview in which she talked about finding up-and-coming talent to cook alongside her at the restaurant, paying her dues as a chef and, of course, the ill-fated Kickstarter. As she says, "If Hurricane Sandy taught me anything, it's that shit happens but things are going to work out."

When you go to events like Feast, are you trying to scout out who to invite to City Grit?
I definitely don't treat food festivals as a sales opportunity. I don't want people to think they're being picked up. It's a great way to build relationships and to meet a lot of awesome people at one time. If it fits into our lineup for next year, that would be awesome. But I mainly go [to festivals] to be with my friends and make new friends. Quite frankly, I spend so much of my time talking about City Grit that I would be over the moon if it never came up the whole time we're here. That sounds horrible, but I feel like it's hard to have an authentic conversation with someone when there's an underlying [motive].

I know you prefer to find the up-and-comers rather than the headliners to cook at City Grit. How do you do that?
I have a strategy for when I go to a city to look for up-and-coming chefs. You go to the places that you have to go to because you love food. Then you ask the bartender and the waitstaff where they eat after work, and who they're most excited about. And you ask the headlining chefs [which cook] out of their kitchens is on the cusp of doing something phenomenal or is one to watch. And you just keep an eye on those folks.

We certainly are going to continue having some big names cooking with us — John Besh is cooking in November — but I really want City Grit to be a platform for chefs that maybe could use the extra publicity or are just getting their start. A lot of the big guys don't need the help. This community is about helping each other. It's a really hard life and a hard job, so it's more fun I think to help the little guy.

But, then again, we want our diners to be able to taste the food of some of the best chefs in the country that are already well-established, too. So we're trying to find a really good mix. And next year [we're] working on some strategies where we're pairing a headlining chef with some up-and-comers, so it's the best of both worlds.

Last year in your One Year In with Eater NY, you said something that struck me about not wanting to call yourself a chef because you didn't feel you paid your dues. What does paying your dues mean to you?
Think about Daniel [Boulud], who just celebrated a huge anniversary. And look at the chefs that came out of his kitchens. Alex Guarnaschelli worked for him. Michael Anthony. Andrew Carmellini worked for him. Tien Ho worked for Andrew Carmellini at Café Boulud. So if you think about it like that, some of these chefs have spent 15 years starting as a dishwasher somewhere and being berated and yelled at as prep cooks and then working garde a manger and then moving up the line and sweating it out as a sous chef and maybe working under another chef for years. And my first real experience in a restaurant kitchen was running my own. That's what I mean about not feeling like I paid my dues.

And when I opened City Grit was kind of the same time when kids coming out of culinary school wanted to just be executive chefs. So there was a lot of talk about having to pay your dues. I didn't want people to compare me to those kids because I certainly didn't get into this for fame or the money or to do anything but make awesome food and cook with awesome chefs. But the definition of chef is really someone who is running their own kitchen. I certainly have done that since I opened. People can call me whatever they want to call me. At the end of the day, I just want to cook.

Well and so how are things going at City Grit? I was sorry to hear about the Kickstarter.
Yeah it's pretty sad. At first I was bummed because we were kind of forced to do it in a bad month. August, everyone's traveling. We've had so many emails from people that were like, "Oh shit, I missed it." Also, toward the end of the Kickstarter, we weren't sure about some things with the new space. We didn't want to look like we were pushing really hard for something and raise the money and then have it fall through and look like we were lying. And then I broke my foot. But what's been taking me from being really bummed out about it to being very excited and humbled is that in the past 10 days we started getting checks from people. People are bummed.

We've raised most of the money that we need to renovate a new place and for permits and all those big-ticket items [for which] I'm willing to give up equity for my business. But as a business person and someone that's put all of my money and two years of my life into City Grit, I wasn't willing to give up more equity for money that's going to sit in someone's bank account for 15 years. But I also don't want to take handouts from people. So this is a way to pre-sell experiences and letting the community feel like they're a part of it. This is a very community-driven experience.

It's really heart-warming there's been so much support, so much disappointment from so many people that it didn't get funded, and panic that we were going to go under. The building that we're in has been sold. We're not sure how long we have in that space, so I am nervous a little bit. We're looking for back-up options in case the space that we have our heart set on doesn't work out.

Yeah, I was going to ask if that space was still a possibility.
The space is still a possibility, but there are a couple of big hurdles that have come up in the past month that make me super nervous. Because I am under a time constraint, I want to have some other places in my back pocket. I don't want to lose the momentum that we built. I don't want there to be a gap. If Hurricane Sandy taught me anything, it's that shit happens but things are going to work out. So I think that's why I have such a relaxed attitude about it now. I might start crying in two hours, but we'll see. Just kidding. The universe takes care of things. Maybe that space wasn't meant to be. Or maybe it is and we're just going to blow it out.

Do you still think Kickstarter is a good way for restaurants to go?
I think that Kickstarter is awesome for fundraising. Did it work for us? No. Maybe it was because we did it in August. Maybe it was because our raise was very high. But also I've gotten some two cents from people in the tech world [saying] that Kickstarter is about funding creative projects. Which is funny because I think that restaurants are perfect example of a creative project. It's interesting to see how different communities define creativity. So I think it's all in how you position it.

To be honest, if I had to do it over again I would've just said from the get-go that our building has been sold, we have to move. But when I'm also negotiating with other larger investors, I didn't really want it out there that there was that much pressure because it hurts my negotiation. So it was just a weird time.

I'm not saying because it didn't work for me that it won't work for anyone. Look, Spike Lee just raised like over a million dollars for a creative project. That bothered me a little bit. It was a [Kickstarter] staff pick, which is like okay, I really thought this was for the little guy who needed a grassroots momentum behind them. Spike Lee has a million dollars to do his next project. I hope it doesn't turn into something that is super celebrity-driven. Because the little guys need help.

· All Sarah Simmons Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Eater Interviews [-E-]

City Grit

38 Prince St., New York, NY

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