You know that spring is on the way in Brooklyn when The Soup Bowl becomes Uncle Louie G's Italian ices.
In mid-March, the sign comes down for the hole-in-a-wall take-out place with a devoted following and a daily selection of some 18 soups, and Uncle Louie G takes its place. The seasonal switch on Seventh Avenue keeps the storefront in the black throughout the year.
A similar change takes place at the Brooklyn Porridge Co. and the Vendome macaron bar, two other Brooklyn spots that turn into Uncle Louie G's Italian ice shops when a frozen treat no longer feels like a cruel joke.
"Today, the way the economy is, it’s a great concept," Uncle Louie G’s Dino Russo said. “This way you earn 12 months out of year."
Richard Gussoff approached Russo five years ago with his plan to offer soup in the Seventh Avenue shop, which until then had closed in November for the winter. Gussoff had sold three restaurants in Manhattan’s theater district not long before — a decision prompted by proposed monthly rent increases of up to $5,000 — and had noticed the shuttered space.
“Soup was always my forte in my restaurants,” he said.
J.P. Eggers, an associate professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, compared the phenomenon to pop-up stores, increasingly popular in high-traffic areas where rents are high. A seasonal shop in a vacation location has little value once visitors go home, but real estate costs remain high for a store in a place like Brooklyn, he noted.
“The idea of leaving it with either no business because it’s closed or with a business that is just not going to make any money at that time of day or in that season just doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “It’s far too valuable a property to do that.”
Uncle Louie G, which also sells ice cream, was started about 20 years by Russo’s brother and sister-in-law. Russo and three friends took it over in 2009 and expanded the company so that today there are nearly 60 outlets throughout the metropolitan New York area and as far as Florida, Oklahoma, California and even Malaysia. The individual stores are owned by license-holders who pay $15,000 and agree to buy ices and ice cream from Uncle Louie G.
Russo was skeptical when Gussoff first came to him, doubtful that he would be able to sell enough soup to afford the space. Each man jotted down a number for the monthly rent on a napkin, and each wrote the same -- $2,000. The Soup Bowl opened.
“I’m not a spiritual person, but if something was meant to be, that was a good sign,” Gussoff said. “They’re happy because I’m paying the rent. It works because in the winter, you don’t really want ice cream except for a few kids, and in the summer you don’t want soup.”
The owners of the Brooklyn Porridge Co., Emily Hannon and Karyn Seltzer, similarly approached Uncle Louie G after spotting an empty store on Union Street. The two had worked together at a corporate restaurant, were fast friends and wanted to offer something to customers with dietary restrictions.
“We started researching porridge, and the whole idea of porridge and discovered it exists in every culture,” Hannon said. “It’s an ancient comfort food.”
Their porridge, gluten- and dairy-free, is made from steel cut oats, grits, amaranth millet or brown rice and is served with savory or sweet toppings, everything from braised red cabbage to wildflower honey.
Hannon and Seltzer hope to keep their restaurant open year-round by finding another location and adding summer items to the menu. They are looking for other ways to expand: making the restaurant replicable and franchising and selling their sauces, compotes and sweet and savory granolas online.
The seasonal store has allowed them to test their ideas without making a large investment, they said.
“It’s been a warm, friendly way to start something, to start a business,” Hannon said.
Vendome on Smith Street is the brainchild of Taryn Garcia, who had studied film and landed at the Food Network after moving from Colorado to New York.
“I wasn’t totally in love working in production, and I just thought, “God, they’re having so much more fun in the kitchen,” she said.
She ended up in Paris studying pastry art and while there noticed the long lines at some of the shops selling macarons, the meringue-based French confections. She knew then she would make them when she returned to the United States.
She and her partner, Adriana Troli, sell their macarons at Saks Fifth Avenue and later this year will open a permanent shop at 1 Brooklyn Bridge Park, the former Jehovah’s Witnesses’ printing plant that has been turned into condominiums.
In the meantime, Garcia found the Uncle Louie G space advertised on Craigslist as a pop-up store for just over $3,000 a month.
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“We looked at the cost to see: How are we going to make money? Will we break even? Is this going to be a loss?” Garcia said. “We decided to go for it.”
In the new store, they will offer not only macarons, but also coffee, some breakfast and lunch foods and maybe even wine and Champagne.
Gussoff said he was not sure what he would do once Uncle Louie G returns next month. His soups are widely popular — his lobster bisque sold out the first day, thanks to the staff of nearby New York Methodist Hospital — but he said he knew business would drop off by 90 percent once the temperatures rise.
Still, his customers return each year, he said.
“There are people that come to us, and they say we're the only thing they like about winter,” he said.