By Sabina Mollot
Eisenberg’s sandwich shop, which has been a staple of The Flatiron neighborhood for nearly 90 years, is poised to remain a local favorite for many years to come.
That’s because it was sold last week, with the condition that the new owner keep the place, with its old New York coffee shop vibe, the same, which he has agreed to do.
Its former owner for the past 12 years is Josh Konecky, a longtime resident of Stuyvesant Town until six years ago.
Reached on the phone, he explained the decision to sell, which he first made public on Facebook.
Konecky, now a resident of Connecticut, said he found the new owner, Warren Chiu, after finding him through a business broker.
A couple of other people he’d spoken with about taking over the remainder of Eisenberg’s lease (with four and a half years left) on Fifth Avenue near 22nd Street would have done something else. Meanwhile, the building’s landlord, a loyal diner at the restaurant, apparently was fine with the lease transfer.
As for Konecky, who until last week had always been a dependable presence behind the counter (all six feet and seven inches of him), leaving Eisenberg’s wasn’t hard.
“I’m delighted,” Konecky said. “For me it’s a good change.”
This is in stark contrast to when he bought the business, at the time telling Town & Village that it was a chance to relive playing restaurant as a child. The former printing consultant even made some pricey renovations to Eisenberg’s vents to make them adequate for the grilling of hamburgers. Prior to that, burgers weren’t on the menu.
But, he noted, things have changed since 2006, at least for him.
“I’m done with it. Everything was a fight with the city,” Konecky said. “I’d never done it before. Some people (who’ve been in the business longer), they’re a little more steely to it. It just got to me.”
Asked if the problem was gratuitous fines or inspections by the city, Konecky said those things were the least of it.
“It was the day to day pressure of running a business in New York.”
He gave an example of how recently he considered raising prices to keep up with rising food costs, but couldn’t justify doing so. “I was afraid to go to $10 for a tuna sandwich,” he said. “It sounds like a lot of money.”
The other challenge was that the building itself is old, so there was always something in need of attention.
“I did enjoy it, but leaving is bittersweet,” said Konecky. He added that his wife of six years, Bonnie Taylor, has taken the departure harder than he has.
Prior to Konecky, the owner was Steve Oh and originally it was owned by the Eisenberg family, who sold it in the 1970s.
Konecky isn’t sure of his next moves, beyond taking a 10-day vacation in Italy. He’s nearing 65 and is considering retiring, but he’s worried he’ll end up driving his wife — and himself — crazy.
Chiu, meanwhile, spoke with Town & Village on Tuesday about taking over the business, where the walls are still plastered with pictures of celebrity customers like Jodie Foster, Cynthia Nixon and Jeff Goldblum (many of them posing with a grinning Konecky).
Chiu said Eisenberg’s first came onto his radar a few years ago when he lived several blocks to the north. He often ate there with his two children (now two and three years old) after trips to Madison Square Park.
“So I know the neighborhood well and I like historic, old places like this one,” Chiu said. “My goal is to keep Eisenberg’s the way that it has been.”
He may make improvements down the line, but for the time being, the menu and prices will stay the same. Chiu also believes the staff has been integral to the Eisenberg’s brand, since most of the employees have been around for over 15 years.
While this is his first time owning a restaurant, Chiu has a background in hospitality. He is vice president of development of Warwick International Hotels, so he’s operated hotel restaurants and bars.
“My main objective is to bring out the best of Eisenberg’s,” Chiu said. “The previous owner has done a great job in keeping it intact for the past 12 years and the previous owner and the previous owner. The Eisenberg family really built it up so I want to continue with it and improve it and amplify its traditions. Authenticity in New York is probably lacking because of new food concepts, adventurous concepts. People tend to overlook this.”
But food trends like poke bowls and gluten-free baked goods aside, the business of “raising New York’s cholesterol” – as Eisenberg’s has boasted of doing for years — is doing well, Chiu said. Eisenberg’s caters mostly to locals doing the week and to tourists and locals on the weekends.
The most popular items on the menu are the staple, kosher-style sandwiches like pastrami, tuna salad and reubens, as well as burgers.
Asked what his favorite dishes are, Chiu said while he hasn’t yet tried everything, “I love the reuben. That’s my favorite and simple things like peanut butter and jelly and patty melts.” He prefers to wash them down with milkshakes, calling them “very authentic” and he also likes the egg creams.
“I couldn’t find egg creams anywhere else in the city except in places like this,” he said, “and there aren’t too many places like this left.”