In 2012, Ben & Jack’s on East 44th Street in New York City closed for what it thought would be two years. The building the restaurant inhabited was being converted to a hotel. But what was supposed to be a short closure ended up lasting five years. In that time, however, the restaurant kept most of its staff employed through the transition.
The restaurant’s history, after all, is rooted in tenacity. The owners came to the U.S. in the 1980s and landed entry-level jobs at a legendary steakhouse, Peter Luger. There they rose in the ranks to managers and head waiters. In 2005, they struck out on their own with pooled tip money and no outside investors to open their flagship location on 44th Street. A second location on Fifth Avenue opened in 2009.
When word of the closure hit in 2012, employees from the 44th Street location, many of whom had been there nearly 10 years, were relocated to the Fifth Avenue restaurant.
“The owners wanted to make sure that Ben & Jack’s maintained its high standard of hospitality when they reopened, so keeping the majority of the original staff was a no-brainer,” says Admir Alibasic, executive chef at Ben & Jack’s. “The influx of veteran staff at Fifth Avenue gave that restaurant a boost.”
While the closure lasted five years and included many delays in the hotel’s construction, the restaurant’s own renovation only took eight months.
“When 44th reopened, we moved the old staff back to the restaurant and it’s as if the place never closed,” Alibasic says. “It’s an amazing feeling when a regular customer from the original 44th restaurant comes in and sees some of the original waitstaff, or when the bartender still knows what they are drinking.”
Ben & Jack’s demonstrated one of the industry’s golden rules: good employees are hard to find and important to keep. Alibasic is a testament to that himself. He was brought on as a prep cook at Ben & Jack’s at age 17 and worked every position in the kitchen over the years while pursuing his education in food science.