By James Maher
Name: Ali Sahin
Occupation: Owner, C&B Café
Location: 7th Street between Avenue A and Avenue B
Date: Thursday, Jan at 4 pm
I’m from Turkey. I came here about 9 or 10 years ago. I visited here once before when I was a kid, and I guess it was time. New York is a charm. I’ve been in restaurants in New York for eight years now, cooking mostly, but I’ve done almost anything. I went to culinary school back in the day and worked for some fine dining restaurants in New York City, and then I wanted to open up something simpler and more approachable than fine dining.
Fine dining was a great experience. You learn a lot, but you can’t eat in a fine dining restaurant everyday — one financially and two it wouldn’t be that healthy. It’s a weird thing when you work in these fancy restaurants that you can’t afford to eat in. It was a good learning experience. It was like a school but they pay you, although kitchen work is pretty hard. The fine-dining world takes itself the most serious, which is great in one way, and it’s not that great in another, because at the end of the day it’s just food.
I was working in the West Village and there was this great little café owned by a French couple, 11th Street Café. I would always go and have a sandwich and coffee and they had a great staff and delicious food, fresh. So I thought, “Maybe I can do something like this, but a little different.” There it was very simple — we are very simple too but we make our own breads and sausages and stuff, so I took that and I said, “You know what, we’ll make everything in the house,” which is not an easy concept. We couldn’t do everything in house in the beginning because it takes a lot of labor and we didn’t have that much money, but as we started generating more money then I managed to hire other people, and now we make everything in house except cheese and butter — two years in.
I actually wanted to open in Brooklyn, where I lived at the time, but it didn’t work out — the hype and expense in Brooklyn was really high. I couldn’t find a place and I couldn’t agree with the landlords. I honestly never looked into the city because I thought I couldn’t afford it. I just randomly ran into an ad for a space below Houston, which was affordable, and so I started to look into lower Manhattan, and then the next ad was for this space, and it worked out. It happened in like 15 days after three years of trying to find a space.
The type of food is kind of hard to explain. We serve breakfast and lunch only — we serve breakfast all day and lunch starts after 11. Everything is made here and made to order. It’s a small café but it works like a high-end restaurant. We start cooking everything once you order. The idea is more approachable, more affordable, good food, which I think is still missing in New York City, and in America unfortunately. Food in New York at least is suffering a lot right now. A lot of places are closing down and big names are going out of business.
I never did a coffee shop concept, restaurants yes, but I was mostly behind the scenes. The first day we were open, I think it was a blizzard day, and I didn’t have milk or cream and people kept asking. Of course they asked for milk. One of the neighbors here, Daniel, who’s a longtime East Village person and used to be a theatre director, a very kind and artsy gentleman, brought us the milk and cream from his house. That was pretty great and he still comes in. And last year there was a blizzard and they shut down the subways, and I walked all the way from Bed Stuy. It was a two-hour walk. I didn’t know, but a bunch of people walked in that day. It was a great business day. Now I’ve moved back, a little too close. I live about 50 steps away — I never leave work.
I lived in this neighborhood when I first moved to New York, on Avenue C between 7th and 8th for the first two years, then I moved to Brooklyn and I worked in the West Village and Upper East Side. The East Village is special. The people here… especially after I started the business, now I talk to everybody who comes in and lives in the neighborhood. They’ve been really kind and generous. It’s amazing. I’ve talked to other people who run businesses in the neighborhood and we all feel the same way. I don’t think it could work anywhere else, honestly.
I feel like we’ve managed to build a place where it’s not just a hyped-out restaurant. It’s more like an in the neighborhood-forever type place. We can name about 70 percent of the people who walk into this place and have a small talk or conversations about their life – and then they know when they need to move faster too. We gotta work.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.