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Ravi DeRossi's New Brand of Protest

DeRossiIn April 2017, a bar called Coup opened to great curiosity in New York’s East Village. Bars open in the Village virtually every week, but what made Coup such a big story was its purpose: all of its profits are going to organizations being threatened or defunded by the current President. Coup is a protest bar, and the protest is against Donald Trump.

The force behind this movement is restaurateur Ravi DeRossi, and it’s a role he was seemingly born to play — DeRossi was once described in the New York Times as being “the antithesis” of “the Donald Trump empire builder.” Fresh off a decade leaving his mark on New York’s food and drink scene with an expanding fleet of themed establishments, DeRossi now finds himself grappling with politics, social issues, and animal rights.

We sat down with him at Mother of Pearl, his vegan Polynesian restaurant, to find out how life has been since he opened Coup.

Coup

Ravi DeRossi (right) with partners Sother Teague and Max Green at Coup Bar

Let’s talk about Coup. What’s the response been like so far?

God, it’s been so positive. We’ve had lines out the door almost every single night. The place is packed. Everybody is so appreciative of what we’re doing and everybody loves being there. We’ve got guest bartenders flying in from all over the world — at their own expense, mind you — just to bartend one night. And then they say, “no, I don’t want to get paid, let me donate my pay.”

The only negatives have been a couple things online, some bad Yelp reviews, but it’s mainly from people who’ve never been. They read about it and they’re calling us “the snowflake bar.” Actually, I thought it’d be a lot worse. As far as I know, no one has come in there and caused any trouble or said anything negative.

How did the idea come about?

It used to be a seafood restaurant called Bergen Hill. We were doing really well, but then I made the decision to get out of the meat, dairy, and seafood world completely. I finally just said, “fuck it, I’m out, I can’t do this anymore.” Shut the place. Then Sother Teague, who runs my bar Amor y Amargo, mentioned this bar in Houston called Okra, an apolitical nonprofit bar that donates all profits to local organizations. So I had the space, and we’d just spent a fortune making it beautiful and getting the liquor license, and I wanted to address how I’ve been personally affected by this administration. It all fell into place.

Can you explain the business model?

We’re calling it a pop-up bar. We’re a for-profit entity, but we donate all profits. I want all the money to go to organizations being defunded by the current administration. We intend to be open for at least as long as they’re in power. For the first time in my life, I’m politically motivated. I’m not taking a dime. I feel there’s more I can do now. I’m looking into possibly (possibly!) running for public office. My history’s pretty bad; eventually, something might come up. I’ve lived this fucking debauched life for 40 years.

How would you react if you heard that Trump was interested in coming to one of your spots?

It wouldn’t faze me that much. I wouldn’t care. We would treat him with just as much respect as anybody else. I wouldn’t think much of it other than “okay, Trump is there. Treat him well, and treat him with respect, and give him good service.” It would be stupid to be childish and act like an idiot and treat him like crap. It would go against what we want — what I want.

Death & Co

Death & Co

The East Village has changed a lot lately, and not everyone has been a fan. What’s your take on where it’s headed?

I’ve lived here for 20-some-odd years now. When I moved here, this was not considered a destination neighborhood to eat dinner or do anything, really, other than get drugs and get wasted, maybe see a show. Look at it now: amazing Michelin-starred restaurants, great cocktail bars. I think the changes are for the best because it used to be all crappy food and shitty dive bars with lines out the door and people getting in fights. I’m not going to lie when I say that I walk out of my apartment on 7th street at nine on a Friday night and it’s just mass chaos. It can be irritating, so I get why some people complain, but that really hasn’t changed — it’s just the quality of person has changed.

How do you respond to people calling you a gentrifier, part of the problem?

There are people who have never met me — they just assume that I’m ruining the East Village. The first bar I opened was like 12 years ago and I have 15 places in New York now. Because of that, I get a bad rap. Yes, they do bring in people from outside the East Village, and that’s what pisses off some of the locals, but at the same time I employ over 200 people and probably half of them live in the East Village.

I sympathize, to an extent, with the people who say “Fuck Ravi. Fuck his places.” Rents have skyrocketed, yes, and you can’t get an amazing apartment for cheap like you could 20 years ago. We’re losing the younger people who can’t afford to live here. But I still feel like what we’re doing positively for the neighborhood outweighs the negatives. And we haven’t had a noise complaint in ten years.

Mother of Pearl

Mother of Pearl

You’re famously in the process of making all your restaurants vegan.

My life started the moment I decided to convert my restaurants to becoming vegan. There’s a higher purpose involved. Avant Garden has the best food of all my places — probably the best vegan food I’ve ever had in my life, and I’ve eaten at nearly every great vegan restaurant in the world — and almost every night, someone will stand up and just start clapping. When Mother of Pearl opened, we were serving ropa vieja and tuna and meat. We redid everything and relaunched with the same concept — Hawaiian/Polynesian food and cocktails that just happen to be one hundred percent plant-based. I had my worries, but sales actually doubled. Now we get a massive dinner rush every day. 11 of my 15 places have been converted to one hundred percent plant-based so far.

Has there been any pushback to this idea of vegan nightlife?

Part of my mission is to change the reputation. A few years ago, vegan food sucked. It was bland and boring, and you were insufferable for supporting that. It’s no longer niche to donate a percentage of profits or to serve only plant-based food. You can go to almost any restaurant in the city, even some of the best in the world, and say, “can you make me some vegan food?” They will all do it. But no one’s complained, no one’s quit. And business is better, so there’s really nothing to complain about, you know? I wake up — no exaggeration — to a thousand emails almost every morning. Just people around the world saying, “I read about you, what you’re doing, turning all your places vegan.” It’s been such an overwhelming onslaught of positivity.

Avant Garden

Avant Garden

How were you inspired to become vegan?

There are three main reasons for anybody to be vegan or support a vegan business: animal rights, personal health, and the environment. Factory farming, heart disease, and global warming are all intertwined. We’re destroying ourselves and the planet. People are much more aware that eating a plant-based diet or supporting a plant-based business is a good thing. Even if, like me, you love the taste of meat.

Do you view your customers as active participants in these missions?

I’m giving people who don’t know how to help ways to do it, and I’m making it “cool.” I don’t think of myself as somebody “cool,” but I own cool businesses. Hopefully, over time, it will change from going someplace cool to being cool by doing better. And that’s happening already. We cater to millennials because they’re the ones who are going to change our future. Conscious business is becoming a thing now. I’m not the only one doing it. There are hundreds of thousands of businesses across the country.

What would you like your legacy to be in the restaurant industry?

A couple months ago, a big publishing company called me up. They wanted me to write my memoirs. I said, “I don’t have time for that,” and they replied, “no, no, we’ll hire a ghost writer. We’ll pay you $100,000 up front.” I thought about it for a couple days, but I’m just not ready. I haven’t done anything worth writing about. I’ve made a mark in the culinary and cocktail scene in the country, if not the world, but I wouldn’t read that book. Maybe other people would, I don’t really know, nor do I care. I said, “No. Call me back in ten years and let’s talk.”

If there’s going to be some sort of legacy that I leave, it’s not going to be “oh, he owns some really cool bars and restaurants.” It’s going to be “he opened some really cool, consciously driven bars and restaurants.” And that might grow into something greater, who knows? It’s not the bars and restaurants, per se, that are going to be my legacy. It’ll be something greater than that.

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