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Hipster Pizza Joint Goes Corporate

Will new ownership of Roberta’s, Brooklyn’s decidedly anti-establishment eatery, spoil its recipe for success?

The rumors started swirling late last winter, sweeping across Brooklyn like a cool breeze before a storm. Roberta’s—the two Michelin–starred Bushwick pizza joint founded in 2008 by two musicians and a cook, whose post-apocalyptic utopia of Christmas lights and pogo sticks, cinder-block walls and razor wire–enclosed garden came to define the borough’s brand of hipster haute cuisine—had been racked with problems.

Among them was a private–turned–public feud over the pizzeria’s future and potential expansion between founding owners Chris Parachini (the enterprise’s original leader), Brandon Hoy (its manager and DJ) and Carlo Mirarchi (its chef). Parachini parted ways with his former friends and partners last winter (resulting in a million-dollar legal battle, according to the New York Times), but a bigger conflict had already begun to simmer. According to local gossip, the restaurant, known as much for its food as for its club-like culture (“It was never a surprise when the person I was working with showed up drunk, or had been up all night tripping on acid,” former Roberta’s cook Gabe McMackin told the Times in March), was about to undergo a significant management change.

The exterior of Roberta’s in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
Photo by Adam Kuban/Flickr

In May, the website Eater.com reported what many regulars and employees already knew: Michael Tisch, a member of the billionaire dynastic family best known for its luxurious Loews hotel corporation and for co-owning the New York Giants, had met Mirarchi in 2015 and subsequently decided to make a significant financial investment in Roberta’s. The exact size and nature of Tisch’s involvement is still undisclosed, but a community board meeting in May revealed that a stipulation of the deal is an executive turnover: Reportedly, Mirarchi will maintain his current ownership stake—apparently 12.5 percent of Roberta’s—and Hoy (the remaining original partner following Parachini’s exit) will leave the company once the deal closes.

By the time Mirarchi confirmed the news, the idea of Tisch—an Ivy League–educated, suit–and–tie type—involving himself in Roberta’s had already driven out “20 or more employees,” according to a former staff member who worked at Roberta’s for several years. The insider says the number is now closer to 30, but it’s “hard to know for sure [what the final tally will be] since so many people are on their way out the door.”

Signage in Roberta’s outdoor seating space.

The resistance to Mirarchi’s decision to bring in Tisch and his recently-formed company, Chorus Hospitality, didn’t  necessarily stem from opposition to the type of business growth their presence might inspire. By the time Mirarchi and Tisch met, signs of the restaurateur’s expansionistic desires had long been evident. In 2013, the pizzeria put out a cookbook, Roberta’s Cookbook, and there were whispers of a second location opening in Los Angeles. A year later, as branded frozen pizzas appeared at select Whole Foods across New York City, rumors of an outpost in an upcoming Ace Hotel on Manhattan’s Lower East Side had begun to swirl. And, in 2015, a Roberta’s booth opened in the Urbanspace Vanderbilt food court, by Grand Central Terminal. It was clear the little eatery had ambitions beyond Bushwick. 

The resistance, rather, was to corporate involvement. With the introduction of Tisch, long-time employees feared an obliteration of the culture—a blend of intense creativity and laidback partying—the restaurant had become synonymous with. They worried a deluge of capital would mean new rules and regulations and, consequently, a thinning of the brand. (Many of them have since left and signed non-disclosure agreements.) As the former staff member tells it, their fears were not unfounded: “The change was almost immediate, and it came from [Mirarchi],” the one-time employee says. “He told the staff we had to shape up. We knew  he was really excited about this deal, but it didn’t seem like he was really excited about what we as a whole brought to [Roberta’s] anymore.” 

Mirarchi insists this isn’t the case. “I can’t even tell you how many hours of conversation [I’ve had] about [...] how important the culture of this place [was], and how important it was to us personally [...]. This place is my life,” he told Eater.com after news of the Tisch partnership broke. (Representatives for Roberta’s and a publicist for the Tisch family did not respond to a request for comment for this piece).

For all those “hours of conversation,” the insider says that, while Mirarchi and Tisch (who has become a fixture at the eatery) have made their general plans clear, specific information is still hard to come by. Employees feel like they’re “out of the loop” and are “walking on eggshells,” atypical sentiments for what had always been a very close staff. “It’s like, ‘Can we do this anymore? Can we do that?’” says the former employee. “Things that have been the norm for years now seem like they’re not okay.”

The pizza oven in the restaurant’s take-out area.

But a source close to Mirarchi counters that many staffers jumped the gun too soon, without waiting to see what positive developments the new arrangement might bring. The source affirms Mirarchi is “very conscious” of preserving Roberta’s culture, as demonstrated by his reluctance to replicate it wholesale (none of the rumored second locations have materialized), which, the source continues, would just “water down what Roberta’s essentially is.”

Instead, the source suggests that Tisch’s involvement could help Mirarchi explore “new restaurants influenced by Roberta’s, as well as more product expansion, like the frozen pizzas that came long before [Tisch] was even in the picture.” These ideas aren’t new, the source adds. “[Mirarchi] just has some money now to make them a reality.” This speculation seems in line with Chorus Hospitality’s mission. Its website touts the company as a hospitality-focused management partner with a portfolio of support services to help bring original culinary concepts to market.

Still, many employees can’t shake their unease at the hyper-corporate Chorus Hospitality’s majority stake in a restaurant founded on a lark, in the middle of a recession, by a group of friends with a pizza oven, a lot of stamina and not much else. Their work hard, play hard attitude created a dining experience unlike any other: a graffiti-filled, booze-fueled, Michelin-starred party both patrons and staff thought would never end. It turns out, the one-time employee worries, they may have been wrong. “[Roberta’s] can’t be the same,” says the former staffer. “It just won’t ever be now.” 

Still life photograph by Jen Mortensen

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