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Sarah Krathen On The Rebirth Of Restaurant Service

Sarah Krathen started out as a barker in Key West, bringing customers into restaurants from the sidewalk. She went on to culinary school to be trained as a chef, but found herself drawn to front-of-house service, eventually opening Sorella restaurant in New York with her partner Emma Hearst. After Sorella closed in 2014, Krathen went on to run operations for restaurateur Ariel Arce until the pandemic made her rethink her career. Now in 2022, she’s director of operations for food and beverage at the new Hoxton Williamsburg hotel in NYC, including three restaurants created in collaboration between Chicago’s Boka Group and Philadelphia’s CookNSolo. The first of these, Laser Wolf—modeled after the first version in Philly—is now open.

Before the pandemic, I was working with Ariel Arce. I was the director of operations for her properties, handling Niche Niche, Tokyo Record Bar, and Air’s Champagne Parlor. After lockdown, I stayed with her. It was just the two of us pivoting. We were a retail store one week. We tried to do takeout. We did all of the things. I started cooking a lot. We were selling my lasagna once a week as a “Netflix and Chill” package. I got really into cooking again.

When we went back officially, and it was outdoor dining only—the restaurant scene, working in service, just didn’t feel good. I never signed up to be a cop. I’ve never argued with a guest in my entire career until I had to argue with a guest about wearing a mask. I had to tell people what they couldn’t do, and we had a timeline in which we had to be out and done by a certain time. There was so much pressure.

Owning a restaurant already has so much pressure. I had owned my own restaurant with Sorella. My partner there Emma and I have talked since, like, “What do you think we would have done during this?” And I’m like, “Emma, we would have had to close. We wouldn’t have made it.” I pity people who owned restaurants during the pandemic. I’ve only gone back to restaurants and feeling a sense of normalcy recently.

Back then, I had the feeling I would never go back into the industry in that capacity. I wasn’t going to be in service. It didn’t feel the same. I decided I wanted to focus on something different. My partner Ashley Santoro and I opened a little sandwich pop-up. She owns a wine shop called Leisir in Chinatown. There was a pizza place that had gone under next door, so we negotiated a short-term lease for eight months, and we operated a little pop-up out of there. That was L’itos. I left Niche Niche and Ariel to do that.

It was fun to try to do something on the other side of food. I’ve always loved cooking. My service story, and the reason that I wanted to be front of the house versus back of the house, was that I wanted to tell the story well. But I always wanted to have a good connection with the back of the house. My takeaway from culinary school was like, “You do all this, and then you hand the plate to someone else, and they get all the credit.”

We had fun. We had a really good following. We did some really great collaborations. I made a lot of friends along the way. And I love sandwiches. I ate a lot of sandwiches for eight months, which is really bad and good for me.

When L’itos came to an end, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I had talked with Mike Solomonov a bunch during the pandemic. I’d done a dinner where we did Israeli food, and he Facetimed me and taught me how to make pita over the phone. My family is in South Jersey and Philadelphia, and he’s always been someone that I try to connect with any time I’m in the ‘hood.

Sarak Krathen at Laser Wolf in New York. Photo: Dane Isaac.

I was going back for my nephew’s second birthday in April 2021—we were supposed to get together for his first birthday, but it got canceled for you know what—and I reached out to Mike like, “Hey, maybe we can get a coffee or something.” And he was like, “Why don’t you come play boss at Zahav?” What does that mean to Mike Solomonov? He showed me around and then he’s like, “All right, you got this,” and just walked away. It was crazy.

After my stage shift or whatever I was doing, he asked me, “So, what do you want to do? What are you thinking?” And I was like, “My god, Mike. I really don’t know. This has been really weird. I just want to work with good people. That’s all I want.”

Mike said, “Well, I have this thing I’m working on, but you can’t tell anyone.” And he told me about this project in Williamsburg, and then he connected me with Gabe Garza, who’s the president of the Hoxton division for Boka Group, and we started our conversations around May of last year. At the same time, I had dined at Francie, and John Winterman was like, “Please help me. I need any help.” So I was helping them out as a captain on the floor a few nights a week.

After I met with Gabe and talked with Kevin Boehm from Boka, they offered me the position for the Hoxton, and I’ve been on board with them since July, trying to get this thing open. I’m the director of operations for all the food and beverage that will exist in the Hoxton. Our first concept launch will be Laser Wolf, and we have two following in the hotel that will also be with Mike Solomonov.

When they brought me on in July 2021, it was because they thought we would be open by August. We’ve had some complications—all the things that everyone’s experiencing, plus some others. Supply chain and changing our hood system. It wasn’t a big construction project, but it was live-fire cooking, which I have learned is very complicated. There’s a lot of nozzle talk, and what kind of nozzles, and did we do the right nozzles? There’s also a very small number of live-fire inspectors, as opposed to other inspectors within the fire department. I have become friendly with the local city council. I’m doing things that I never really thought would come into play for my career, but I’m still loving it. I have never wanted to do this more, I’ve never felt more supported, I’ve never felt safer, and I’ve never wanted to do a better job.

I feel like this is a rebirth of the industry. It’s like whatever was going on before doesn’t apply anymore. Yeah, I’m opening a new restaurant and there’s the excitement of that, but I feel like I’m a part of a new industry, and that the people that are in it now, more than ever, have really chosen to stay and do this. It was always a choice, especially choosing management, or choosing to be back of the house. Those choices have a lot of pressure and a lot of struggle in them. This is New York. You’re paid to live off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but you work in an industry where you’re going to go out and eat the most expensive meals that you shouldn’t, whenever you can.

I’ve taken a different approach in the sense that I have a newfound patience and appreciation, and I allow everyone access to me. I have a big title—the biggest I’ve ever had. That is a huge job for me. But the food runners know me. They know my dog. I try to keep a strong connection with people. I believe in growth and the importance of growing a team more than ever. Sometimes I think about the things I used to think and say, and the things that my mentors have said to me, like, “Everyone’s replaceable. Never be attached.” I want to be attached now. I don’t want to replace people—I want to grow people. I want to present them with opportunities.

I want to see a restaurant that actually has the same team for over a year. My first job in New York was at Zoe, and it was a restaurant that had been open for a long time. There were servers on the floor that had been there for ten years. I haven’t seen anything like that since. People used to do this job as a career. After everything that’s happened, if they’re still doing this, they’ve chosen to. I want to see what we can do with that.