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Steve Olsen started in the restaurant business at the age of 15. From dishwasher, to bartender, to waiter, he worked his way up. He has presided over The West Bank Cafe on W42nd St – 9th/10th Ave for the last 42 years.
I opened on June 29, 1978
We didn’t have commercial tenants next to the restaurant for the first five years. Nobody wanted to be here. I kept driving past Manhattan Plaza as it was being built, so made an appointment to go in to talk about renting a space. I wound up signing a lease for 20 years, for $2k a month. They were giving it away!
It was very tough
Nobody came to the neighborhood, and when I told my friends on the UWS where I was opening, everybody said: “What’s your clientele? A bunch of hookers and pimps?” I think I lost about $2,500 a week for the first 18 months, and went through seven head chefs in the first five months.
Don’t forget, this was a degenerate neighborhood
There was a discotheque across the street called Starship Discovery, and in the first three months I was open, there were three murders in the place. And, to tell you the truth, cabs wouldn’t pick up our clientele because it was such a bad neighborhood.
Then, in February 1980, it started to change
Theatre Row officially opened. Mel Gussow reviewed the theaters in the New York Times and Mimi Sheraton reviewed my restaurant and gave us two stars. I had a $160k debt as a 25-year-old guy, and within six months of the review, I’d wiped out the debt totally.
The first show we did in the theater downstairs …
Was the Ben Bagley revue featuring Helen Gallagher. The booking agent made them guarantees I was unaware of and, after the first night, they were looking to get paid and they’d comped the entire room. I was unable to pay them, and they threatened to leave. But they ended up staying and doing all three shows, and recouped their money. We started doing cabaret shows, and I booked jazz for a while. Eventually I met Louis Black and Rand Forrester and Rusty Magee, who pitched me the idea of producing one-act plays. In ten years, we presented over 800 one-act plays. We produced Aaron Sorkin’s first three plays – he was a bartender working in Broadway theaters, writing shows on napkins while working the bar. A lot of successful careers launched here over the years.
When I had my kidney transplant, Joan Rivers sent flowers and the card said: “Dear Steve, get well soon. Your staff is robbing you blind.”
About Joan Rivers
She came to us – hot off The Apprentice – and wanted to work out new material. She came in to do one night and, when she was walking off stage, she said: “This is the room I’ve been searching for my whole life.” She wound up doing 200 shows here. She was relevant, she was funny, she was generous, she was kind. When I had my kidney transplant, she sent flowers and the card said: “Dear Steve, get well soon. Your staff is robbing you blind.”
She actually performed here the last night of her life. She came and did a tremendous show and had no signs of any illness – it was perfect. On the way out, she gave me a kiss goodbye, and 12 hours later she had passed away. We miss her.
I had kidney stones in my mid-20s
I was diagnosed with a disease called Polycystic Kidney Disease. They told me that, if I was going to get sick (there was a 50/50 chance I would), it would start happening in my mid-40s. So, I went to the nephrologist two times a year and lived without any fear or worry. Then, a couple of weeks after my 45th birthday, the doctor said I was going into early renal failure and that I would need a kidney transplant in five years.
Fortunately, I was fit
I’d taken up long-distance running when I was 32, running 30, 40 miles a week. In the 1990s, I took up marathoning. I felt great. But as I was getting closer to the transplant, I was diagnosed with Stage 3 melanoma. I had 14 lymph nodes taken out, then I started dialysis at the Rogosin Institute.
I needed five years remission before I could get a transplant , and at four years, the cancer spread again. That was the summer of 2006 – it was very tough. But I had a lot of support. And all the running really helped me mentally and physically.
In 2007, I had a transplant and took a year to recover. I needed a mantra to try and get my head up. And my mantra was “5K next May.”
The following year, 2008, I started a running team called Running Without Kidneys. I got 12 of us together, and we went down to the Hudson River Park and ran a 5K, raising $8,000 for the Rogosin Institute. The second year, we had 30 runners and it was closer to $15,000. To this day, we have raised over $1 million (the next run was scheduled to take place on June 14 but has been cancelled).
Running again felt exhilarating
From the time I got sick to the time I was able to run, it had been 13 years. Instead of going to Central Park and running eight miles, I’d go to the Hudson River Park and run three miles a day. So it was a different chapter in my life, but it felt great.
Then an accident ended my running career for ever
On August 30, 2017, I was doing my daily run. It was a gorgeous day and I was on a recreational pier when I got run over from behind by two park rangers in uniform, driving a Touro landscaping truck. They crushed my left foot.
That’s when I joined Manhattan Plaza Health Club and took on a trainer
Even disabled in a wheelchair at the time, I realized that the end of running isn’t the end of it. There are other things to do.
I love life!
I get gratification when we have a busy night here and people leave and are pleased by the hospitality and the food that they’ve been served. I get off on that. I know it’s corny, but I think that’s why I’ve lasted so long in the hospitality business. I just want to keep on running the restaurant and producing shows. The future for me is coming to work every day and doing my job and living a good life. I have the best clientele in the world here. I am so blessed.
I still go out every day for a walk – generally a mile or two. I have a compromised immune system so I’m trying to keep myself healthy and I think that going out, by myself, helps.
We’re taking food and wine phone orders for pickup/delivery Thursday through Saturday. We have a stripped-down menu, it’s discounted, we’re not using any of the delivery apps. And it’s cash, because we turned off all our credit card processing.
I’m optimistic. We’ve been here for 40 years through thick and thin, but we have such a great neighborhood following, I think we’ll weather the storm, and our neighbors will weather the storm. Whatever society looks like coming out of this, we hope to be a big part of it.
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