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Has Bloom in Hastings Faded – Or Is It Just on Permanent Vacation?

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Looks like one of Westchester’s most loved and hated restaurants is in its death throes. While Bloom’s website claimed that the restaurant will be closed for the remainder of August, to re-open in September, its doors were still resolutely locked by the second week in September. The signs were ominous: as everyone in the restaurant world knows, the word “vacation” is often code for “closed down, broke and desperately looking for a buyer.” Then, on September 12, owner James Sklar listed Bloom on Craig’s List. For just $575,000, Bloom can be yours—let’s hope all of the drama that haunted the restaurant won’t come included.

The first inkling that things weren’t going well came only five months after Bloom opened in October 2006: Sklar summarily fired Bloom’s opening Executive Chef, Antonio Randazzo, then stepped into the role himself. While Sklar attended the California Cooking Academy and had worked as a private chef, he didn’t have Randazzo’s restaurant experience. In a reach for credibility, Bloom’s website notes that Sklar’s unnamed sister is a James Beard Award-winning chef, but the site lists none of Sklar’s own restaurant experience. At the time, he was 33 and a first time restaurant owner.

Rumors ran rampant in the Westchester restaurant community that while Bloom’s gorgeous, eco-friendly décor was stunning, it masked a serious lack of capital – evidenced by Sklar’s firing Randazzo. Traditionally, restaurants take a long, long time to build up a dependable clientele. In fact, they’re advised to retain enough capital to operate at a loss for at least 6 months — then, maybe, an owner can expect to see profits. For this reason, restaurateurs, especially first-time restaurateurs, are advised to spend conservatively on pre-opening expenses like décor. By all gorgeous appearances, that hadn’t happened at Bloom. In fact, Sklar even consulted with Marty Vaz (who designed the drinks at Manhattan’s Gin Lane) for Bloom’s cocktails. That had to be expensive.

Even by April, Bloom was looking a little tatty. When we visited, the gorgeous, fresh organic flowers that once liberally graced the room and tables (and echoed the restaurant’s theme) were replaced with long-lasting eucalyptus and dry, crumbling cheaper blossoms. On the Wednesday night that we visited, two expensive, perishable fish menu listings were unavailable – according to our waiter, they’d sold out over the weekend. Okay—but why weren’t they re-ordered by Wednesday night? Plus, the coconut curry that once held day boat scallops and shrimp, by April, was listed only with the cheaper shrimp on board. Worse, whatever time of night we passed by, there were hardly any diners in the room.

Yet the reviews coming in for Bloom were overwhelmingly positive. On May 13, Emily DeNitto gave Bloom a Very Good rating in the NY Times  and in the same month, Westchester Magazine’s Marge Perry rated Bloom 3 1/2 stars. In fact, Bloom was a front runner for Westchester Magazine’s Best New Restaurant of the Year. And why not? The food was great and the décor, stunning. Bloom’s all-organic concept seemed perfectly timed. More significantly, though – the review visits occurred much earlier than the articles were published. By May, when the articles came out, Bloom was sinking fast.

On May 10, The Journal News food editor discovered that someone at Bloom’s IP address was posting comments under a variety of names on the newspaper’s Small Bites food blog. These comments were all complimentary to Bloom, and took potshots at Bloom’s perceived competition – Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Harvest-on-Hudson. This discovery was published online, along with an account of a miserable meal at Bloom.

Bloom was always a risky venture. As an avowed all-organic restaurant, Bloom’s food costs were much higher than those of other restaurants. Staple items like herbs, lemons, parsley, butter and olive oil all cost multiples of what other restaurants paid because they had to be organic. When Bloom first opened, there was a general outcry over the restaurant’s high prices, and no amount of explaining about the high price of organic ingredients could placate irate diners. While Sklar eventually lowered Bloom’s prices, it meant that the difference was coming out of his pocket. Worse, with first impressions so important in restaurants, the gesture might have been too little, too late.

Our feelings about Bloom are mixed, because there was a lot to admire in Bloom—its beautiful recycled and sustainable décor, for instance, and the way that Sklar offered free, double-filtered water instead of expensive, big-carbon-footprint bottled water. We loved Sklar’s commitment to top-quality, healthy, organic ingredients — yet while Bloom was all-organic, the restaurant was no dreary, hempen hippie hovel. You could get (organic) red meat, you could get (organic) top shelf booze, all in a chic environment. Finally, we loved that in a county where it’s still possible to find appletinis and cosmopolitans, Sklar invited a top cocktail designer to show off innovative, chic drinks on par with what’s happening in Manhattan.

One of our chef friends said it best—or at least, most succinctly. “Mr. Sklar is guilty of being passionate about what he believes in but it seems like he didn’t have the basic knowledge to run the restaurant.” Well—we bet that owning Bloom was a great, if expensive, learning experience.

Editor’s Note: Since this blog was posted, Bloom’s Executive Chef/Owner James Sklar responded:

Antonio was fired for poor job performance. His ordering did not meet with my quality control. For example, he ordered Pam non-stick spray, non-organic heavy cream, and heavily processed non-organic sugar. Quality of ingredients is extremely important to me. I want my customers to have the very best. Furthermore, he communicated poorly with the waitstaff, which resulted a few times in customers waiting over an hour for their food. His firing was an easy one for me.

As far as some entrees go, after firing Antonio and taking over the kitchen myself, there were some lapses. For example, the company that was delivering my seafood gave me the wrong order on several occasions, resulting in my inability to serve those entrees. As for the shrimp curry dish, I get my shrimp wild from Mexico from a company that is eco-friendly. In my opinion, they are the finest quality I could obtain. I took the day boat scallops out of the dish because I felt that it was too much with the shrimp. Since day one, the shrimp curry dish has been our most popular item, even with the change.

As far as the blog on the Journal News site, I had nothing to do with the comments which were posted. Every time I had something to say, it was either under my name, James or Bloom. I did consider legal action, and in fact my attorney spoke with the attorney for the publisher of the Journal News. In the end, I declined to take action since the cost of moving forward legally was too great.

For the “reach in credibility,” yes this is my first restaurant, but I have been religiously eating organic food and into the eco-movement for the past twelve years. My goal for Bloom was to create a wonderful atmosphere, sophisticated and serene, for diners to enjoy the best quality food and drink. I am proud of what I have accomplished, and it’s been my pleasure to have served so many wonderful guests.

Furthermore, I have removed the Craigslist ad and I’m not currently looking for a buyer.

James Sklar

EATER COMMENTS
We tried to reach James Sklar repeatedly for comment before posting this blog, yet he only responded to our entreaties after it was posted. And — although we tried hard to reach Chef Antonio Randazzo to confirm or deny Mr. Sklar’s allegations — we failed to contact him. We suspect that Chef Randazzo’s version of the events at Bloom might be very different to the narrative related above.

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