By James Maher
Name: Leslie McEachern
Occupation: Owner, Angelica Kitchen
Location: East 12th Street between 1st and 2nd Ave
Time: 2 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 25
I was born and raised in Greenville, S.C. … nothing could be finer. I came to New York numerous times in the 1970s for visits, for fun. I was in college from 1967-71 and I was at a large school — the University of Tennessee — that had a lot of fringe people from Miami and New York City.
So I met all of these great, outrageous folks and got very much into an alternative lifestyle — meaning sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. I had a great time and was introduced to the alternative lifestyle, the vegetarian way of doing things. The back-to-the-earth movement was becoming strong at that point and it interested me a lot. I started working in a warehouse in Raleigh, N.C., for a company called Laurel Brook Foods and they were a wholesaler of natural foods. I also helped start a co-op there called Noah’s, which at that time had three families and now I’ve heard it has over 5,000 — still up and strong running.
I had started a small business representing certain natural foods, but I was going to different health-food stores around the country and trade shows and demonstrating their products. One day in 1981, I was at Greenberg’s. It was a very old school natural food store on First Avenue, between Seventh and St. Mark's Place. I was in there doing a miso demonstration and handing out samples and Frank Simons, the guy who had just bought Angelica Kitchen, walked in. I didn’t know him at the time but I had been a fan of Angelica. He and I caught each other’s eyes, to say it mildly. We got engaged and I moved from the mountains of North Carolina to New York to be with him. That was what got me here – falling in love and doing the right turn so many of us know about.
Angelica was at 42 St. Marks Place at that time. It was a small place and we had very few seats, so we had an open policy about seating. People came in and sat in any empty chair in the restaurant, whether it was a two top or a four top, so lots of connections were made that way. That was very fun. It was very community spirited. Organic wasn’t as much of an issue at that time but there were a lot of products available. That became my mission once I was in charge of the restaurant after Frank died. I really believed in the small, independent organic farmer as stewards of the land, so I was able to get on my soapbox through having Angelica Kitchen and really support the farmers.
There was this great couple called George and Tilly who were on Fifth Street between Second and Third and they would come in on Friday and Saturday from their farm in New Jersey. They would bring truckloads of fabulous produce and apple cider. You’d see everybody there from John McEnroe to the people who lived down the street. Everybody in town who ate clean knew about George and Tilly. I would be running back and forth with a hand truck with cases and cases of kale and collards and turnips and apples.
After Frank died, I moved over to Seventh Street between B and C. The great thing about the East Village is always the people, and I really felt deeper into the heart of the neighborhood. In those days it was so convivial and neighborly. It was very community driven. I loved it. There is a reason the East Village has the reputation that it does, historically, because it was a wild and crazy place, and yes it was sometimes scary. I had amazing things happen, including people stealing from me. It had kind of an outlaw feeling. In the moment it was frustrating, but you just kept going.
I built the 12th Street location in 1987, so it’s still the new place. It used to be the Café Royal when it was Jewish Broadway and all kind of characters were in here, including Bugsy Siegel and George and Gracie, and just on and on. I loved the fact that it was a gathering spot back in the day and now since 1987 it has been too.
Before the city made recycling law, I was already doing it, and not only recycling with recyclable goods, but also of compost, which of course made the weight on our garbage go down because we weren’t putting all of the refuse in the garbage bags. We were saving it in five gallon buckets to be used in a composting operation that Christina had set up on my block on 7th Street.
You know who didn’t like that? The garbage carters. You know who ran the garbage carters? It was an organized group called The Family. Things started happening to Christina. I think her truck got blown up. I’m pretty sure that’s the right story. I’m not sure if it was those people, but it was some kind of a competition issue.
Then one day right after I had opened on 12th Street, a group of shall we say gentlemen — four rather stocky men in suits — came to the front door to talk to me. So I called this guy, Carl Hultberg, who was handling the recycling for NYU, to come over and sit with us. These guys had come to intimidate me to stop my composting and recycling. They were at that time charging by the weight, and the weight wasn’t what it should have been according to them. So Carl, who was a strong activist and informed recycling man, started laying out information for them. They were claiming that they were recycling, these four men, and Carl said, "We would like to see your recycling operation. Can we go there?"
You could just see them think, "Who do these kids think they are?" But Carl was asking them very pointed questions to prove they weren’t recycling. It was a funny meeting. They walked out and they got nothing from us. We were cheering and high fiving. That was a great moment for not only Angelica Kitchen, but also a big moment in the changes that were coming. I don’t know if it influenced those four men or not, but now that recycling is a law and composting is encouraged, it’s kind of interesting to look at the progress we made.
Now things have changed drastically. From being, I guess they say farm-to-table, long before it had a terminology. Now a lot of people say that’s what they do, but there’s no way to verify. So I feel for the consumers because people who are really looking to support that movement are just kind of up to the whim of the people who are doing the branding of any particular location.
Some people are doing a very good job and some people are taking advantage of the trend — local, regional, artisan. That’s always just been how we do things here. But I don’t want it to be negative — I want it to be positive. We’re the real deal. We’re doing what other people say they’re doing. You can always count on Angelica to be completely plant-based and organic. We’re here seven days a week, lunch and dinner.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.