This story is presented in five parts, read Part I and Part II and Part III.
Part IV: Location, Location, Location
Besides the potential for press coverage if Paulie Gee opened his pizzeria in New York City, another benefit was the cost of a liquor license: $140,000 for a license in New Jersey versus $505/year for a beer and wine license in New York City. But of course, Paulie would still need investors. “I own 80% of this place,” says Paulie. “But I do have investors. And a friend of mine, one of my oldest friends really, helped me, and he didn’t even know it at the time. He said, ‘Those investors, they’re gonna wanna know that you’re spending 100% of your time thinking about your restaurant and not your day job. But they wouldn’t mind if you took extra salary to make up for that.’ And that kinda opened up my mind on that. I said, ‘I’m gonna do this, this is great.’ And I started looking in Manhattan a little bit… but Brooklyn was calling me home.”
Paulie Gee grew up in Kensington, around Church and McDonald and then Church and Westminster, close to Korner Pizza, established in 1966. After marrying, he and his wife moved to Sheepshead Bay, but then moved to Warren, New Jersey in 1983 when he began working at AT&T. “I really thought we were leaving Brooklyn behind, going on to bigger and better things,” Paulie says. “But more recently, coming back and seeing what was going on in Brooklyn, food-wise, once I wanted to open up a pizzeria, I felt like Brooklyn was leaving me behind and I had to figure out a way, I just had to…”
Come 2008, Paulie Gee was just enamored with Williamsburg. And he was constantly chatting with other Williamsburg pizzeria owners, picking their brains about how they ran their restaurants. He spoke with Michael Ayoub, the chef at Fornino and he was encouraging. He also spoke a great deal with Mathieu of Motorino who suggested Paulie open up in Park Slope. But Paulie Gee “wasn’t feeling the Park Slope thing.” Paulie wanted to do something like Roberta’s, something for locals in a young, up and coming neighborhood, and for him that meant opening up in Williamsburg. For a while he was infatuated with a space at 138 N. 8th Street.
“It would’ve been perfect,” Paulie says. “The rent was twice what I wound up paying in Greenpoint, more than twice. I tried to convince them to lower the rent, but ‘No.’ In the meantime it’s been four different restaurants, they’ve all closed. So I said, ‘Well, ya know what, let me find the next best thing.’ I saw that Roberta’s found the next great thing out in Bushwick and they were very successful. I said, ‘Let me see what else, let me check Greenpoint out.’ First I went to Manhattan Avenue and didn’t find what I was looking for. I was looking for Bedford and N. 7th. Didn’t see it.”
So Paulie kept looking. And he kept hosting his pizza tastings at home, in a rather affluent New Jersey neighborhood. Some of Paulie’s wealthy friends and neighbors, acquaintances whom he had met through his son’s sports leagues, enjoyed his pizza tastings but when approached about investing in his pizzeria were concerned that he wouldn’t have any money invested himself: “‘It’s always good to have skin in the game,’ they would lecture me. And I knew they were right but what was I gonna do?”
And then, Paulie found his first investor: “I guy I worked with, John Diamond, came to my tasting, and he said to me, ‘Ya know, if you wanna open up a spot I want to invest in you.’ And then he did. I had him lined up with a considerable amount of money. And then my boss’s husband said the same thing. And I thought, ‘Ya know what, we gotta make this happen.’ And I told my wife, I said, ‘We have some equity in this house, let’s get a home equity loan and I took out money on a line.”
Back to Easter weekend 2009, just before the pizza tasting with Adam from Slice, with Good Friday off from work Paulie set up a bunch of appointments to look at spaces in Greenpoint, starting on Franklin Street: “It was just wild,” Paulie says of his first time to the area. “There were all these Hispanic churchgoers on Eagle and Franklin walking up the street whipping Jesus, like ‘Wow,’ and the cops are behind them, and I walk down and I found Franklin and Greenpoint Avenue, and I thought, ‘This is it. I found it. I’m home, this is where I need to be.’” At the time, the neighborhood consisted mostly of the Pencil Factory and Brouwerij Lane, “but it had a buzz,” Paulie says. “I knew it, that this neighborhood was going to become something.”
So following the success of the pizza tasting with Adam from Slice, and his newly found investors, paired with his home equity loan, Paulie Gee was ready. And he had his sites on the space on Franklin Street at Greenpoint Avenue that was vacant but didn’t have a For Lease sign on it. “So I did the stupidest thing you could ever do,” says Paulie. “I tracked down the landlord and told him I wanted to rent his space. Not a good idea.”
But soon they came to a deal. And almost exactly two years from when he pulled those first hot pies out of his backyard pizza oven Paulie Gee signed the lease for his pizzeria in Greenpoint. “No offense to those of you who live in Williamsburg, and drink a little too much,” he says. “But somebody told me that Greenpoint is where people in Williamsburg go when they grow up.”
Needless to say, over the years Paulie Gee’s restaurant has significantly contributed to the ever-growing food culture of the neighborhood. And the neighborhood has supported Paulie Gee’s growth and success as well. Short of a couple thousand pens with the restaurant’s logo, Paulie has never spent money on marketing or advertising. What began as a backyard obsession grew into a neighborhood destination and now a nationwide franchise expansion. But it took Greenpoint to make that happen.
“I love Greenpoint,” Paulie says. “People wanted me to succeed. And coming to this neighborhood, people wanted a place to call their own. And that was very important.”
Part V: Franchise Expansion will be published here on Friday.