Henry Rich took his first step into the restaurant world in 2010, during the same week he sold his first venture, a specialty breath mints company that he’d spent the previous seven years building.
“It was a really cool experience – we managed to grow it into an international company,” he mused. “But we had a limit. The industry is run by 100-year-old giants. We couldn’t outcompete them.”
The week they sold, Rich found a restaurant space up for rent, called the landlord, and jumped right in. Asked about his risk tolerance, he chuckles. “High to existential.” That first restaurant, Rucola, an intimate space serving northern Italian food, opened in 2011. Fast forward seven years, Rich is now a partner in several beloved food and beverage projects around Brooklyn, including Nowadays, an indoor and outdoor club and restaurant, co-owned by Eamon Harkin and Justin Carter, the duo behind longstanding dance parties Mister Saturday Night and Mister Sunday; June, a natural wine bar in Cobble Hill; Fitzcarraldo, a Ligurian-inspired restaurant in East Williamsburg; and Mettā, a buzzy, new, carbon-neutral asado-style restaurant helmed by a Francis Mallmann alum.
All of Rich’s projects are community-centric hotspots, with a keen eye towards operating responsibly. While sustainability is still an afterthought for a vast majority of the restaurant industry, Rich builds his projects with impact at the forefront. We caught up with him to learn more about his approach to creating neighborhood spaces that last.
I’ve always loved restaurants. I grew up in a time before cell phones – when I was a kid, people knew that if they needed to reach me, they had a better shot by calling the neighborhood bookstore and coffee shop than by calling my house. Home wasn’t the most comfortable place for most of my childhood, so I spent a lot of time eating and hanging out in public spaces. Having those growing up was really important to me – that’s probably why I spend time creating cozy public spaces now.
How does a restaurant become a community space?
I always want a restaurant to be in conversation with the community it serves. That’s why they’re all different. The first and most important decision is around location – that often defines your community. All of our restaurants are part of neighborhoods that have their own infrastructure, grocery stores, attitude, and culture. We first work to create spaces that speak to their blocks then work to create experiences that become a part of people’s everyday lives. That perspective informs a lot of our decisions. You can’t be overly baroque if you want to be a part of someone’s everyday life. That mentality also speaks to food – it has to be healthy, and it has to be affordable. We always go for simple and fundamental.
One of your newest projects, Mettā, has ambitions of being carbon neutral and producing no food waste. Not many restaurants across the world are aiming at these goals. Why are you?
In business, because the goal is often to have as much money after operating as possible, “optional” decisions like being environmentally-conscious and responsible are the first to go. We think if you need to destroy the environment to make money, you’re better off just doing nothing and no harm. We’ve been buying 100 percent renewable energy across our restaurants for a while now, and with Mettā, we take it to another level by being extremely thoughtful about our ingredients and using them to the fullest extent as well as investing in methane traps among other projects to reduce our carbon footprint.
Across our restaurants, we serve over 100,000 people over the course of the year. We’re still small, but our decisions have impact – and most certainly impact the communities we serve.
We aren’t being community-minded if we’re externalizing our costs of doing business. Most people don’t think about this often, but food is literally an extractive industry. I think there’s a particular onus on business leaders who are in extractive industries to figure out how to at least neutralize their impact.
My hope is that we, along with other community leaders creating economic activity, will set an example and start to change the ethical norms, so that in the near future, it becomes unusual not to be a carbon-neutral business.