Gowanus Lounge: Serving Brooklyn

Urban Environmentalist NYC: Q&A with Aunt Suzie

October 20th, 2008 · 2 Comments

Aunt Suzie owner Irene LoRe is a neighbor of the Center for the Urban Environment (CUE) and the Executive Director of the newly formed 5th Avenue BID (Business Improvement District). She took time out of her busy schedule to talk to CUE about the Avenue’s past— and future.

CUE: Where are you from originally?

LoRe : I was born and raised in Borough Park, Brooklyn. I was born in 1942 and the Brooklyn I was raised in was very different from today. It was in many ways more ethnic, so many people were closer to their immigrant roots: language, food, religion and culture. There were mostly Eastern European Jews, Southern Italians and Irish in the neighborhood. There were very few Blacks or Hispanics— and I did not know any until college. That would be pretty unthinkable today. The Irish and Italians in the neighborhood were “united” in their Catholicism and the local parish. In those days, if someone asked you where you were from you would name your parish, not your neighborhood. Yiddish and Italian were heard everywhere and everyone rooted for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

CUE: What lead you to the restaurant business?

LoRe: I was fired from a job in an insurance company….and yes, mid-life crisis. The one thing about Italians is that most of us believe we are born great chefs unlike so it seemed logical to me to open a restaurant. I love to cook and feed those around me. Having been in corporate life I was ready to try being an entrepreneur. My big mouth and opinionated nature made me a bad fit in the midst of corporate culture.

CUE: How did you choose the location of your business—and what do you like best about your neighborhood?

LoRe: Actually, Park Slope was the location of my second restaurant (1987). The first Aunt Suzie’s was in Bensonhurst (1982). I had moved to Park Slope in 1972 and loved it. From day one I felt this was a real neighborhood and felt very comfortable here. When the renewal option came up on the lease in Bensonhurst I was taught a few tough lessons by my landlord so I decided that I would own the next location. I refinanced my house and the only affordable properties were on 5th. 7th Avenue was priced off the charts and people were still afraid to go to 5th. Given the dramatic changes in the demographics of the neighborhood I felt that 5th just had to happen. All I had to do was turn the corner on Garfield or Carroll to see those beautiful brownstones and figure those folks might give Aunt Suzie’s a try….it’s nice to be right when you risk so much on one move. It took longer than I though because I opened in September 1987, just in time for the stock market crash in October that slowed things down. The most dramatic changes in the neighborhood have taken place in the last ten years. It has been a remarkable journey.

CUE: You’re one of the chief architects of the 5th Avenue Business Improvement District (BID) and the Executive Director—what’s on the agenda for the BID in 2009?

LoRe: For the past two years I have been active along with Judi Pfeiffer of Bob and Judi’s Coolectibles, Kim Maier of the Old Stone House and Delvis Valdes a local real estate attorney and property owner. I am very happy to have been selected to be the Executive Director of the BID. Given the current economic climate, I think we are getting up and running (December 2009) just in time to attempt a blockade against the recession.

We are planning several events. On Dec. 6 we will have a tree lighting ceremony at JJ Byrne Park and we will participate in Snowflake Festival (Thursdays, December 4 & 11 & 18). On Thursday, December 18 we will have music in the streets. Additionally, we will provide supplemental sanitation services for the avenue and have a budget for marketing and promotion for 5th Avenue in 2009. Alongside the street fair we hope to have art and music festivals. We hope to create a lot of excitement and events to drive more folks to the shops and restaurants on the Avenue.

CUE: How the economy is affecting the Avenue and neighborhood.

LoRe: 1982 was difficult, 1987 was worse, and I believe this recession will be even more difficult. To survive small businesses will have to find new ways to generate more income, reduce expenses and learn how to survive with tighter margins. For example, we started delivery service soon after we opened, we made our own desserts rather than using an out side vendor and we do a lot of our own shopping. For this recession, I believe we got that Bar built just in time plus we have lowered Pastas to $7.90 making it cheaper to eat at Aunt Suzie’s than prepare dinner at home when you figure shopping, cooking and clean-up time.

CUE: Aunt Suzie has been around for many years—what the recipe for its success and longevity?

LoRe: Aunt Suzie has been on 5th Avenue for over 21 years. We have to stay relevant and attractive to a continually changing demographic, hence the new bar. Because we consider ourselves to be an old fashioned neighborhood restaurant we have to maintain a certain comfort zone, casual friendly/family feeling at the same time.

CUE: If you could pass a law tomorrow that would help small businesses locally, what would it look like?

LoRe: There are, in my opinion, too many laws and regulations on the books right now making it very difficult to do business in NYC. We are sitting ducks with no place to hide. Once the economy gets weak, the roll out of fines can become intolerable: sanitation, health department, consumer affairs, DOT. You name the agency, they all seem to be there for inspections, fines and tickets. In bad times these agencies go from cost centers to profit centers on the backs of the shopkeepers. Government should assist commercial strips to become BIDs, 5th Avenue has been talking about it for over a decade and moving towards it for at least five years. It should not take that long, especially where you have an active and vibrant Merchants Association.

(Interview conducted by Rebeccah Welch—Associate Director of Public Affairs at the Center for the Urban Environment. As a guide to a more sustainable New York City, the Center is dedicated to educating individuals about the built and natural environments. For more about our work visit www.thecue.org.)

Tags: Park Slope · Urban Environmentalist

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 anonymous // Oct 20, 2008 at 3:26 pm

    Y’know, I’m sure I’m not the only long-time Park Slope resident who has practically forgotten about Aunt Suzie’s since the restaurant boom started eight or ten years ago. For many years, Aunt Suzie’s was the only place for hearty Italian meals at a reasonable price. It was a place you could go on a date or a place to go with kids. There was a decent selection and the price was right. With the current economic crisis, I think many of us will return to our gastronomic roots and once again patronize Aunt Suzie’s.

    Irene is a pioneer in our community and this interview shows her to be a thoughtful and caring individual. She deserves our support.

  • 2 Jack // Oct 20, 2008 at 10:06 pm

    Excellent interview. Aunt Suzie’s is great!

    But I find it interesting that Gowanus Lounge posted this at about the same time you’re welcoming reports from Brooklynian. Discussions on their foodie threads constantly slam “Aunt Suzie’s” and blindly praise “Al Di La” across the street. Be careful who you get into bed with folks; might just be a yuppie snob.