By Jess ~ 12th December 2012
Note: this interview is part of a series done by St. Rose students in Daniel Nester’s ENG251 class. Meet Suzanne Caark, owner/manager at Susie’s, Café 217, and The Excelsior Pub, as interviewed by Jessica Furiani:
You worked at the Lionheart for almost five years before opening Susie’s. Did your experience there make you want to open a bar?
Well, I went to school for four years. I actually have a degree in Business and a minor in Gerontology. I wanted to run a nursing home or a retirement home. I worked full-time through college, so by the time I got out, I was exhausted.
At the time, I was working at Ruby Tuesday’s. and I then got the job at Lionheart, and of course the money was phenomenal. Before I knew it I had been out of school for five or six years. Once Lionheart moved from Lark Street to Madison, it was just a whole different crowd I wasn’t comfortable with. So I was very nervous. I was like “Geez, like, I don’t know what I’m going to do!” I was out of school and I hadn’t used any of my schooling or anything. I was like, “Well, as long as I’m going to be in this business it might as well be for myself.”
So Susie’s has been your place since 2003, and it was Serrao’s before that.
It’s where I used to hang out. Before it was Serrao’s it was The Griffin, so it’s been a bar for 20 or 25 years.
You own the building Susie’s is in, as well as the building next to it, where Café 217 is located. How did the Café come about?
At the Lionheart I worked the late night shift, 8pm to 4am, Tuesday through Saturday. By the time you counted your drawer and got everybody out and cleaned up, you’re looking at almost 5 in the morning, and there’s never anything to eat aside from Dunkin’ Donuts. I’m personally not a breakfast person, so I wanted to have a place that you can go and get a burger or a Reuben and I wanted it to be good food, not McDonald’s.
Does the atmosphere change from night to day?
It can get kind of hairy, but you’ve got to hold the same standards as the bar. If you’re not respectful you’re going to get asked to leave. My famous last quote to people who were being rude was “If it costs me fifty dollars to never see you again it’s the best money I ever spent.” I will take the food off the table, and politely ask them to leave. You have to set precedence so people know and they’ll tell their friends and they’ll know how to behave.
I assume you’ve heard of the whole Cabaret Laws thing going on with no live music past 2am. How do you feel about that?
Of course I don’t agree with it. Personally it doesn’t affect me because I don’t have live music, but without getting too involved in it, I just think that bars and restaurants add a lot to the neighborhood. I can respect a 2am curfew, but to tell people they can’t play music after midnight is ridiculous.
Do you think it’s more difficult to run a bar or a restaurant?
A restaurant is way harder.
Really? I’d think it’d be the other way around.
Nope, a restaurant is harder because there’s way more overhead. Food is incredibly hard. You’re dealing with a much more diverse group of people as far as your employees, cooks are very difficult, servers can be a pain, so I think it’s much harder.
You recently renovated the space next to the Café and turned it into The Excelsior Pub. When did it open?
May 22. I always had a beer and wine license, but I was not selling it. This whole building is the Café, and that room has always existed. I wanted it to be for private parties, but didn’t have enough private parties to make a profit. I’m struggling here at the Café—it’s not an easy business. I wanted to know what separates me from DeJohn’s or Elda’s or Justin’s or Shogun. Nothing against any of those businesses, but they all have a bar where you can sit and have a drink. That was the reasoning and it has actually worked out great. People love the idea and we’re trying to keep it more local. We have the Pub Club so you’re going to know most of the people you’re sitting next to and don’t have to deal with the college students. You don’t have to deal with the popped collar idiots who want Yager bombs. I go through all local purveyors for the food I serve.
Oh wow. I didn’t know that!
Yup, I don’t use Sysco. I have my own garden—I own lots across the way so all my tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, all my spices come from the garden and we use them as long as they last us. We use my home-grown basil for the pesto that we make, and a lot of my recipes came from my aunt. I come from a close-knit family. My family’s extremely supportive and that’s just how I like to do things. Now, yes, I have to pay a little bit more for smaller batches, but that’s fine. You have to have that sense of pride of where you come from and support local people.