No one will go hungry when Aunt Suzie’s restaurant closes on January 1st. French, Thai, Indian, Japanese and Mexican joints dot the blocks of 5th Avenue in Park Slope where Aunt Suzie’s sits. The area wasn’t always a culinary scene, though.
Irene LoRe and her partner Pat Kelly opened Aunt Suzie’s in 1987. There were just a few restaurants in the area at the time. Crime was a part of life for those who lived in nearby brownstones. Aunt Suzie’s was a warm light at the end of a dark street.
The restaurant menu has been largely unchanged and still serves the classic Italian fare that LoRe’s mother (Aunt Suzie to nearly everyone in her life) liked to make. Meals here often include a heaping plate of pasta, large pours of wine and a giant slice of cake to finish things off. It’s comfort food before that was a trend.
When LoRe decided to open a restaurant in Park Slope she saw the crime and “drug dealers holding court on every corner.” But she also saw beautiful brownstones and “a very strong core of middle-class working people who wanted,” she said, “to see things change.
It was not easy in the early days. “The drug dealers were using the public telephones as their offices,” said LoRe. There was a particular drug dealer using the phones on the corner of 5th Avenue and Carroll Street, right near the restaurant. LoRe marched down to Leopoldi’s Hardware and purchased hedge clippers. She paid her busboys $5 for every phone cord they clipped. The plan worked, at least for the dealer holding court at the restaurant’s corner. “We put him out of business,” said LoRe.
“A well-used city street is apt to be a safe street. A deserted city street is apt to be unsafe,” wrote Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “Stores, bars, and restaurants, as the chief examples, work in several different and complex ways to abet sidewalk safety.” she wrote “small businessmen are typically strong proponents of peace and order themselves.”
In the mid-80s “the neighborhood was ready for a restaurant,” she said, sitting in her restaurant, which is decorated for the last time for the winter holiday season. She’s interrupted often to help plan a holiday party for current and past employees, and to speak to nearly every customer who walks in.
Those customers have lots of dining options these days. “Now we’re on to 100 (restaurants). People have discovered what we discovered 25 years ago,” LoRe said. The heavyset woman laughs wearily at this.
LoRe looks out for many of those new restaurants as the director of the 5th Avenue Business Improvement District, a position that she will continue after closing Aunt Suzie’s. LoRe hasn’t welcomed all of the area’s additions, though. She’s fought adding bike lanes and allowing food trucks to park in the area.
She has other complaints too. There’s the city’s increasing bureaucracy— “a government who has become ferociously active.” The fines for restaurants are enough to stifle a small business, she said. “It’s time to retire.” The bureaucracy, the recession, the new restaurants and the fact that she’ll be turning 70 soon all play a role in that decision.
It’s a brave new Brooklyn, and LoRe and all the people her restaurant has touched are trying to navigate it.
There are employees like Tiffany Bricker, who has worked at Aunt Suzie’s as a waitress for seven years, and is now struggling to find a new job. “There are less jobs and more people looking,” she said. There is also more competition. There aren’t many people who are fulltime servers, like her, she said. The wait staffs in local restaurants, she added, are now “people who are professionals who had to get the job.”
Like Leopoldi’s hardware, LoRe got much of her more traditional restaurant supplies from local vendors. Brooklyn Beer is on tap. The coffee comes from D’Amico Foods, a small family-owned business that’s been in Carroll Gardens since 1948. The meat comes from A. Stein Meat Products, which has been around for 60 years. Aunt Suzie’s pasta comes from Queen Ann Ravioli and Macaroni, pasta producers in Bensonhurst since 1972. The owner, George Switzer, often volunteered to make deliveries to Aunt Suzie’s himself when things were busy at work. The restaurant was among many small businesses he used to work with. The restaurants he sees doing well now are part of big companies. “It seems you have to partner up to survive,” he said.
Switzer can “count on one hand the amount of small restaurants” that he works with now. Soon the count will be one fewer.