A Lasting Brooklyn Moon
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By Olivier Stephenson
When Mike Thompson opened Brooklyn Moon Café, an intimate roughly 30-seat-capacity eatery in January 1995, the Fort Greene community where it’s located at 745 Fulton Street, was nothing close to what it looks like today.
While Fort Greene’s transformation didn’t actually take place overnight to an itinerant onlooker who has not been to the neighborhood in some two decades, the perception of the place can leave one feeling not so much as an alien but downright alienated.
Fort Greene has been transformed into something that is simply a remote shadow of its former appearance. While it seems to look the same, the changes abound all around. It now has a somewhat closer resemblance to Greenwich Village in ambience. And all the stores, boutiques, bars, restaurants and refurbished residences reflect a new age in New York’s ever-changing face. In the case of Fort Greene and many of the surrounding neighborhoods have mostly given way to gentrification, or what otherwise could be deemed a “systematic urban renewal”.
In recalling the years before the big transformation, according to Thompson, the community was “99% black”. Says he: “There was a lower income [of residents], there were a lot of artists in the area – the area changed over after the Vietnam War and the sailors were all around here and there were a lot of bars and drugs and the sex trade … and there were the [white] people who took flight from Brooklyn in the early ‘60s to Long Island … they’re just coming back.”
From its inception, the Fort Greene area was always diverse and Thompson thinks it is always going to remain that way.
And he adds: “I knew it was a good neighborhood, with its proximity to the city, there’re two bridges, the Long Island Rail Road, it could take you to the beach, to the airport, it’s in the middle of everything. Why wouldn’t it be a good neighborhood? There’s Brooklyn Heights right here. So I believe in it that’s why I wanted to open up in this neighborhood.”
As a businessman, Thompson received his early training in the food business starting out as a waiter working at the American Festival Cafe in Rockefeller Center at a time when he couldn’t find another job he was hoping to get in Manhattan.
“In Rockefeller Center they have an ice-skating rink, so in the summertime they [usually] have to hire, like, 200 waiters and fill the rink with tables and make money out there that way,” Thompson recalls. “In the fall they [would] fire 90% of [the waiters] but if you were good they would keep you – so they kept me.”
At the time, he was told by his boss that he should stay on because Christmastime was a good period to be working there. As it turned out, he wound up working as a waiter at the restaurant for six years. Throughout that time he bankrolled his money he earned in tips, in which he amassed around $40,000.
Thompson found the space for his restaurant through a friend who owned an antique store at the corner of the same block where it is now located, and mentioned that he wanted to open a coffee bar. His friend asked him if he wanted he could get him the lease on the property. “So, I said, ‘sure’, I didn’t believe him, but the next day he got the lease for me.” The lease was for $850.
“I took every penny I had and dumped it into this,” Thompson says. “When I was done renovating, landlord fees and what have you, I had a $100 dollars to my name. So, I figured if I could make a hundred bucks a day by myself in here – that’s $3,000 a month – I could make it. The first day I made about $146 dollars, I opened in the evening and things started getting better and better. People told me poetry brought people in.”
Not before long, Brooklyn Moon soon established a reputation for its poetry open mike sessions. “I went from there on guts and glory, I made mistakes along the way, I’ve had divine help come by and make things become better again,” Thompson allows.
But there was a time, however, when he was so backed up with bills, coupled with the frustration of “not knowing what I was doing”, in addition to being $12,000 dollars in debt the first year, making admitted mistakes while still learning the business. Through all his angst, he says, out of the blue a female filmmaker approaches him about shooting a movie on location in the café. He made $12,000 from the shoot and he was out of the hole and back on track.
Inside Brooklyn Moon there is a distinct ongoing clamor from the subway below Fulton Street and from the patrons inside, melding with the cacophony of traffic from the street that dapples the cool spring air. Does this affect his business?
“Not really,” Thompson proffers casually. “I mean, it’s therapy to listen to it.” The vibes of the restaurant he says is engaging enough that the street noises are not ultimately intrusive. But as an added means of reinforcement, he’s placed plants outside to help as soundproofing.
And who have been some of his patrons so far? Erykah Badu, Chris Rock, Amiri Baraka, Mos Def (now better known as Yasiin Bey), Nelson George, among many others. And photos of some of these celebs are in the works to soon adorn all the walls.
Originally from Barbados, and while the cuisine offered in the café is a potpourri of different flavors speckled with some Caribbean including jerk chicken wings, Thompson plans to include a more Barbadian-style cooking to the mix. And while he used to do the cooking himself, he’s handed over those chores to his little brother.
“Now that I’m getting everything restructured and in place, I’m out of the kitchen … I’ve taught him how to cook, and he’s doing very well with it.” With a current roster of five staff members, Thompson says he’ll soon have to increase his staff.
As for all the bars and like establishments in the area, Thompson says he doesn’t feel any competition from anyone.
“You compete with yourself,” he declares. “You want something beautiful to happen you have to do something, you cannot do nothing and expect to change. You have to do better things to attract more. It’s not about the money, it’s about the people that come in.”