Sandy Ingber, Executive Chef of the Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant
What has been the key to the success of the Oyster Bar?
Consistency and quality of the seafood that we serve. Another key element is what I call truth in advertising. People can come here and know that they are going to get exactly what is on the menu.
We are the largest and freshest not the fanciest. Whatever the name of the fish or the source of the oyster they are getting that. We accomplish this by going to Fulton Fish market every day and handpicking all of the fish. I buy 90 percent of the oysters that we serve directly from the farms.
In a City like New York, in which the tides of popularity move so quickly, how has the restaurant managed to stay on top of its game?
It helps that we are in a train station with an incredible amount of traffic. When you combine all the people that come from the outskirts of the metropolitan area, a large repeat business clientele and an ever growing base of tourists who love seafood from Europe and Asia who come to the restaurant because of the world class reputation we have for freshness and quality. The tourists come looking for us when they plan their trips to New York, so it’s a slam dunk.
How have the needs of the Oyster Bar evolved through the years?
Probably dietary. People are much more conscious of what they are eating for both nutritional and allergy restrictions. No starch, no gluten, we offer a full line of solutions for everyone. It amazes me just how popular a plain piece of broiled fish with a plain vegetable has become. I'm convinced that they invented the New York minute for the Oyster Bar. You can come in and have a sandwich and a bowl of soup and be in and out in five minutes or you can sit and dine for two hours and everything in between.
Interesting how the fish and seafood dishes of the “Don Draper” years with heavy sauces etc. Lobster Thermador have evolved into fish being the centerpiece of a healthy lifestyle…thoughts?
More so than ever is the importance of the press that fish has gotten. How important the Omega 3's in your diet, how important it is to eat fish two or three times a week. People simply don't eat heavy sauces anymore. We haven't had Lobster Thermidor on the menu in at least five years, I know because I loved it. Keep in mind that even though we are talking about healthy eating, the busiest station in the restaurant is the frying station. So in all these days of health consciousness, you wouldn't believe how much fried food we sell. That's the great thing about our menu, we have everything covered.
Jerry Brody brought the Oyster Bar from bankruptcy in the 70's to an icon, what was his vision and how did he achieve it and how have you continued the legacy?
He walked into a disaster and somehow had a vision of opening a world famous seafood restaurant. He went out and did it. His widow told me that they started by going out to eat at every seafood restaurant within 20 miles of Grand Central. He couldn't believe it every one of them was serving frozen fish. There simply wasn't a fresh piece of fish to be found in the early 70's. He was disgusted and he started by hiring a famous fish buyer to go the Fulton Fish Market. Mr. Brody then headed for Maine with the goal of creating a contact and source for fresh lobster. He found Atwood Lobster and put a small little guy on the map and he went on to become the largest lobster company in the Northeast. The next step was to source fresh oysters and clams and really learned to use Fulton Fish market to the max.
Do you care that the Fulton Fish market moved out of Manhattan?
No in fact It’s 100 times better. What may have been sacrificed in convenience has been made up with cleanliness to the point that you could eat off the floors. With the temperature controls there, you know you are getting the freshest possible product consistently.
What's your approach to the culinary and food and beverage management team that you've built?
I began as a seafood buyer and expediter and I've been a chef since '96. So with that background, I've been able to broaden the scale of the menu. We increased the amount of oysters and types of fish and at the same time created a new approach to specials that has enabled us to keep up with the times. I'm very much self-taught so I read everything to keep up with trends. That had never been done here before and enabled us to bring the restaurant into the 21st Century.
What is your approach to building and managing your team?
I have two sous chefs, one for the day and one for the night. We have 20 cooks and I'm in the kitchen and on the line twice a week. There's a full size bake shop with two pastry chefs. There are two full time fish butchers and a full time soup guy.
How has the cocktail and wine segment of the operation evolved? What has survived through the years and what's hot today?
Our general manager serves as the sommelier and coordinates what has turned into a very extensive wine list. I remember when I first started; the restaurant served white wines only, pretty much California chardonnay exclusively. Today there are all kinds of whites and reds. At any given time, we are offering 60 to 70 different wines by the glass. The cocktail side is fairly simple. Our customers want those standard Mad Men type cocktails but we mix them with top shelf tequilas and bourbons.
What's your strategy for how you buy food and beverage? Are you out to bid every week or do you look to balance loyalty and pricing?
We go out to bid competitively every week with groceries and produce. I make sure that I have at least three purveyors for everything we buy.
What's your approach to building kitchens?
There's been very little change through the years. We replaced our broilers with Jade's a couple of years ago. We've had a long-term relationship with M. Tucker who have done a great job for us.
Your guys are always promoting the restaurant, what is your approach to marketing?
It’s interesting, with the franchise that we hold to operate the restaurant with Mrs. Brody, we are required to spend five percent in advertising. We've moved towards Internet advertising. We run ads in both digital and print publications. We run a lot of posters on Metro North trains.
You mentioned franchises, are there other Oyster Bars?
There are two in Tokyo and one at Newark Airport.
Crystal ball, what will The Oyster Bar look like ten years from now?
I don't see major changes in terms of what people are going to eat. They will still be health conscious. The big change will come when the rumored move of the Long Island Railroad coming to Grand Central by 2018/19 happens. That will bring a huge opportunity for us to grow.