Floating Oyster Bar Tests Owners’ Mettle

Via The Wall Street Journal, written by Sophia Hollander:

Brothers behind Grand Banks navigate the perils of running a restaurant docked in Hudson River Park.
Tides riled the opening week of Grand Banks, an oyster bar docked in Hudson River Park. As the current ripped at the moorings three summers ago, the owners remembered flinging themselves on the ropes to stabilize the historic boat.
And then a customer called out. “I’ve been waiting an hour for my table,” she said. “What’s going on?”
It was an early lesson in running a New York City restaurant for the two brothers, Alexander and Miles Pincus, behind Grand Banks. But it was far from the only learning curve.
In addition to hosting a restaurant, the boat operates as a nonprofit, also run by the Pincus brothers, dedicated to maritime education and restoring historic vessels. It is all crammed into a 142-foot schooner built more than 70 years ago that degrades daily, requiring about $200,000 of annual maintenance, according to the brothers.
“Most people don’t have the problem that their restaurant changes height,” said Alexander Pincus, 40 years old. “We have to do all the boat stuff right so it has no interference with any of the other things that need to go right.”
Some customers still ask if they can stop the boat from bobbing in the water “like we’re at Disney World,” said his brother Miles, 37. “It’s not a ride, it’s an experience.”
This summer, the brothers got another reminder of the perils of operating a floating restaurant when plans to open a second boat in Brooklyn Bridge Park fell through.
“We spent months renovating a beautiful historic ship, designing and building a restaurant on board, creating a new menu, hiring and training staff,” Alexander said. The park has been supportive of their work, he said, but the marina has yet to be completed.
Brooklyn Bridge Park and One15 Brooklyn Marina, the company contracted to manage and build the dock, declined to comment.
The brothers grew up in New Orleans, where their father ran a hotel and oyster bar. They started sailing as children, and Miles refurbished and sold boats as a teenager.
After they moved to New York, Alexander read about the area’s oyster history. He was captivated by the oyster barges, like floating saloons, around lower Manhattan, giving it the name Oyster Row.
“I got fixated on this idea,” he said. “How beautiful it was and how wild it was and how everybody ate on boats.”
As they began to search for a site, Hudson River Park told the brothers there wasn’t space for an oyster barge, but there was an open berth for a historic ship. They went out and got one.
“They were fast,” said Madelyn Wils, president and chief executive of Hudson River Park.
The boat, the Sherman Zwicker, was built in Nova Scotia in 1942 to fish in the waters known as the Grand Banks. For decades it had been run and maintained by volunteers.
“We realized that our volunteer crew had an average age of about 70, and the vessel was not getting any younger,” said Bob Ryan, executive director of Grand Banks Schooner Museum Trust in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. “This couldn’t go on forever.”
Mr. Ryan’s group donated the boat to the nonprofit created by the Pincus brothers, called the Maritime Foundation, which hosts educational lectures and tours. In the small hold, they stage exhibitions featuring maritime history. Since the boat is an extension of the park in season, the public can sit in the restaurant without ordering anything.
This year, they expanded their partnership with the Billion Oyster Project, which is seeking to repopulate New York’s waterways. Grand Banks donates used oyster shells to the organization—which cleans the shells and uses them to grow a new generation of bivalves—and hosts an oyster-monitoring station off the side of the ship.
Kerry Heffernan, a former Eleven Madison Park chef who has also done work with the Environmental Defense Fund, said he was attracted to work on the 70-seat boat-restaurant because of his interest in sustainable seafood. At Grand Banks he took striped bass off the menu and pays fishermen more for less popular breeds like porgy and bluefish.
“Thankfully our guests come aboard, and they’re very willing to listen to what we have to say and what we want to demonstrate,” Mr. Heffernan said. “They’re the choir.”
Having that kind of platform was enticing enough to overcome the constraints of preparing food on a boat.
All the cooking is electric, since open flames are prohibited. The brothers rebuilt all the tables after discovering that water condensation on the oyster trays caused them to slide right off.
With their partner Adrien Gallo, the brothers learned to calculate every power use down to a single charging cellphone. Their first year, when someone turned on an unauthorized fan during a hot summer night, the power went out.
That fall, the heaters couldn’t operate the same time as the fryer. When they ran low on simple syrup one Saturday and an employee tried to make more, the extra burner blew the circuits.
“We quickly realized how important it is for everyone to holistically understand how the systems work,” Miles said. If not, he added, “everything melts down.”