In New York, few people know what patrons want before they want it more than restaurateur Gabriel Stulman. Beginning in New York City with Joseph Leonard in 2009, Stulman and his team have been able to successfully open–and keep open–five Manhattan restaurants. He’s a trendsetter, and his most recent New York experience at the newly opened Freehand New York Hotel looks to keep that reputation intact. Instead of just one restaurant, Stulman’s team was tasked with creating three distinct dining concepts that will coexist under one roof.
“I’ve been a lover of hotels and travel for as long as I can remember” says Stulman. “The Freehand brand is very much on the same wavelength as me. This is a very natural, cultural thing. In restaurants, we have the opportunity to leave a lasting impression on people. Generally, we only have two hours of someone’s attention with which to work with. What I love about a hotel is that you can have 24 hours, a day, a week. I think that’s something really special, it’s a great opportunity to make special experiences for people.”
At Freehand Hotel New York, the centerpiece ground floor restaurant, Simon & The Whale, is a neighborhood-centric restaurant serving American cuisine. On the second floor, an all-day cafe, Studio, takes inspiration from Stulman’s Moroccan heritage, incorporating Near East flavors and elements of Turkish, Lebanese, and Israeli fare. The George Washington Bar is the final component of Stulman’s operation, offering cocktails and food in a relaxed setting featuring vintage furniture and a fireplace. Each concept is expected to cater to Freehand’s hip clientele - think savvy globetrotters with a taste for the good life - but also New Yorkers who need to be transported via a local escape. The pressure to deliver on the New York restaurant scene is immense, but Stulman has a knack for it. His spaces are intimate, aesthetically pleasing, and typically located on a corner for maximum visibility - his addresses consistently deliver old school hospitality combined with the desires of today’s modern diner.
How has he gotten here? The answer partially lies in Stulman’s ability to accept everything but total praise. Remaining humble is part of this restaurateur’s DNA. “I don’t know that I’ve achieved long term success yet,” Stulman says. He knows it isn’t just about him–he makes it very clear that any success is a total staff effort. “I don’t give a shit how good I am as a restaurateur, I don’t give a shit how good a chef is, I need an army of people. We share our praise. If the dishwasher isn’t there, we’re in trouble.”
But the ability to foresee the changing demands of clientele before they happen is an art. The restaurant industry can be brutal. High operational costs coupled with an oversaturated market means restaurateurs are constantly faced with fine tuning their model in order to survive. Stulman isn’t immune to the challenges - his restaurant Montmartre closed in 2016 despite praise from critics and a solid following - but his foresight is incredible. His decision to replace his hip wine bar, Perla. with an all-day cafe, Fairfax, was a game-changer. As Stulman explains:
“My instincts said to me that the reason things were slowing was not a result of the product that we were creating, and it was not the result of the service we were doing. I didn’t think we were slowing down because people didn’t like what we were doing at Perla. The concept that Perla was became oversaturated in the market. And that wasn’t the case when we opened Perla six years ago. When we first opened Perla, I think we were doing something that was a lot more unique. When we opened Perla, we were the only restaurant doing super high quality Italian food, bumping hip-hop, and wearing flannels…Fairfax as a concept is very unique. I’ve built eight restaurants in my life, Fairfax is the first time I put sofas and coffee tables in. Fairfax is the first time I’ve said, “Oh you don’t want to eat, I’ll give you coffee and wine.”
Instincts aside, Stulman knows that in New York, delivering on food, service and ambiance every single night is not the exception, it’s the rule. Since opening his first restaurant, Stulman has seen a shift in how the game is being played. “I think there’s a lot more very, very talented operators out there” he notes. “People are spending more and more and more money on their interior design. If you’re not spending the money, it’s more evident now because so many people are spending the money, it stands out.”
Although Stulman’s latest venture will undoubtedly leave him with new learnings, the veteran restaurant owner does seem to have one rule he lives by, “I don’t let pride or ego get in the way. What’s more important is creating something I am proud of and keeping good people together.”