Rumble in Central Park: Who Will Get LeRoy’s Tavern?
Manhattan’s top-grossing independently owned eatery has been getting a yummy deal for a while. The city wants to change that
The Observer 05/22/07
by Chris Shott
More than a quarter-century ago, the legendary restaurateur Warner LeRoy outfitted Tavern on the Green with some $10 million worth of bling.
What would you do with the city’s most glorified concession stand?
The Parks Department will soon be sifting through proposals. Its existing contract with LeRoy’s family expires on Dec. 31, 2009, and within a year from now, the right to run what is perhaps Manhattan’s most sacred eatery goes up for grabs. A formal request for proposals is expected in early 2008.
Under the present terms, the contract would likely rank among the sweetest deals in Manhattan retail by modern rental standards—if it were a lease, which it’s technically not; it’s a license agreement. “You’re not allowed to lease park land, unless it’s an act of the State Legislature,” noted Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe.
Under the terms of this agreement, reached in 1985, the LeRoy family currently pays the city only 3.5 percent of gross revenues—roughly $1.2 million out of more than $38 million in sales in 2006. With the iconic Tavern measuring in at a sprawling 27,000 square feet, that works out to just $44 per square foot annually.
The fee, though, is expected to rise substantially. “Central Park has improved a great deal over the last 25 years,” Mr. Benepe explained. “The improvement of the park has increased the value of concessions dramatically.”
Both the restaurant and the park were in starkly different shape back when Warner LeRoy negotiated those terms with the city.
“When Warner and the city first struck a deal, nobody wanted the place; it was falling apart, rat-infested,” said LeRoy family spokeswoman Shelley Clark.
Only after two years’ worth of renovations following the LeRoys’ mid-1970’s takeover did Tavern come to resemble the glimmering, palatial concession stand it is today.
Officials are now anticipating a rate more in line with that of another Central Park eatery, the Boathouse, which renewed operations under new terms back in 2000. Under that deal, the city receives around 16 percent, amounting to $2.3 million out of $14.5 million in sales, according to the Parks Department.
“They’re paying us twice as much in cash, even though the gross receipts at the Boathouse are less than half at Tavern on the Green,” noted Mr. Benepe, who cautioned, however, that the city is not set on any specific sum for the forthcoming Tavern deal. “I don’t think we’re going to set a number; we want to see how the market responds.”
Despite the expected price hike, officials are preparing for a baronial bidding battle. Tavern on the Green is still the top-grossing independently owned restaurant in Manhattan and is presently ranked No. 2 nationwide, according to industry trade magazine Restaurants & Institutions.
“We certainly hope there is [a bidding war],” Mr. Benepe told The Observer. “We’re planning already.”
All the “top people in the dining business” are potential players, said Mr. Benepe, who mentioned both the Boathouse’s Dean Poll and Danny Meyer of Shake Shack fame as “good concessionaires” who could possibly compete.
At least one celebrity-death-match-style showdown pitting two iconic Manhattan families is already shaping up: tough-talking, big-building tycoon Donald Trump vs. pony-riding eatery heiress Jennifer Oz LeRoy.
Mr. Trump announced his intentions during a March interview with the New York Post, alleging that the legendary restaurant had “suffered greatly” since Ms. LeRoy took over from her father. Albeit not particularly known for his culinary expertise, Mr. Trump is at least well versed in the ways of the Parks Department. He presently operates two skating rinks in Central Park.
Ms. LeRoy, meanwhile, entered the family restaurant business at age 19, washing dishes; within three years, she was managing both Tavern on the Green and the Russian Tea Room. Under the now 27-year-old C.E.O.’s direction, Tavern last year raked in its highest sales total since at least 1998.
“We know what it takes to run the place, and nobody else does,” said Ms. LeRoy’s publicist, Ms. Clark.
The operation presently entails a staff of 525 churning out nearly 700,000 meals annually. Its six dining rooms can hold up to 1,500 patrons at a time.
“It’s a very old building. The upkeep alone is a pricey little enterprise,” noted Ms. Clark.
Ms. LeRoy has vowed to maintain her father’s beloved eatery. She declined to discuss strategy.
“This looming deadline has been thought about for a long time,” said Ms. Clark. “The LeRoy family certainly does not want to lose the lease and is certainly going to do everything in their power to get a renewal.”