The Youth of All of Us, with Sean Sant Amour at Blue Ribbon
“Everybody always wonders what’s up with Blue Ribbon and T. Edward Wines,” said Sean Sant Amour. “We started at the same time. The TEW evolution has gone hand in hand with ours. As your book grew, our list grew as well. One of my pivotal wine moments was when Tom invited me on my first wine trip. I was bunking with this guy who wanted to be a photographer and got duped into the wine business by his dad. His name is Rob Sinskey. He tried to explain to me why Pinot Noir is the most noble grape. It was kind of crazy,” he added and laughed.
Working with Bruce and Eric Bromberg since their days at Nick & Eddie’s, Sean was employed as a busboy at the Crystal Room at 97 Sullivan Street, when it closed after a few short months. The Bromberg brothers then called a meeting with the skeletal remains of their staff. “A few beers in, and we’re talking about what we could change to make this work,” said Sean. “Bruce loves telling this story,” he added and laughed. “He tells it much better than I do…There was a small vestibule and a front window that was painted burgundy red. I was going off about how we needed to open up the wall. The story goes that I stood up and put my foot through the wall, and everybody started picking up hammers and within 20 minutes the wall was gone. So that was the end of the Crystal Room and the beginning of Blue Ribbon.”
Like many of us, Sean worked in restaurants when he first arrived to New York, after studying Graphic Design in Illinois. As Bruce and Eric started consulting with friends about logos, Sean sat in and listened. “Finally when I had Bruce and Eric alone, I said, ‘I think I can make a really good logo for you guys, give me a crack at it.’ We had a long talk about it and I went away and did nothing but work on this logo. I had a Marlboro cigarette box, a Budweiser and one other product, I think it was Tabasco. I wanted to create an iconic stamp that would be somewhat timeless and have that very American feel to it. So that’s what I came up with. I made this logo that became the Blue Ribbon logo.”
Once they had Sullivan Street up and running with momentum, as told by James Shrum, the same management company that owns 97 Sullivan approached the brothers with a vacant space down the street at 119 Sullivan. “But the space wasn’t zoned for a commercial kitchen, so you couldn’t have gas,” said Sean.
Dining at their favorite sushi restaurant every Monday night when Blue Ribbon was closed, Eric and Bruce (who lived together with Eric’s wife Ellen until 1998) became good friends with the chef and owner Toshi Ueki. “When the space became available,” said Sean, “they thought we could do sushi here, so they convinced Toshi to sell his business and partner with them and open this space in Soho, where he’s still the head chef and partner.”
After building out Blue Ribbon Sushi, said Sean, “We initially thought that everyone who goes to Blue Ribbon will want to go to Blue Ribbon Sushi, but right away it was clear that the people who went to Blue Ribbon didn’t want to go to Blue Ribbon Sushi. It struggled and was empty for a good year before…it had to build its own clientele.”
The next year, a bodega burnt down at the corner of Bedford and Downing where James was living, and so he brought Eric and Bruce down to visit the site. Seeing it was too small for a restaurant, they investigated the basement, which had been filled in with dirt, a reaction to the ground level that had been raised in midtown, sometime in the 1920’s or 30’s, which caused some problems in lower Manhattan because of the pitch. “So people started filling their basements with dirt,” said Sean. “And the people who owned the bodega were using this dirt basement as a railroad for Latin American immigrants, so it was this cardboard sort of tenement house. They were actually charging people to live on a dirt floor.” It was 1996.
“They went down there with a flashlight with the landlord, and James and Bruce saw this hole in the wall near the floor. He flashed inside and knew immediately that it was an oven, an ancient stone oven.” And ever since Bruce had been the only American to apprentice at the Boulangerie Polâne in Paris, where he learned the art of baking, it’d been his dream to have such an oven that he could work. “When they finally got the lease, we had to remove 3-4 feet of dirt by bucket. You couldn’t get anything inside there, so it was all by pick axe and shovel.” And then they found an Italian father and son team who built ovens. “It’s a domed oven, so they had to take the bricks out and there’s a danger that once you take the bricks out, they can fall in. The only thing separating them from a collapse was a bunch of milk crates. It was crazy,” said Sean and laughed. “Milk crates and Alfredo’s belly.”
From a Soho building that was being torn down, they acquired used bricks and floor joices, “So both brick and floor joices are over 100 years old, they match the age of the oven,” said Sean. “Alfredo and his son stayed and laid every brick in the Bakery. It took them over a year to do it. The whole process started some time in ’96 and we opened June 5, 1998. Eric and Bruce swore it was the last time they’d GC a project, but again, the space dictated the concept. The heart and soul of the whole restaurant is the oven.”
And while it took another year and a half to develop a following at Blue Ribbon Bakery, the response to Blue Ribbon Brooklyn in Park Slope when it opened in June, 2001 was immediate. But when the lease came up for renewal in 2012, the landlord increased it to such an extent that the space sat vacant for a year before he found a tenant who ended up paying less that what Blue Ribbon had counter offered. But by then, they’d picked up everything, equipment and staff, and relocated to the Lower East Side to Blue Ribbon Izakaya, which was preceded by Brooklyn Bowl and by BR Sushi in Las Vegas in 2011, and followed by BR Fried Chicken in the East Village, and by BR Brooklyn Bowl in London and in Vegas in 2014. This year, BR Sushi Bar and Grill will open in LA, and a new BR restaurant is coming to 72nd Street.
Despite the growing empire, Sean said, “I think there’s a large misconception about Blue Ribbon in the public. We’re not this big corporate group. It’s a handful of people that are still behind the day to day. It’s immediate. It comes from me, or Chris or Mike. Or it comes from Eric and Bruce. Or it comes from Bowie, and it’s still coming from James at Sullivan Street. James has been there from day one.”
With only two titled individuals at Blue Ribbon, the CFO and the COO, Sean is without an official title, as are Eric and Bruce. And while Sean travels and manages the service side of many Blue Ribbon openings, he also works with Sam to manage the wine program.
“Even now,” he continued, “watching your book change. Watching your California book change, which changes the complexion of what we have to offer in the restaurant. Your recent acquisitions. The French acquisitions. André’s book. All of these things enhance our guests’ experiences. The changes and growth in TEW also facilitate our change and growth. It keeps us fresh. Keeps us updated.”
Still open until 4AM, Blue Ribbon at Sullivan Street changed the notion of the post-shift destination for those in the restaurant industry when it opened. And in many ways it became a home base to a number of personalities who made the Food Network. “When Mario [Batali] first moved here from Seattle, his first gig was the chef at Rocco’s, which is now Carbonne on Thompson Street,” said Sean. “Every night after work, he would come into Blue Ribbon. I’ve never seen such an adept social sort of being. He got to everybody. He made sure he knew everyone. He worked the room and developed his own club. After a while, people would come and he was the leader of the crew. Tom Valenti, Jon Waxman, Matthew Kenney, Bobby Flay. Everybody that came around, he was the leader of the pack. So as a young person, you’re seeing all of this happen and take shape before your eyes, and this was all before the Food Network. So the Food Network kind of happened in our dining room. Like it all took shape before somebody said, Huh, these guys are really interesting, we should do something.
“There’s something about the affinity [of Blue Ribbon] and the relationship to the industry,” he continued. “The midtown industry crowd goes to 58th Street after their shift. There’s a certain crowd that goes to the Downing Street Bar after their shift, and a certain crowd that goes to Sullivan Street after their shift.
“There have been some places that have tried to replicate the 4AM thing, but can’t. We even tried to replicate it, and we can’t. We tried it at the Bakery and we tried it initially in Brooklyn too. We were open until 4AM in Brooklyn for a long time. The amount of energy it takes to establish that is considerable. It basically took the youth of all of us to establish that. Will it happen again? I don’t know. It was something we are all bound by. It was incredible.”