EatDrinkJax with John Allen Harrett of The Fringe CafeSeptember 8, 2013 1 comment Print Article
Talking about The Fringe Eatery with John Allen Harrett, the brainchild behind Murray Hill's steampunk fusion cafe.
1. Tell us about The Fringe Eatery.
It is a restaurant-coffeehouse. I've emphasized the coffee because I personally love coffee and espresso and Murray Hill doesn't have a really great coffee place yet, so I was trying to fill that void.
On the food side it's an interesting place because the cafe used to just be a concession area for the Murray Hill Theatre. I renovated the cafe in August (2012) and we're now open daily 6 days a week. We have lunch from 11am - 2pm Tuesday through Friday and dinner from 6pm to midnight from Tuesday through Sunday. Technically speaking, we're the latest serving coffeehouse in town.
I've also expanded the menu considerably. As a concession we were more oriented to things like hot pockets. I had to do some drastic overhauls in terms of what we offered and how we offered it. I've started with a focus on staples like soup, salads and wraps. Every day we have 3 soups and a variety of salads, along with 3 or 4 types of wraps. Those are our staples but I also expanded into sandwiches and burgers. I cut out all fried foods and have everything made to order from fresh ingredients. I also have daily specials that are crafted based on market availability. Last week was maple-seared, bacon-wrapped salmon with rice and vegetables as a side. I also offered a bacon and gouda stuffed chicken breast with cheddar cheese melted on top and a mushroom, apricot and fennel reduction.
2. Can you tell us about those last dishes? They seem far away from a wrap on a menu.
The secret to The Fringe is to ask me what I want to make. The specials tend to be somewhat schizophrenic because I refuse to get nailed down to laying out exactly what we're going to do at all times. People like to experiment and have great things made for them, so I go over the top on the specials. They are just completely ridiculous. But I also try to make them affordable. People are often blown away by the portioning - they think things should cost a lot more than what we're charging - they're actually concerned for me, that we're not making a profit. But I want things to be special on multiple levels and the way I work is that in my mind and the way I learned to build a business, if I can win people over and they love the food and they enjoy what I'm doing for them, I believe that's some of the best marketing you can ever have, because they will tell their friends and they'll also become customers. I take care on every order to find out what people like. I'll also come out and talk to people, I don't just hang back in the kitchen. I like to find out what people like, what they're interested in, what they have a hankering for that night. Based on my ingredients on hand I will create something for particular tastes. That does bring it's own set of nightmares for me as a chef! I don't know why I put myself through that torture. But I'll tell people that it doesn't matter how I initially envisioned something - if there's some aspect of it they don't particularly care for I can take that out, because ultimately they're the one who has to eat it.
3. How would you describe your food style?
I draw on my experience with fusion cuisine from Boomtown. I like to take something from one cuisine and combine it with another - something for example, from a French cuisine, combined with something from a traditionally Latin American dish. I want to do something that tastes great so I don't limit myself, or the menu items, to a particular style. So, I would say that our menu is fusion. I didn't go to school for it, but I'm a very artistic person and it comes out in my food as well as the environment I create. Before I do anything I think about what I want it to taste like. Sometimes there's a hit and sometimes a miss. The misses are few and far between though because I don't send anything out that I don't personally feel is OK. It's not that I'm cutting into someone's steak, but if I'm making a delicate sauce or we're serving a side of something I'm going to check it. We have several jars of plastic tasting spoons for the cooks or whoever's working in the kitchen with me. If it's not right, it doesn't go out. It's everything from sight to smell to taste that we consider. The last thing I want is for someone to be unhappy with what we're giving them.
4. Are you creating the specials on a weekly cycle?
I'll be honest with you; at this point there is no cycle. In fact, twice last week I had no idea what my specials were going to be until the first table showed up. As I was standing out there talking to them I just created it in my mind. I put together a dish in theory and then I went and created it in the kitchen - and they loved it! I'm not going to say that every night is like that - in fact that's a really good recipe for chaining myself to the stove. I've been lucky to get some really good people to work with me in the kitchen - people who understand complicated sauces, and who come from a variety of backgrounds. One woman who just started is from Tucson and she likes cayenne - she has this Texarcana feel for a lot of her dishes. She teases me because I like soy as my sodium for everything.
5. Are specials mostly at dinner?
I do offer specials at lunch, but they're more scaled down because people want to get in and get out for lunch. A special would be something that is a little less complicated so we can prepare it faster and can do more at once.
6. Is your goal to grow a bigger, stable menu, or keep your staples with the specials rotating in and out?
I don't know yet. I need to see how things go for a few months. I'm currently seeing a nice, steady flow of customers, with growth each week. Also, because we still have an open door to the Theatre, on any random night of the week there may be a show, with a band playing with 300 people. When they come into the cafe looking for service I need to be able to move quickly to get people in and out. That's the balance - having a sophisticated sit down menu with the need to occasionally have something faster and more practical. I'm still working through that balance. For show nights I'll need to have a smaller menu.
7. Do you have an official affiliation with the Theatre?
I actually work for Murray Hill Theatre. I was hired in February of 2012 as the Facilities and Special Events Co-ordinator. My background is in theatre and venues, so it was a good mix. I wanted to work on opening up a business that would have wide appeal - that served great coffee and great food in a great environment.
8. What's the mix between people coming to have coffee and people coming for a sit down meal?
It's a good mix - about half and half at this point. We do have some people who drop in for just a coffee to go. I haven't started doing morning hours yet, simply because we're open so late, and aren't staffed up enough just yet to run a breakfast shift.
9. Can you tell us about your coffee?
We serve several blends of Bold Bean coffee. Our staff has undergone training so we can keep up the standards set by Bold Bean for putting forth their product.
10. Did you bring the pour over and Chemex approaches from Bold Bean, as well as using their beans?
The only pour over we're doing at this time is for decaf coffee. Our house coffee is Bold Bean's Dark & Stormy blend, which we serve as a drip. For espresso drinks we use Bold Bean's Sweet Spot and can do everything on the espresso, cappuccino, latte side of things. We also have a nice selection of teas. We haven't gotten into the Chemex and some of the pour over styles because we haven't seen the demand for them just yet. If we get more demand we'll look again.