Not All Who Wander Are Lost: Meet the Nomadic Restaurateurs Serving Their Own Course

Aug 10, 2016

Nialls Fallon and Danny Newberg hosted their first supper together in the spring of 2015. They called their collaboration Joint Venture, after Danny’s family sailboat down in St. Petersburg, Florida.The plan was to open a restaurant, so they were testing the waters: learning one another’s style, experimenting with recipes, watching how people responded.

They began looking for a commercial space, but burnt out quickly. Hell, it was summertime in New York City. So they put the search on hold to host food and wine pop-ups with friends around New York for the rest of the season, telling themselves these events would build momentum — for the real restaurant.

Come winter, rents skyrocketed.

“Danny and I both just had this pit in our stomachs,” said Nialls, “And we were like, ‘I don’t want to open a restaurant. I just don’t. All the financial projections we’re putting together, the business plans, the looking at spaces, the talking to investors, the whole concept seems so unsustainable. It doesn’t make sense.’ It was just this epiphany that we both had where we thought ‘Why don’t we just do this? Maybe this makes sense. Maybe Joint Venture works.’”

Today, Joint Venture fully embodies the nomadic and experimental spirit it started with. It’s a mobile food and culture collaboration celebrating seafood and natural wine, hands-on communal eating, art and music, and location, wherever that may be. It’s a permanent commitment to impermanence. Joint Venture presents a totally new business model — an alternative to the traditional, expensive, New York City restaurant.

Nialls and Danny both grew up in Florida. Danny attended the French Culinary Institute and worked in kitchens at Momofuku Ko, Isa in Williamsburg, and most recently, alongside Ignacio Mattos as sous-chef at Estela. Nialls worked at Torrisi in Nolita as general manager and wine director. In the spring of 2013, he opened Maiden Lane, a tinned seafood and natural wine bar in the East Village with an extensive import business that he still oversees today. It was only fitting that canned cod liver would bring him and Danny, who lived across the street, together.

Early on in their friendship, Danny and Nialls realized they shared frustrations about the city’s restaurant industry, doomed in its current incarnation. Between rising commercial rents and new state regulations, exorbitant overhead and low retention rates, it was nearly impossible to run a restaurant the way it always has been. Ambitious restaurateurs are faced with a 10-year property lease and million-dollar build-out. Young, high-level chefs are working 80-hour weeks in basement kitchens for $50,000. What for?

"Sure—they’re putting out amazing food or learning how to have this creative expression, but they have a hard time in the industry because the pay is so low and the cost is so high.”

“They have no life,” Nialls said. “Sure—they’re putting out amazing food or learning how to have this creative expression, but they have a hard time in the industry because the pay is so low and the cost is so high.”

Restaurant veterans Sara Mae Elbert and her fiancé, Sohail Zandi, left the city for Bovina, (a tiny town in the Catskills) and started a home-restaurant called Brushland Eating House in 2014.

“The city’s restaurant industry is unsustainable in many ways—financially, creatively—and for us, opening a restaurant with a rural backdrop was a way to create the life that we craved for ourselves,” Sara Mae said.

Chefs, somms, managers, and servers eventually hit a threshold. They’re too tired to be creative and too poor to thrive. What was once motivation — slow living, service, enjoying good food and drinks with family and friends — is now sucking the life out of them. But the Joint Venture model offers an antidote.

Joint Venture hosts one to two events a week on average with the likes of The Four Horsemen, Grand Army, Achilles Heel, Wildair, o ya, Scribe Winery, and others. Each event falls into one of three categories: takeovers of under-utilized spaces; restaurant or winemaker collaborations; and traditional private events. Danny cooks, and Nialls oversees front of house, wine, and operations. Menus always read as one, listing around 10 to 12 dishes, including dessert (namely Danny’s Key lime pie). Beverage menus are tight with simple cocktails and funky natural wines (funk-nat, if you will) from experimental winemakers. Any prep work and fermenting gets done in Danny’s apartment, and either stays there or shares the cold storage at Maiden Lane. They work with a collective of fish purveyors that they trust to provide sustainable, seasonal, and traceable seafood.

At the space takeovers, anything goes. They find a site that’ll have them (like the recently closed Isa where Danny used to cook) and give it new life. They rent the space by the day for a flat fee, come up with a food concept, invite art and music collaborators — as many from outside industries as possible — spread the word on Instagram, and share profits with everyone at the end.

When they team up with another chef they work in a more symbiotic way: eat at the restaurant, get to know the chef, owner, or sommelier, and bring Joint Venture ideas and menus into that framework. Joint Venture might come into The Four Horsemen on a quiet Monday night. They’ve created a menu ahead of time with Chef Nick Curtola, chosen wines with the somm, and worked out service elements with the staff. Events aren’t ticketed, menus aren’t prix fixe, so as a guest, you would walk in, sit down, and order what you want. You may feel a different energy, but it’s subtle: cartoonish menus, charred and fermented things, more seafood … more magnums.

It’s an elegant cross-promotion. While injecting The Four Horsemen’s Monday night with a throng of new visitors, Joint Venture uses the restaurant as a temporary brick and mortar for their own vision and concept.

Young, high-level chefs are working 80-hour weeks in basement kitchens for $50,000. What for?

“They arrive so ready to be immersed in your region, with plenty of time to meet farmers, gather ingredients, hang out with staff, and really feel the vibes that each restaurant has created,” said Sara Mae of Brushland’s collaboration with Joint Venture: a three-course, Asian-inspired seafood BBQ on their stone fire pit of Beaverkill trout, charred squid and peas, sticky rice balls, and black vinegar–infused dessert.

Nialls and Danny work closely with Sublet Studio, the design house of Massimo Mongiardo and Matt Kay, on their visual identity. The duo creates everything from the website and chalkboards to the menus, matchbooks, and most notably, the whimsical drawings that become promotional flyers for each event on Instagram. One of Massi’s sketches goes up — perhaps a woman lighting up a fish head like a cigarette with a “JV” chain around her neck — and the magic begins.

“People know about our events because of Instagram,” said Nialls. “I think it’s emblematic of the time we’re in and the way people interact. Nobody can pop in for dinner at Joint Venture seven nights a week, but they can have this connection with us through a digital world.”

The Sublet guys attend most events, take photos, even jump in to expedite service. They’re part of the family and integral to its success. As Joint Venture is constantly evolving, so is Sublet’s brand work.

“Danny and Nialls adapt to the spaces and people who want to collaborate with them, which allows for a lot of creative freedom on our end,” said Massimo. Matt added, “We do whatever we want. There are no rules.” And that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Give a passionate community of people freedom, and they'll make beautiful things.

Danny still gets calls every few weeks from restaurateurs offering him a chef position.

Hey, are you done with having fun yet? Do you want to make a salary and get back to work?

They still don’t get it. Most nights, Danny cooks with friends under the stars or in a new kitchen. His schedule is flexible. His personal life is rich. His business is profitable. And his future as a New York City chef finally makes sense.

So no, he’s not done having fun yet.

Follow @jointventurenyc for a good time.