The Grand Central Oyster Bar Inc.
The Grand Central Oyster Bar Inc. (Oyster Bar) has been a New York City landmark for more than 100 years. Located in the lower level of the historic Grand Central Terminal, Oyster Bar has emerged over the years as one of the city’s top-notch seafood restaurants, known for an abundance of fresh, seasonal offerings. In addition to an ever-evolving menu of the finest seafood on the market, Oyster Bar also boasts a 100 percent employee stock ownership plan (ESOP). Therefore, the restaurant is comprised of a team of individuals who truly care about customer service and the future glory of the establishment, and Oyster Bar’s customers are reaping the benefits.
Oyster Bar boasts the elegance and ambiance of a fine dining restaurant combined with the cool, casual atmosphere of a hip eatery all rolled into one. From a classic sit-down dining room to a busy spiral counter perfect for a quick bite, Oyster Bar has something for everyone.
“We offer over 30 varieties of oysters, up to 20 varieties of fish, 70 wines by the glass and 400 by the bottle,” says Mohammed Lawal, vice president of Oyster Bar. “You can go anywhere in the city and you won’t find that variety. If you want to spend $10.00 to $15.00 you can, or $300.00 to $400.00; it’s possible.”
The focus is on a menu that highlights fresh, seasonal ingredients. “Our executive chef and vice president, Sandy Ingber, goes to the local fish market every day,” shares Janet Poccia, president and controller of Oyster Bar. “We have the luxury of changing our menu daily based on what’s best at market.”
Janet is proud to reveal some of Oyster Bar’s favorite summer menu items. “Herring is one of our most popular summer dishes,” she says. “We get it once a year, fresh from Holland. It’s only in season for about three weeks, starting in June, but we get first choice of the fleet.”
“We’re also adding soft shell crab, stone crab claws and fresh salmon to the summer menu,” adds Mohammed. “These items won’t be on the menu forever, but it’s all part of the seasonal rotation.”
Rebirth and a Chance at Renewed Success
Surprisingly enough, New York City’s Midtown Oyster Bar wasn’t always the gem it is today. The original Oyster Bar was founded in 1913. When the new Grand Central Terminal opened the same year, people from all over flocked to see the engineering marvel and Oyster Bar enjoyed nearly 60 years of initial success.
The decline of the long-haul passenger train system drew the downfall of Oyster Bar. “For a number of years the restaurant was left abandoned,” recalls Janet. “It was a dark and dirty mess until Jerome Brody purchased Oyster Bar in 1974; he was able to restore the restaurant, bringing it back to its original grandeur.”
As Oyster Bar got a second chance at success, so did several of its now longtime employees. “I was walking down 42nd street right outside of Grand Central when a man approached me and said he had the perfect job for me,” reveals Janet. “It turns out he was from a recruiting organization looking to set me up with a job at Oyster Bar. I owe him a great deal of thanks for setting me up with this wonderful career.”
Janet has now been with Oyster Bar going on 24 years. Mohammed has also been with the restaurant for nearly a quarter-century and notes that he is a living example of the American Dream. “This was my first job when I came to the U.S.,” Mohammed says. “I started at Oyster Bar as a dishwasher in 1990 and I eventually climbed my way to the top of the ladder.”
There’s no doubt about it, Oyster Bar leaves a lasting impression on customers and employees alike. Janet reveals that many employees have stayed with the restaurant for numerous years. “Sandy has also been with us for about 24 years,” adds Janet. “My general manager, who we promoted from within, has been with us for about seven years and my sous chefs for 10 to 12 years. Once people are on board we have them thinking more like owners than just employees, because they are.”
The company’s ESOP began in 1999, when Oyster Bar purchased 49 percent of the company from Brody. By 2004 Oyster Bar was under complete employee ownership. “We’re a very small ESOP, comprised of approximately 13 members: non-union and management only,” details Janet. “We offer extensive information about the benefits of ESOP. It’s about getting everyone really involved and showing them that they do have a part and a say in this company. I think it really pulls everyone together.”
“We have great senior management so things don’t fall apart,” adds Mohammed. “Our managers know they sometimes need to step back and think about how to improve things and keep us profitable; they have a huge sense of responsibility.”
After nearly 14 years of employee ownership the shareholders at Oyster Bar have grown and matured into expert company managers, but not without some legal guidance from the restaurant’s trusted adviser Steiker, Fischer, Edwards & Greenapple, P.C. (SFEG). SFEG acts as a third-party administrator for the company’s ESOP account, assisting in retirement account planning and allocating shares.
“I’ve been Oyster Bar’s ESOP lawyer for nearly a decade,” shares Steve Greenapple, a partner at SFEG and chairman of the legislative and regulatory committee for the National ESOP Association. “In the beginning, even though Oyster Bar’s management team was highly skilled in running a restaurant, they needed some support to learn how to become effective owner-managers. Since the founding of the ESOP, things have really come full cycle and Oyster Bar’s employees, like Janet and Mohammed, are now expert owners.”
Building on 100 Years
Oyster Bar has a great deal to celebrate in 2013 as the restaurant turns 100 years old, marking a century of tradition and new ventures like the ESOP. “For our birthday we joined the American Cancer Society and the Alzheimer’s Association to host a private buffet-style dinner to raise money for both organizations,” reveals Janet. “We’ve been doing this event for about three years now and it’s a huge success.”
Mohammed is proud to note that the restaurant is also looking forward to its annual Oyster Frenzy. “This event is in late September 2013,” he says. “We shut down the whole restaurant for a day to celebrate the oyster. There’s live music, great food and even a shucking competition where the winner takes home a big prize. It attracts people from all over.”
As Oyster Bar welcomes a new century of continued success, Janet and Mohammed reflect on its rich history and the development of an employee-owned establishment that will carry on a tradition for years to come. The Grand Central Oyster Bar Inc. remains a New York City landmark devoted to serving the finest quality seafood supported by invested employees.
For more information about The Grand Central Oyster Bar Inc., please visit: www.oysterbarny.com.