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What It Takes to Build a Brooklyn Restaurant Empire

Joe Carroll, the restaurateur behind St. Anselm and Fette Sau, is taking his hit restaurants outside of the borough

A steak at St. Anselm
A steak at St. Anselm
Michael Parrella/St. Anselm

Joe Carroll knows how to make a hit Brooklyn restaurant. In 2003, he launched his Williamsburg, Brooklyn, empire with craft beer bar Spuyten Duyvil. The neighborhood had yet to fill with restaurants and millennial-friendly residents, and Carroll was making a career change from music to the bar business. Although a scene was beginning to take shape, few bars were prioritizing craft beers. “It was the days of $2 cans of PBR ruling every place around here, so to open up a beer bar selling like $9, $15 beers was crazy,” Carroll says.

Years later, Carroll seized upon another gap in the market when he found a space that he thought would be perfect for barbecue — not the sit-down, Blue Smoke-style barbecue that was available in New York at the time, but a place that embraced the “real aesthetic of [Southern] barbecue.” He opened Fette Sau in 2007. However, Carroll wasn’t sure he could pull off the transition from bar owner to restaurateur. “When we were building out Fette Sau, I kept on telling everyone — more because I needed to hear it myself — ‘This is really a bar that has some barbecue. We’re not really a restaurant,’” Carroll says.

But Fette Sau’s immediate success told Carroll that he was more than a bar owner, and in 2010 he added a third spot to his burgeoning Williamsburg empire — St. Anselm, a modern steakhouse that consistently appears on Eater NY’s 38 Essential Restaurants. Fifteen years since Carroll opened his first Williamsburg destination, he’s undoubtedly an established restaurateur. And now, he’s on track to become a name outside of New York City, thanks to a partnership with restaurateur Stephen Starr, the Philadelphia-based operations muscle behind blockbusters like Buddakan, Serpico, and Le Coucou.

Carroll met the James Beard Award-winning restaurateur through a mutual friend and the two hit off during a meeting at Fette Sau. “We’re from Jersey, we both have music business backgrounds,” Carroll says. “We just had a lot to talk about. Personality-wise, we’re kind of similar and we hit it off.” With Starr, Carroll took Fette Sau to Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood in 2012. “I was looking to do something outside the city and Stephen was looking specifically to do things not in like, Center City Philly, and to go to some of that outlying neighborhoods and do something a little cool and really out there. It just seemed like a perfect opportunity for both of us.” And just this month, they opened a second St. Anselm location in Washington, D.C.

Joe Carroll
Joe Carroll
Michael Parrella/St. Anselm

Brooklyn as an aesthetic has spread far beyond the borough, but it’s not so often that modern Brooklyn-born restaurants expand beyond New York City. Andrew Tarlow has sustained his Williamsburg restaurant empire, which includes Marlow & Sons, Reynard, and Diner, for more than 15 years, but has yet to open a restaurant outside of the city. Elsewhere in Brooklyn, the restaurateurs behind Frankies Spuntino Group amassed a portfolio of restaurants that has included Italian restaurants, a coffee shop, and a German steakhouse. They have plans to open a wine bar and a slice shop, but their efforts are concentrated on four properties in NYC (the steakhouse and coffee shop swapped for the wine bar and slice shop).

Pizza seemingly makes for a more natural Brooklyn export. Roberta’s, the influential Bushwick pizza restaurant that opened in 2008, tested the waters for expansion outside of New York with a pop-up in Miami two years ago and opened its first location outside of New York City in LA this month. Lucali, the cultish Carroll Gardens pizza restaurant from Mark Iacono, has a Miami location. And Greenpoint pizza go-to Paulie Gee’s now has locations in Chicago, Miami, Baltimore, and Columbus, Ohio.

But Carroll has found a way to transport Brooklyn restaurants — not necessarily Brooklyn food — elsewhere. Carroll’s partnership with Starr takes his successful New York concepts and combines them with Starr Restaurants’ seasoned operations machine. It allows Carroll to stay in Williamsburg, where he both works and lives, as he opens restaurants outside of Brooklyn. “I get final say in everything, and I wouldn’t do it otherwise,” Carroll says. “But I’m not down there all the time — they are operators extraordinaire, so I’m not concerned about that.”

The role of a restaurateur in creating a successful restaurant is not as clearly defined as that of a chef. Carroll sees his job as finding the right concept for a space, and the right chef for that concept. “You can’t come up with a concept and force it in any space,” he says. “Those two things have to be married, otherwise it’s never gonna work.” When he finds a chef that understands what he wants to do, Carroll works with them to craft a menu that answers the question, “How do we change this from being very simple to something a little more interesting?” But although this formula has made St. Anselm and Fette Sau neighborhood standbys, Carroll has closed restaurants in Williamsburg, too.

A space small space on Williamsburg’s Havemeyer Street has been home to three separate Carroll restaurants, beginning in 2012 with Lake Trout, which focused on Baltimore-style fried fish. In 2014, Semilla took its place. The 18-seat tasting menu from chefs Jose Ramirez-Ruiz and Pamela Yung opened to acclaim, including two stars from New York Times critic Pete Wells and a full four stars from Eater NY critic Ryan Sutton, who declared it “New York’s next great restaurant.” The restaurant also earned one Michelin star in the 2016 guide to New York and a spot on Eater critic Bill Addison’s list of the best new restaurants in the country. But, in October 2016, pastry chef Yung, also a partner at Semilla, left the restaurant, and in March the following year, it closed. At the time, Ramirez-Ruiz said the reason was “very personal.”

But Carroll says that despite the praise, the restaurant was unlikely to last. “Unless the restaurant just is a failure right out of the gate, the reality is some restaurants just aren’t built to last decades. They’re built to last a couple of years, and then burn.” He thinks the tiny space and vegetable-heavy tasting-menu format in particular were challenging for diners. “I think that this serious, 10-course, plated-with-tweezers kind of thing, people love that, but… you can’t eat like that,” he says. “It just requires too much of you as a diner sometimes. It’s more like people just want to go out and have dinner and go home [and] not be weighed down by it.”

At the end of 2017, Carroll quietly opened Casino Clam Bar in the Semilla space. Unlike Semilla, Casino Clam Bar — a riff on Jersey Shore clam bars — was a place where diners could have a casual dinner and go home. And yet, in August, it abruptly closed. Carroll declined to elaborate as to why, saying only, “The concept has closed and we will keep you posted on future plans [for the space].”

Carroll is intent on growing his Williamsburg-based empire, and he has a running list of ideas ready to become restaurants “at a moment’s notice.” “I’m always trying to incorporate a historical timeline through everything, like a meaning behind it,” he says of his ideas. “I love this idea of it having reference and it having meaning in the grand context of food and food culture in restaurants.”

So far, Carroll has opened a beer bar, a barbecue joint, a steakhouse, a fish-sandwich shop, a tasting-menu restaurant, a seafood restaurant, and a grocery store. He’s also a partner in distribution company, Gotham Artisanal. Carroll says that there’s no limit to the number of restaurants he wants to open, but because most of the time he’s doing it on his own, expansion is relatively slow going. He’s come close to opening a New York City restaurant with Starr twice since their partnership began, and more projects with Starr Restaurants aren’t out of the question. But working through setbacks is a part of what makes Carroll successful working in restaurants. “You can’t be in this business and be too tied to any of your ideas,” he says. “It’s business. You just keep going.”

Monica Burton is Eater’s associate restaurant editor.

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