For 20 years, Marseille, an upscale French bistro, located blocks from Times Square on Ninth Avenue in New York City, was a mainstay for lunch and dinner for Broadway theatergoers and tourists. When the pandemic hit in March 2020 and closed indoor dining, it wreaked havoc on the New York restaurant scene including Marseilles.
Simon Oren, Marseille’s founder, saw the pain that the pandemic was exerting on the citizens of the city, leading to rising unemployment.
But Oren, is now joined by two other partners, Robert Guarino and chef Andy D’Amico, who also operate four separate 5 Napkin Burger eateries in Manhattan.
Up until the pandemic hit, Marseille was thriving. “We had theatergoers, tourists, and some neighborhood guests. In March we lost everything,” Oren admits.
Chef Andy D’Amico was the first to point out, the eatery needed to change if it were to survive. “Let’s go after the neighborhood,” he said.
Oren expounds that neighborhood haunts need to be affordable. “You can’t spend $200 on a meal every night,” he exclaims.
The owners changed its name to Bouillon Marseille, altered its menu, and turned into a moderate-priced eatery. “That was the best way to serve our neighbors,” Oren said.
He called it Bouillon Marseille because in France “Bouillon is a restaurant for the people, and that’s what we are.”
The threat to independent restaurants for survival is real. The New York Times reported that 1,300 restaurants in the city shuttered between March and July 2020.
Operating as an upscale eatery wouldn’t work during a pandemic. “During times of uncertainty, people’s spending habits change,” he said, so making prices more affordable made the most sense.
Indoor dining in New York City is still prohibited. Bouillon Marseille has 60 seats for outdoor dining, and yet revenue has plunged to “25% to 35% of what we used to do,” Oren reveals.
Changing the menu didn’t happen overnight. “We worked six to eight weeks on the menu. It’s not a simple thing. Most of the menu is new,” he asserts.
Oren rattles off numerous examples of price cuts on its menu including the $8 escargot that once cost $12, the former $12 to $14 salads are a more reasonable $8, and the $25 roast chicken reduced to $19.
And even glasses of wine are now 10% less expensive.
Up until recently, Oren opted not to use third-party vendors like Uber Eats, DoorDash and Seamless. “You work for them,” he says, because they take 25% to 30% of dinner checks.
But these deliverers have been cutting their fees, and Oren is exploring partnering with them. At the same time, the three owners are developing their own delivery platform.
Two other factors contributed to keeping Bouillon Marseilles alive and well despite the drop in revenue. A sympathetic landlord created an “attractive deal,” Oren said. Also he earned a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan.
Oren, a native of Israel, is optimistic of the restaurant’s future. “We are severely impacted without indoor dining,” he said. But he said in the weeks ahead, and months ahead, “We plan to be healthy before theater returns and then thrive when some normalcy returns.”
The goal is to create a neighborhood restaurant where local denizens dine. “People don’t travel too far these days. Neighborhood restaurants are the only option,” Oren declares.
Oren is expecting that “people will realize what kind of value we’re providing. You’re going to have a French experience at half the price that you get in a similar restaurant.”
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