Not everyone wants to go into the family business. But some, like Alan Rosen know they’re going to do it from just about the day they’re born.
Owner of Junior’s Cheesecake, one of the hottest-selling brands of this confection ever, along with its restaurants, Rosen took over the business from his dad, Walter, who took it over from his dad, Harry, who started the business in 1950 in Brooklyn. Known worldwide for its rich, creamy cakes that come in a variety of sizes, from round to heart-shaped, from lemon coconut to red velvet, Junior’s has become the standard-bearer for this kind of dessert for over 50 years
How did you end up in the business?
When I was 5 years old, if I wanted to see my dad, I had to come to the restaurant because this was where he spent every waking minute. And so, I loved it. If you would have met me as a 13- or 14-year old and said, what do you want to do when you grow up, I would have told you right away, I want to be in the restaurant business.
Do your children see themselves as working here, too?
I have twins and a younger/older child. They do enjoy coming here. But I certainly don’t want to put any pressure on them. The chips will fall where they may. Or, if I can be corny, the cheesecake will fall where it falls.
So you’ve always loved this business?
I gravitated towards it — as much time as I could get in this building I came to it. It wasn’t just the food or the smell. It was everything. But I really think it was mostly about being with my Dad, to be totally honest. It’s always been a big part of my life. When I started working here 25 years ago, some of the same people I knew when I was 6 years old are still here! And it just becomes part of you. My dad used to half-jokingly say; this place was like his child.
What’s different today from when your grandfather started the business?
It’s still got the mom and pop feel. I think it’s just a bit more professionalized. It’s technology. It’s new media. It’s how we run the business. It’s not that different from when my grandfather ran it. But you have to structure your business so it doesn’t run you. You run it. Thirty years ago, the restaurant business was not looked upon as the professional industry it is today. Back then, restaurant guys were single guys, single entrepreneurs, who ran one or two restaurants. And now, you have all these restaurant groups running multi-units, doing big volumes, running a real professional organization with lots of systems and controls, who instill that hands-on management.
How does Junior’s compete with that?
I got an education. I’m the first generation in my family to even go to college. And so the takeaway from that was that this could be a professional business, a real business, a growing business that could support a lot more people and have opportunities for our employees and it could transform and transcend from our one location in Brooklyn. Granted, we’re not a quick grower. I look at, for example, the Shake Shak IPO, and I say to myself, I could have been doing that. But then I think, maybe that’s not what gets us going.
So, what is it that gets you going?
If we’re going to have four restaurants, they should be four great restaurants. If we’re going to sell a million cheesecakes, they should be the best million cheesecakes we ever made. We should also have a company that has good values and a good culture, where people like working here. We’ll grow when we’re ready or when the right opportunity presents itself. And I don’t have the pressure of saying; we’ve got to do this tomorrow. We don’t answer to shareholders. We don’t answer to Wall Street. But we have the advantage of owning a key piece of real estate. On the other hand, how can you get a good business going without decent retail rent? The numbers are astounding and it’s a real impediment to growing your business in this environment, unless you want to really make what I call a very risky deal. You can’t sell a $20 slice of cheesecake and you can’t sell a $30 plate of lentils. It doesn’t work.
What do you think about the Millennials?
Do Millennials eat corned beef pastrami every weeknight? No, they don’t. But there’s a broad enough offering here at Junior’s for them to find a reason to come. Comfort food will always be comfort food.
And, as long as we’re on kids, what do you think about the kids you see coming up?
We are going to put together an industry of all stars. Thanks to the Food Network, and I say this not in jest, but in complete seriousness, I have kids whose parents are calling me — their kids are 11 or 12 and they want to come spend the day with me in the bakery. They want to learn how to bake or they want to work the line. Or they want to just see how the restaurant runs — can they come in with me on a certain day. I’m telling you, the interest in our industry has never been greater. Because of that renewed interest in food, in 20 years, 15 years, you’re going to see a cast of young men and women who are just going to hit the cover off the ball in this industry. And it’s getting more competitive and more professionalized. It’s no longer; you take a couple of bucks and go.
You can’t put it all together on a shoestring. You have to raise real money now. We’re watching the “Manhattanization” of Brooklyn, so much growth everywhere. And the question’s going to become, can we hang on? Because, I mean, there’s skyscrapers everywhere. And the pressure is getting even greater. I turned down $45 million for our place several months ago. At the end of the day, running a restaurant is a great thing, but running the restaurant at the base of a skyscraper is not a bad thing, either.
Are you concerned about how the neighborhood is changing?
We’ve managed to survive and thrive here for 60, going on 65 years without great entertainment draws like the Barkley Center or the Paramount. Without movie theaters, without density of residential property, with some commercial traffic, we survived. It’s all quite different now. And yet, we’ve managed because we’re almost like a destination restaurant. Now we’re going to have thousands and thousands and thousands of residents within five blocks of our restaurant. And hockey and basketball. Concerts. To me, it’s going to be great. I mean when Century 21 opens down the street, and an Alamo Draft House, I can’t wait. People have first-run movies to go see. You know, at 11 o’clock on a Friday night, we need compelling reasons to have people come here, and entertainment is usually one of them, to be right here, in downtown.
Do you think it will change that much?
Well, even though the perception might be it’s still staid and it’s a throwback, that’s what we want it to be. We’re a throwback with craft beers. We’re a throwback with great New York wine lists. It’s not like we’re just sitting here with our heads in the clouds.
You brought the Junior’s brand to Manhattan. What were you hoping to accomplish with that?
I always thought that the Theater District was a great location for us. When you’re spending hundreds of dollars on theater tickets, it’s really nice to be able to get what I call “a great New York meal.” That’s something that’s quality-driven for less than $50. Hopefully, we’ve taken the headache out of it for people. And we’ve filled a niche there. Junior’s is probably one of the most successful restaurants in the United States.
How does the theater customer differ from the customer you see in Brooklyn?
Obviously, we have a very urban demographic here in Brooklyn. A mixed demographic. But I think we have a very mixed demographic anywhere we go because our menu has such broad appeal. Now where else can you find matzo ball soup next to barbecue ribs? Where else can you sit and have a tuna fish sandwich on rye toast and a great glass of chardonnay? So, it’s sort of a unique menu in that regard. The food’s not overly fussy, but it’s very good and it’s very wholesome. And it seems to appeal to a broad demographic regardless of economic status.
Do you think you’ll locate somewhere else?
If a great Florida location pops up or a great Vegas location, I’m going to jump. In the meantime, we’re continuing to grow our wholesale business.
You’ve recently started selling Junior’s Cheesecakes on QVC and you’ve written a book. What has that been like?
We are probably the largest mail order company for cheesecakes direct to consumers in the country. That’s number 1. Number 2, we’ve started in the last five years to go into the wholesale business. We have distributors not all across the country, but in select markets, where we’re distributing foodservice-size cakes as well as retail-size cakes for grocery, Costco, BJ’s, other retailers. And that business is growing very nicely.
You’ve been busy. I see that you at one point opened another restaurant in Manhattan. It’s closed now but what did you learn?
Enduro was a fantastic restaurant. In fact it has evolved and is now BV Grill in which we are still involved as a partner. It was the original restaurant my grandfather owned at this location. It was feeding on all the points that everyone’s talking about today. Farm-to-table. Hormone-free. Antibiotic-free. Real great food at what I believed to be moderate prices. It was a beautiful restaurant, recycled wood, all that. Great local wine program, craft beers, the whole thing. But the location was tough. I learned, location, location, location.