When brothers Michael (right) and Stephen (left) Berg took over The Iron Tomato, a café in White Plains, on May 17, 2010, the eatery was in shambles. Outdated products lined the shelves; overstocked goods crowded the basements; equipment was broken; vendors and employees weren’t getting paid; and customers weren’t coming through the door. “There was no rhyme or reason to anything,” says Stephen Berg. “The place was a disaster.”
Despite knowing the bad shape The Iron Tomato was in, Michael and Stephen, now 35 and 29, decided to buy the shop and give it a new shot at life mostly because, for years, they had been running their family gourmet supermarket business on Long Island and longed for something of their own. “There was a great opportunity for us to take something that was failing and turn it into something that is prospering,” says Stephen.
But reviving The Iron Tomato was not easy, taking a great amount of finances (When asked how much, Michael says, “That’s a little personal! It was a substantial amount of money,”), time, and patience. “As Stephen and I will both vouch, the year we bought The Iron Tomato was probably the worst year of our lives,” says Michael.
First, they had to take care of the basics—fixing broken machinery, paying employees, and ordering a fresh batch of supplies. They also had to make the restaurant feel new and relevant after a dreadful start, something they achieved by taking out the grocery store, adding a bakery and sushi station, and changing the coffee and pizza recipes. “Everything was made better, more of what customers wanted,” says Stephen.
They also put firm systems in place for employees that would ensure a consistent, high standard for food and customer service—systems Stephen calls “normal business practices for successful businesses,”—aka getting back to basics. They trained staff on everything from how to greet customers to how to prepare food quickly and efficiently, and they put procedures in place for practices such as the payroll.
But what the Bergs pride themselves on most is establishing a friendly, strong relationship with customers so they would visit the shop regularly. “It started with us just building customer relations,” says Stephen. “Being personable and building a rapport and a trust with the customers.” The brothers now estimate that they know the first name of three-quarters of their customers and claim they can’t go out in Westchester without being recognized.
When asked about their financial success, Michael jokes, “We’re making millions.” But the café obviously is thriving, conducting more than 6,000 transactions a week—a hefty 30-percent increase in sales from 2010. Their efforts have been acknowledged further by the multiple Best of Westchester wins The Iron Tomato has received. Building on their success, the brothers just opened The Iron Shaker, a cocktail- and small-plates restaurant next door to The Iron Tomato that they hope to duplicate at other locations around the County.
» For more of Westchester’s Top Business Turnarounds, click here.