Organic in the Heights

By Antonio Viveros

pick and eat 2

Pick & Eat is at 177th Street and Broadway in Washington Heights.
Photo by Antonio Viveros

Many restaurants featuring organic food have sprouted around New York City, often in middle-class, wealthy neighborhoods or commercial areas. Pick & Eat’s owner chose an unlikely location to open, on the corner of 177th Street and Broadway in Washington Heights.

Amid the largest concentration of Dominicans in the city and a great many Dominican restaurants,  why would the residents of Washington Heights, a working-class neighborhood, consider paying $15 to $20 for lunch, when less-expensive food is available at $5 to $8 just across the street? Pick & Eat’s owner and manager, Alex Peralta, a native Dominican, is determined to challenge the status quo.

The restaurant opened in 2011, and some residents view it as a wild gamble.

Maria Lopez, who lives on 176th Street and Broadway, is a frequent customer at Pick & Eat, and said (in Spanish), “The neighborhood has been changing dramatically.” Juan Lerma, another frequent customer, works at a nearby bakery and said (in Spanish) the clientele “is getting more whiter and more educated” and that “the tips are better!”

Pick & Eat would have not been possible without the great shift in demographics. According to the Census Bureau’s Community Survey of 2011, the median income of a three-block radius around Pick & Eat is upward of $60,000, significantly higher than two blocks to the south or north. There are huge income disparities in Washington Heights, reflecting both gentrification and a more highly educated population. The area’s relatively low rents and quick subway service to Midtown on the A train have attracted many young professionals.

“I saw people moving in and not out, I saw it in people’s faces and you could tell they are educated people, white, black and Hispanic,” says Peralta.

Census data shows that the number of neighborhood residents with bachelor’s degrees has increased 39% since 2000, while the number enrolled in college is up to 52% of the population from 15%.

Nonetheless, Pick & Eat might be ahead of its time. Still, it has 300 followers on Twitter, mostly positive reviews on Yelp.com and hundreds of check-ins on FourSquare.

Customers can eat, drink and watch sports games at this unique organic outpost.  Photo by Antonio Viveros

Customers can eat, drink and watch sports games at this organic outpost.
Photo by Antonio Viveros

Peralta, 36, a lawyer and personal trainer, decided to go to culinary school after practicing law – to follow “his passion.” He says his idea was to create a restaurant that could combine different spices from his background with a healthy cuisine. His initial idea was to open in Midtown, but with an already saturated market he looked elsewhere, eventually settling on Washington Heights, where he believed he could help the community to eat healthier.

Across the street from Pick & Eat are two mom-and-pop competitors that are open 24 hours a day and have been in existence for more than a decade. Workers there were reluctant to comment, but one waiter who did not want to be named said Pick & Eat is not much of a threat, because it sells to different clientele – the after-club/lounge people who rush to the area for a 4 a.m. meal and those who are looking for a cheap lunch. (Owners of other organic restaurants, such as Flavors in the Wall Street area, declined to speculate about whether they would ever consider opening a restaurant north of 96th Street.)

Selling the food aside, the highest margin items in the restaurant are typically alcoholic drinks, without which most restaurants would not survive. Pick & Eat has secured a liquor license, but only has beer and wine, most of which is organic, on the menu.

Building Pick & Eat was not easy; it took two years to convert the space from a former Papaya Dog to an organic eatery. Peralta persuaded the landlord to give him a year rent-free, in return for which he signed a long-term lease. Part of Peralta’s message is that Pick & Eat is not just a restaurant but a project for his community.

The interior of Pick & Eat is modern and bright.  Photo by Antonio Viveros

The interior of Pick & Eat is modern and bright.
Photo by Antonio Viveros

While Peralta wouldn’t disclose revenue, he said the typical customer spends $15 and that he has about 200 customers a day, along with some catering orders. His goal is 300 customers daily.

Peralta said he relies on word of mouth and social networking tools such as Twitter to promote his business.

“It is always about keeping the customer happy, even if I have to give them 10 times what they order to make them happy, it is always about the next sale and that customer returning,” he said. “It is always about the customer.”

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