When they started this project in 2011, Jen & Ben – partners in business and in life – envisioned a down-to-earth neighborhood hangout, with exceptionally good eats and an enticing vibrancy. They keep their doors open from early morning to late night, welcoming in wandering passersby at all hours, and, on Friday nights, treating diners to the music of local bands. The Queens Kickshaw (and its sister restaurant, Jen & Ben’s Lower East Side cider bar Wassail) is not just a food destination, but also a cultural one – a spot for sharing and enjoying the craft experience.
Mood of Living Q&A
Mood of Living: What makes The Queens Kickshaw unique?
Jennifer Lim & Benjamin Sandler: We’re a specialty coffee shop (the first one to open in Astoria by 3 years, and we think we’re the first ones to put cold-brewed coffee on tap!), a restaurant and a craft beer bar – which is a lot of things to be.
Food-wise, we’re a quietly vegetarian eatery, which just means that we don’t ever broadcast this as a selling point. We would like carnivores and vegetarians alike to enjoy a meal at Kickshaw. We set out to create a menu that would have universal appeal, despite being limited to vegetables, grains and dairy. It literally took some people multiple visits to figure out that there was no meat on the menu!
MoL: Why get into the restaurant business with The Queens Kickshaw?
J&B: We had just gotten married and had such a blast planning a great day for our guests that we thought we could work really well together. Astoria didn’t have a neighborhood hangout that we liked going to, so we decided to make one for ourselves.
MoL: What were some of the challenges The Queens Kickshaw encountered in the beginning?
J&B: Finding employees with relevant previous experience was a big challenge for us initially – heck, just expecting people to show up for an interview was a tall order. Of course, this gave us the opportunity to train people that were un-jaded by previous ways of doing things – and thereby to build the workplace culture that we wanted.
MoL: What is the inspiration behind the types and tastes of your food?
J&B: We serve comfort food with a twist. We don’t serve any meat at Kickshaw, but we also didn’t want to serve traditional healthful/vegetarian fare like tofu, sprouts, tempeh, or fake meat. Anything else is fair game. We’re not vegan, so we do serve dairy (a lot of it!) and eggs.
“Our chefs through the years have had the freedom to inject their personal experiences into the menu.”
It’s also important for us to make delicious food with integrity, so about 95% of our menu is made from scratch. Some of these from-scratch items include the vegetable stock used in all our soups, as well as our ricotta, ice cream, sauces, hot sauce, soft pretzels, and so on.
MoL: Where do you source your ingredients?
J&B: It isn’t feasible or necessarily desirable for us to serve all organic or all local products, but we do our best to spend a little more on things that really matter. For instance, our milk and half & half for coffee and cooking are from Battenkill (NY) and our heavy cream for cooking are from Hudson Valley Fresh (NY). Our all-natural eggs are from Feather Ridge Farm (NY) and in the summer our heirloom tomatoes are from Brooklyn Grange (Long Island City). We also serve and use bread and pastries from Balthazar (NJ) and gluten-free bread from Free Bread (NY). Plus, chocolate from Mast Bros (Brooklyn), coffee from Counter Culture (NC), and syrups from P&H Soda (Brooklyn). Even our compost is locally managed, specifically by Smiling Hogshead Ranch in Queens.
MoL: Congratulations on recently opening Wassail, a cider bar and restaurant in the Lower East Side. What makes the cider you sell unique in regards to other ciders?
J&B: The majority of cider being sold right now is macro cider. It’s the stuff you find in beer bars. We are dedicated to showcasing complex and delicious cider made with care and integrity by smaller scale producers.
MoL: How have you retained your community focus as you’ve expanded to new locations?
J&B: In looking for a location for Wassail, it was important for us to open in a neighborhood that was a mix of tourists, workers, and residents. It’s important to build a “community” around ourselves because it ultimately means that we have a base of people who enable us to do what we do.
“Community means a group of people who see a value in what we offer or how we go about doing things.”
It was also important to us that we open in an area that we had a personal connection to – and we do call the Lower East Side both a former home and stomping ground. When opening Kickshaw, it was important to us to also live in the place we would start a business.
MoL: What sort of experience do you want your customers to take away from The Queens Kickshaw or Wassail?
J&B: Mostly we want to be the kind of place that makes you feel good. We want to serve good quality food and drink without a lot of fuss.
MoL: What is something you know now that you wish you knew before starting your restaurants?
J&B: We had never owned a business before, so it would have been good to have a sense as to how much work it actually takes to run one. Also, we should have known to expect that owning a restaurant is hardly ever a profitable endeavor. It can break your heart, but also build your character in ways you would never expect.
MoL: What advice can you give anyone looking to start his or her own business?
J&B: Be prepared to work more than you have ever worked before! Be prepared to face challenges you never thought you could overcome until you actually do.
Jen & Ben’s chefs whip up some fantastic fare, as warm and comforting as the restaurants themselves. They shared a particular favorite (Chef Kenji Hurlburt’s Fall Squash Soup) with us below. Enjoy – and don’t forget to share your finished products with us on Twitter or Instagram, @moodofiving!
Chef Kenji Hurlburt’s Fall Squash Soup
- 3 butternut squash, cut in half, seeds removed
- 1/2 cup canola oil
- 3 cups heavy cream
- 3 cups milk
- 1/2 cup maple syrup
- 1 sprig thyme
- Salt and fresh cracked black pepper, to taste
Preheat an oven to 375 F. In a bowl, toss the butternut squash with salt, pepper, and canola oil until thoroughly coated. Lay the squash flesh-side down on a sheet tray lined with parchment, and roast at 375 F for 45 minutes until the thicker part of the squash is soft and tender. Scoop out the flesh into a bowl and reserve.
In a pot, heat the heavy cream, milk, maple syrup, and thyme up to scalding. Then blend the reserved squash flesh and the liquid together in batches in a blender. Pass through a chinoise. Season with salt and pepper; serve immediately or chill and refrigerate until ready to reheat and serve.
(Makes 12 portions)
Facebook: The Queens Kickshaw
All photos courtesy of MARTIN SCOTT POWELL. http://www.martinscottpowell.com/