Reinventing a business, Cilantro in Northport

Artie Berke at his restaurant, Cilantro, in Northport

Artie Berke at his restaurant, Cilantro, in Northport Village on May 7, 2014. The Mexican food eatery was created from a moribund hot dog business. (Credit: Ed Betz)

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Hot dogs may work at picnics and ballparks.

But as longtime Northport business owner Artie Berke discovered, the concept didn't quite hit it out of the park in Northport Village.

Berke, who has owned Nina's Pizzeria & Restaurant for a decade, bought Kasper's Hot Dogs in June 2012 -- after being approached by its previous owner -- with an eye on rejuvenating the struggling eatery.

At the suggestion of his former chef at Nina's, Berke expanded Kasper's menu with additional toppings and panini, but despite a good summer, revenues dropped 80 percent by that fall, he said.

"I didn't expect the drop to be that dramatic," said Berke, 44, a former NYPD officer who turned entrepreneur six months after 9/11. "I said I've got to change the concept."

ONGOING BUSINESS

He needed a business that was sustainable beyond just summer and would draw both a lunch and dinner crowd.

"A frankfurter is a frankfurter is a frankfurter," said Jeffrey Bass, CEO of Executive Strategies Group LLC in Great Neck, a strategic adviser to business owners. In the restaurant business, "you have to have a menu that appeals to the consciousness and buying habits of purchasers," he said.

In today's marketplace, people are more health conscious and hot dogs aren't viewed as a healthy alternative, he noted.

Berke understood this and a trip to Tanger Outlets in Deer Park gave him the winning idea for a new eatery.

"We went for lunch at Chipotle," Berke said. "I saw a line out the door."

He did some research and rather than buy into a franchise, decided to create his own model around the concept of fresh, made-to-order Mexican fare.

He closed Kasper's in January 2013 and opened Cilantro the next month, spending $25,000 to $30,000 on the renovation and marketing.

"Cilantro in the first month did five times the revenues of Kasper's," Berke said. "By summer it was doing eight times the revenue."

To be sure, taking a leap into a new concept can be tricky and you must do your homework, said John Coverdale, president of The Center for Workplace Solutions, a Blue Point-based human resource management firm specializing in small businesses and organizations.

First, identify the problem in the existing business and develop a strategic plan around that problem, Coverdale said.

And don't just jump into any hot concept without monitoring trends, demographics and the market.

"It's always a matter of doing your research before you take the next very bold step," Bass said.

If you're buying into a business, look for any red flags. Study past financials and check for inventory backlog, Coverdale said. You may want to bring in a banking/financial adviser, he noted.

Berke, though, bought into Kasper's knowing it was struggling. But he got a good purchase price and said the location was appealing, right by the Northport waterfront.

Still, there's been a learning curve. Berke and chef Christian Velasco have tweaked the menu and recipes over time.

"All our recipes we developed ourselves," said Berke, noting he's introduced items such as pickled Yucat√°n onions and turkey, beef and vegetarian chili. "I tried to stay away from the recipes being too similar to Chipotle."

HEALTHIER OPTION

Responding to customer feedback, they ditched a microwave they initially used to reheat chicken, replacing it with a convection oven. The menu includes burritos, burrito bowls, fajitas, tacos, quesadillas and fresh squeezed juices.

"The food is always very fresh," said Jennifer Fillekes, 39, of Northport, who frequents Cilantro monthly.

Plus, it's a healthier option than hot dogs, she said.

Thanks to the success of the Northport location, Berke, along with three investors, opened a second Cilantro on New York Avenue in Huntington Village near The Paramount theater in January.

"The lines for the concert go right past the front of our store," said Berke, noting the Huntington Cilantro is open until 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.

He hopes to expand to other areas, including Melville and Bay Shore, seeking locations no more than 1,000 square feet to keep overhead costs low and maintain intimacy.

For each new location, Berke should do specific market research, checking demographics and pedestrian traffic, Bass said. "He has to look at each one as being a separate business."


AT A GLANCE

NAME: Cilantro, in Northport and Huntington

OWNER / CO-OWNER: Artie Berke

EMPLOYEES: 14

ANNUAL REVENUE: $600,000-plus

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