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The death of Joe Allen sent social media into a frenzy yesterday afternoon. So many New Yorkers knew and loved the eponymous restaurant on W46th Street and the sister establishments, Orso and Bar Centrale. However, few knew the man.
One of the closest was Chita Rivera. She said in a tweet: “There’s only one Joe Allen… Strong, Steady, Comforting and Reliable. He certainly will be missed but we will carry him with us forever. I know I shall ❤️”
We spoke to Jim Lahey at Sullivan Street Bakery. Jim’s last job was working for Joe Allen back in 1992. Two years later, Joe was the first investor in Sullivan Street Bakery.
“I admired Joe deeply. He was always enigmatic. He managed to be an optimist and a cynic at the same time,” said Jim. “He was very shy — I would even say painfully shy — if you didn’t know him. He’d rarely make eye contact. He was a deep, deep soul.
“He was my original investor and business partner for the first bakery — and then the second bakery in Hell’s Kitchen,” Jim told us.
“Back in 1992, Joe had been looking into creating a bakery, and one day he was like, ‘If you ever decide to open up a bakery, give us a call, we’d be interested in buying bread from you.’”
Jim wasn’t ready to set up shop just yet. So Joe backed Jim to embark on a “very low-budget bread trip” to Italy instead, where he basically wandered around with a backpack asking (usually older) people where he could find good bread. He started in Milan, finished in Rome, and stopped off at Orsino (Joe’s then outpost of Orso in London), before returning to New York.
“I then spent about a year trying to open up a bakery without capital. I’d go to these obscure little bakeries in Bensonhurst in Brooklyn Heights, Harlem, the Bronx, and I’d try to convince the owner that I could bake bread during their off-hours.” Jim was bringing in a little money, but not really enough to survive. So, after a long, hard summer, he gave Joe Allen a call.
“I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m dying, you gotta help me out here. If you’re really serious about this, put up or shut-up.’”
Joe put up!
“He gave me a stipend, an artist’s stipend. I’m an artist, he’s the patron,” says Jim. “We signed a lease in January 1994, the ovens were first tested on my birthday in June, and we were open by September. That’s when the fun began.”
Jim reminisces: “When we opened up the bakery downtown, we spent many nights drinking into the wee hours at a bar that no longer exists, called Berry’s. We would eat and he would share with me his experiences of life. I remember his drink of choice was a vodka and cranberry juice.”
He remembers Joe as a huge admirer of good food, good wine, good oil, good breads. “I mean, those things really mattered to him. While his food might not have been fancy, it used very high quality ingredients, really good purveyors. He didn’t skimp on quality, from the fish to the meats, and he was incredibly consistent.”
When it came to bread: “He didn’t want to be just like every other restaurant in New York City. He could get bread from any of the local bread companies, but he wanted his place to have something distinctive and unique. And I just happened to knock on his door at the right time,” shared Jim. “He was a very good critic. He liked the bread dark, the darker the better!”
Jim bought out Joe’s interest in the bakery in 2001. Pre-pandemic, Sullivan Street Bakery produced 7,000 pounds of bread each day — with most of it going to some of the city’s top restaurants.
Jim is full of respect and admiration, and sad for the loss of Joe: “Did you know that he introduced ‘Le Hamburger’ to Paris? He single-handedly was the guy who brought the hamburger to France. I’m pretty sure he was there just before McDonald’s.”
Back in 1972, when Joe Allen opened in the French capital, The International Herald Tribune proclaimed, “American Hamburger Has Come to Paris,” and ran a photo of Joe and his Labrador retriever, Alice, on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. “It’s really such a silly idea,” he said. “I don’t mean I don’t think it’s a good idea, but it is silly.”
Le Hamburger now appears on the menu of 85% of French restaurants.
Joe Allen, RIP — Broadway, Jim (and France) raises a hamburger to you!