Anna Castellani doesn’t have the fame of a Mario Carbone, Danny Meyer or Keith McNally, but she’s a name you need to know. As the owner and creative mind behind Foragers Market and Foragers Table, the specialty grocery and farm-to-table restaurant in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, and Dekalb Market Hall, the largest food hall in all of Brooklyn – along with The Hugh Food Hall in Midtown, she’s a force to say the least. In May, Castellani opened ANA Bar & Eatery, an all-day restaurant, marketplace and eatery at The Hudson Yards. All of her spots are must-hit destinations whether you’re a local or a tourist.
So, who exactly is this under-the-radar woman, and what makes her tick? In my recent Q&A with Castellani, she shares more.
You’re a restauranteur that’s managed to stay under the radar. Tell us about your start in the field and how you decided to start off on your own.
I started modestly in a small space in DUMBO that I called the DUMBO General Store. I sold art materials, stamps and basically whatever the neighborhood at the time needed. My adventure in food began when I put an espresso machine into that space so I could have good coffee. I moved electrical spools from the Manhattan Bridge repair work down the street to create tables and got folding chairs as people began to hang out in the space. I started to make food and gradually got a liquor license. It all came very naturally. We spent the first five years with no air conditioning and these electrical spools.
Running my own business was a necessity for me. I’d spent a few years working in camera in the movie business and quickly decided I was not cut out for working for other people. But of course, when you have your own company, I have learned that you are, in fact, still working for people.
In a competitive area where restaurants are competing for attention, how do your concepts differentiate themselves?
All of my businesses have come about as I saw a need that needed to be filled in a place that I felt confident I could fill effectively. Restaurants are a combat sport with lots of competitors to fend off all the time and teams of people that come in and out over the years that fight with you (or not). So, it’s critical to be aware of changing economics, demographics, aesthetics and diets.
What lessons can you share about being an entrepreneur?
Obviously, there is already a lot of good information out there about this. The Greeks and Romans are perhaps the most helpful resource in a pinch, as so much of it is mindset. In my case, persistence, perseverance, humor, humility, resilience and a zen-like ability to stay calm in many storms. I was a stubborn, physically strong child. I always needed to learn from my own mistakes, so entrepreneurism was probably my only path.
Can you share some of the business challenges you have faced in the wake of the pandemic and how you have dealt/are dealing with them?
I’m in New York City. The average drop in revenue for all of my businesses was 75%. My food halls were simply shuttered by the state, so zero. My neighborhoods emptied out completely so delivery and things like that made no sense. It was truly a shocking, devastating blow to a heretofore successful business. I permanently closed two locations and might close a third as the population has simply not returned fast enough in my neighborhoods and fixed costs have only risen. Miraculously, no one that worked with me through those years got critically ill which I am eternally grateful.
The projects that have survived, however, are those I have with partners that had the resources to ride out the storm. That was the biggest lesson, don’t be too exposed and spread the risk. On the bright side, the silence of the pandemic months allowed me a rare moment of reflection that helped me develop completely new business plans that have nothing to do with actively operating restaurants. There will be more businesses!
Any advice for people who want a career in the restaurant industry?
In the last twenty years, the restaurant industry has matured and become seriously corporate. To be successful, you need to think of your restaurant not just as a creative entity but as a mini-empire, with HR, legal, regulatory consultants, bookkeepers, healthcare plans, 401ks, etc. Many people now look at the industry as a valid long-term career path and want the security of a larger corporation. This is very difficult for independent restaurants to manage with the ridiculously slim margins of your average operation. I suspect fewer people will open new restaurants as those that do will need substantial backing to handle all of the headwinds.
What is it like being a woman in the restaurant industry? What advantages and disadvantages do you have?
I have never given a thought to being a woman in the industry. I had a strict mom and was sent to an all-girls school at a young age to keep me out of trouble. So you get out of your body and into problem-solving mode. Fixing plumbing issues, being on my feet all day and lifting everything while seriously pregnant was no fun, nor was nursing in the liquor storage room, but I got through it. Exhausted, but I got through it. Physical and mental strength is very important for anyone’s survival in restaurants. I say all of this, but clearly, being the boss helped me. I never had to cope with bizarre, sexist managers or employers.