We’ve been keeping an eye out for good eats and curious characters around the neighborhood, this time haranguing the locals who know business. Sarah Camiscoli sat down with Steven Kay, co-manager of Mel’s Burger Bar, in one of those fancy red booths to talk life, college, and what it means to be in business in Morningside Heights.
“My mom tells the story that we were in Colorado skiing when I was ten and I said I wanted to open a hotel,” is Steven’s reply when asked about the early beginnings of his entrepreneurial oomph. Years later, with hospitality in his heart and SATs on his mind, Steven plunged into Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration where he found his nook in the food and beverage side of things. As a man who has lived his childhood fantasy of service and innovation, Steven explains, “I like being the host. I like having people at my place having a good time. It’s tough work and endless hours and it’s not the easiest way to make a buck so you better like it.”
Years after enduring the pains of Ithaca, Steven landed in Morningside Heights, using his refined passions for food and drink to take advantage of the (rarely) bustling college life, expanding community, and heavy foot traffic next to the Uptown 1 stop. In this hot spot, Steven sensed that he could offer “an infusion of new blood. “ While Mel’s is the first of its kind, Steven is big on the fact that he and his fellow founders did not bring the meta-theories behind the business as an experiment. For that, he’s proud to admit that the novelty of the bright lights and spiked shakes have, “appealed to people on a level where they see we’re serious operators and we take our product seriously.”
To give Bwog a sense of what it means to “take a product seriously,” Steven talked about the need for “mass appeal” and the kind of trouble he’s run into in trying to rally the fragmented masses of Morningside. “I never intended to focus on just neighborhood people or just the Columbia community. The needs of the neighborhood and the Columbia community are completely different.” Beyond the different tastes of locals and Columbia insurgents, the fact that “college kids tend to be creatures of habit” and Columbia is diverse “on every level, “ has left Steven spending a good amount of his down time doing what he calls “market research.” Hoping to see how he can get students to see Mel’s as a bumping spot, he spends “three to four days a week” visiting local establishments and starting small talk with clientele.
Using the conclusions drawn from his fieldwork as a social scientist, Steve’s semester goals consist of looking to create a transferable model for a burger super power, learning how to read an “Ecuadorian license,” and nailing down “the connectors”—the psychological subculture (he recalls from Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point) of the kind of people that bring others together and act as decision makers. According to the boss, “it’s a matter of appealing to those people” and finding innovative ways of getting students to “finish their night under the lights at Mel’s” instead of starting it with a turkey burger and disappearing into the wilderness of a Friday night on campus.