How Taavo Somer Turned A Back Alley Restaurant Into An Empire

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Taavo Somer was restaurant design before restaurant design was cool. Back in 2004, as a young architect, he and his partner, William Tigertt, decided to open a restaurant at the end of a dark alley on Manhattan's Lower East Side. The walls covered in taxidermy, a zinc bar near the entrance, weathered wooden tables — the place was a revelation to NYC diners, and Freemans became the It restaurant of its day. The food was simple and good, with an addictive artichoke dip, grilled whole fish and other rustic dishes that certainly helped the allure, but it was the room and the vibe that had people (and quite a few celebrities) lining up in the type of dark alley most New Yorkers know better than to enter.

Somehow, even after hundreds of restaurants have copped elements of that original Freemans design, from Brooklyn to Berlin and beyond, Freemans is still relevant today, and it's hardly the only establishment in Somer's stable. On the street that leads to the alley, he opened up Freemans Sporting Club, a mens boutique and barbershop; he partnered with Ken Friedman on a bar, the Rusty Knot, that's become a mainstay on the West Side Highway; he expanded the Freemans brand to Tokyo, with a Sporting Club there; and he opened other restaurants, such as the lovingly designed Gemma in the Bowery Hotel and the eclectic in look and in menu Le Turtle — which has a vaguely 1980s design sensibility and serves one of the best roast chicken dishes in all of New York.

It's a lot to take in, which is why it's handy that Somer has catalogued many of these projects (and others) in a coffee table book, Freemans: Food and Drink | Interiors | Grooming | Style (Harper Design), coauthored with style writer David Coggins. Seated on a vintage sofa on Freemans' second floor, Somer discussed the book and his career in a wide-ranging interview with Food Republic, which has been condensed and edited below.

Looking through the book, there's a noticeable absence of technology. We're all obviously obsessed with technology — everyone's on their phones, their computers. In the world that you lay out in the book that's not really part of it. Was that a conscious effort?

I try to embrace all things new. I want to be an early adapter for things. The one thing I have to say that I maybe regret, I started Instagram years ago when it started, then I quit for five years. I think now it's your résumé. You can benefit greatly by how many followers you have. People's businesses are all based on that. I probably should've embraced technology more when it came to social promotion. I think part of that goes back to the punk days, where the idea of self-promotion and being a bragger was not a cool thing. But now the idea of bragging doesn't exist anymore. What does that word even mean? If everyone's bragging all the time, then it's no longer a word. If you're selling out, but everyone's a sellout, then you're not a sellout anymore.

At the same time, there's something nice about going to a place like Freemans where there aren't TVs around. It's less about people taking pictures of the artichoke dip than it is people actually coming around the table and eating, which I think was your mission for this place, right?

Maybe I'm wrong, but I would think some of those primitive [elements] that we have as humans will always be there. Or maybe not. Maybe in another five years or 20 years, people will forget or won't even know how to act at a dinner party or a dinner for two. It'll be interesting to see how we evolve as technology becomes more and more inseparable. You already see it in some restaurant settings, where all the phones are out.

Why'd you decide to publish a book now?

Different agents had been approaching me to write a book, initially. I had never thought about it. It just kept getting brought up, then once we got a book deal, it was about, "Oh, now I need to make a book." Once I got into it, it actually became a way of looking back at the work in the past 10 to 12 years. I think that became interesting, just to see patterns that I hadn't really noticed before in how I do things, or things I didn't like about my work and what I wanted to do next. It was a good way of putting a bow on the last decade.

It's also a good way of showcasing your idea of style and design, which have been very influential. How do you define style?

I was thinking about it last night when I was looking at someone else's work. I think a lot of times you're not aware. I mean, I looked at it in the book, putting all the images together, but I think a lot of times I think the style is just inherent within you. For me at least, it's about what your voice is and your point of view, and that's when it becomes a style. Or when you recognize somebody else's work, you may not even realize whose it is at first, but you see it, and you're like, "That looks like so-and-so's work," and you learn later that's who did that. I think when their voice is very apparent and they're in touch with it.

"It was a simpler time, a more innocent time, so we could be like, 'Yeah, we're going to open up a restaurant.'"

Everybody has ideas about style, but very few people have the vision to carry it out over extended periods and over extended concepts.

If you have guiding principals that can be elemental in concepts, then you can apply those parts to anything.

But it's tricky. You point out in the book how you started Freemans after working on a project in midtown where a well-known designer was starting to impart their own vision on something rather than paying attention to how people would interact with a space.

Yeah, I think you for sure have to respond to context and to be a good listener, whether it's to people or to spaces. A friend just said, "With branding, a lot of things seem like really great design, but it's for the wrong application." I think it's getting those things to line up where what you're designing is actually jiving with what the neighborhood wants, what the people want, what the building wants. If you listen well enough, that's when all of those things jell. When you force too much onto it, that's where there can become a sort of disconnect and it's beautiful bad design.

This is another thread in your book, talking about the different projects. You moved from a restaurant into doing menswear and a barber shop, then doing a bar. This is not something most restaurateurs or people who own restaurants are well advised to do, but you pulled it off pretty easily, right?

Well, I don't know about "easily." Again, I think if you have these guiding principals — that's what I had. At the time, working with a group of like-minded friends who then became collaborators and business partners, building that team organically and having good people around you, that's what made it possible. I don't think you can do anything by yourself. Those two businesses weren't possible had it not been for the friends that I had at the time.

I read an interview where you were talking about how you had the chance to experiment with Freemans and to make some failures and adjustments. You said, "I don't think we could've opened this place even five years ago, let alone today." Why do you think that is?

I think our culture has changed a lot in the last couple years. Between Instagram and social media, the "aestheticisation," if that's a word, where everyone's become an aesthete or an expert in all things. Everyone's a critic, everyone's a food blogger, everyone's an interior decorator or designer, everyone's a food stylist now, on the weekends or at night. I think it makes it that much harder on a restaurant opening today, let alone one that doesn't — like we don't have the same storyline as what you're supposed to have nowadays. We don't have a chef who is a named chef [or go to] all the right food events. Ken Friedman, my partner at the [Rusty] Knot, said in The New York Times in 2006, "I love Freemans. I just don't know why anyone goes there." His point was you don't have a celebrity chef; you don't have the connections that would bring you success.

From what I remember when you opened, the buzz was the taxidermy, the alley, the people dying to get in here.

Yeah, but it was from an outsider's perspective. I think the innocence, even though I've worked with Serge [Becker, the nightlife guru] back in the early 2000s, the food world hadn't got to the point where it is now, the cult of celebrity chefs and everyone wanting to be a celebrity chef. It was a simpler time, a more innocent time, so we could be just like, "Yeah, we're going to open up a restaurant." I don't believe you can really do that, especially in New York, without having international backers and a lot of money behind you and a lot of business plans. I've met some young guys in their 20s and they have business models and national expansion plans for their brand, brand synergy alliances that they're planning and marketing strategies. We didn't think anything like that.

How does that make you feel when you meet someone like that?

I wish I knew them before they started that so I could work with them now, get some guys like that on my team. But this happens in everything, whether it's sports or any business — it's the younger generation coming up. Everything's faster, earlier, quicker. They're more strategic; they're much more savvy in a way that they've been studying it longer and more calculated.

"No one wants to be niche or small anymore. They all want to be the next Shake Shack or the next Stephen Starr or Sweetgreen."

In New York, you look at all the different restaurant groups that have sprung up, certainty since you've opened, and everybody's goal is to open the next place. It's all about scale. You've tried to expand this model a little bit, right?

Peels and Isa. In retrospect, I look at some of the guys opening up their 16th or 25th restaurant and they're trying to get $100 million in sales, or $150 million in sales, and that's not why I wanted to make a restaurant in the first place. At the time, what I thought was, I was seeing glimpses of places that I thought were beautiful or inspiring, and there was just one of them, whether it was a boring café in Minneapolis or Café Moto in Brooklyn. They were these beautiful places that inspired me, but I never thought, "I can't wait to open one of those in Miami," or "I can't wait until we get our Dubai deal." But maybe that's just the way the culture's gone now. There were big restaurateurs in the early 2000s that had lots of different places, but I thought at the time that our motivation was to do something different from that. I feel like now, 12 years later, the young guys want to do exactly what the big guys do. No one wants to be niche or small anymore. They all want to be the next Shake Shack or the next Stephen Starr or Sweetgreen, whatever it is.

I wanted to ask you about Peels. I've always found it interesting that you were closing the restaurant but designing a new restaurant, Bar Primi, for Andrew Carmellini that was going in the same space. How did that come about?

Peels could've fallen victim to the classic New York City landlord [story]. The starting point was the landlord that we knew that was our friend sold it to a big midtown developer or real estate company. They paid a lot for it, and they realized that we occupied more than 50 percent of the building and our lease was very old. They wanted more rent, so rather than us becoming a victim in this situation, we ended up working out sort of a trifecta deal between the new landlord, ourselves, and then we brought in a tenant, which was NoHo Hospitality. It was a way of saving ourselves — initially they were trying to evict us. But that happens all over the city all the time. Josh Pickard, who was one of my early bosses, is part of NoHo Hospitality, so he was like, "Since you know the project, and since we have a short lead time, why don't you help revamp it?"

Was that a challenge as an architect?

I thought it was kind of fun because after [Peels] was open for five years, there were always things that you saw every day that were like, "Oh, I wish I could change that" or "I wish I could change this. If I ever did this over, these are the five things I would do." So I already knew instantly what were things I would change. We added a second bathroom downstairs, which was something we always knew we wanted to do. We added an employee bathroom — that was top of the priority list, the bathroom situation, because when you have a busy restaurant, you have kitchen staff and the public.

Is having an upstate getaway as ideal as you make it out to be in the book?

There's two things: 1) We now have two daughters, and the weekly schedule of going up there on Fridays and coming back on Sundays got really old and became a grind, packing up the car and the dog and the whole thing, then unpacking, cleaning the house and doing that whole thing. So, we actually moved up there full time as an experiment toward the end of this last summer. We've been up there now full time for a couple of months.

And you just come back when you need to?

Yeah, I come back usually a couple days a week. Then I'll drive back up tonight. I much prefer this because I will say the weekly process was just such a grind. When I was a kid [in rural Pennsylvania], I always dreamed of living in New York City; I've always loved New York. I drank the Kool-Aid a long time ago that there was nowhere else in the world other than New York City. So the thought of not living here full time was such a foreign concept to me. I was like, "I don't think that's possible; you can't move outside of the city." After I did it, and I would come back, it was like, "Actually, you can move out of the city and not only that, but there are other parts of the country, other parts of the world, that I wouldn't mind living in." I think that initial hurdle of the cult of the city and we're all in it together, we all support each other's relationship with it. We put up with high rents, we put up with the traffic and the subways and the noise and all that stuff, but we have to remind ourselves why it's so great to live here. Which, it is great to live here, but it's also great to visit it for work.