Operating in NYC’s Port Authority brings challenges by the busload

NEW YORK Port Authority Bus Terminal, one of the city’s most highly trafficked but notorious spots, has long been considered a culinary wasteland. But that may start to change as restaurateurs see opportunity in the area’s improvement, just as the cleanup of nearby Times Square eventually turned that once-seedy landmark into a restaurant destination of sorts.

The first major project to stake out turf in the Big Apple’s major bus center is Metro Marché, a full-service French bistro combined with a takeout shop. The hybrid eatery, which opened in late 2006, faces an operational challenge: Not only are there two styles of service beneath one roof, but patrons want their food in a New York minute.

There’s also the breadth of the clientele to address. Customers include commuters dashing to make their bus to New Jersey or Pennsylvania, area office workers, people grabbing dinner before a Broadway play, as well as some locals looking for a leisurely bite or brew.

Speed is rule No. 1. For the dinner rush, Simon Glenn, the executive chef of Metro Marché, strives to deliver appetizers within seven minutes of receiving the order and entrées soon after. There are four stations on the long production line. With the place geared to quick service, servers are instructed to specify on the order ticket if a table is not in a rush.

“We try to deliver the food as fast as possible,” Glenn said. “We just power it out.”

Metro Marché is a joint venture between restaurateur Simon Oren, partner and operator of several French eateries, and Steve Tenedios, principal in S.T. Management Group, operator of about 20 takeout shops in Manhattan, most under the banner Café Metro.

“The two of them came together and said let’s make this work,” said Ty Sullivan, director of marketing for S.T. Management. So far, sales are meeting expectations, he said.

The restaurant is divided into the takeout cafe, in the front of the space, and the sit-down, full-service area in back. Though set up to handle takeout, the cafe features some seating. It follows the model of the Café Metro chain, offering most of the same products. The choices include breakfast pastries, omelets — which are made in less than two minutes — tossed-to-order salads, paninis, and various grab-and-go items. Between 30 percent and 35 percent of revenues are generated in the cafe.

The dining room, with 110 seats, has its own menu. The best-seller is Steak Frites, a strip steak with hand-cut fries and béarnaise sauce for $19.95 at dinner, followed by Seared Atlantic salmon with Yukon Gold mashed potatoes for $18.95, Glenn said. The dining room has dark wood accents and a terrazzo floor. The bar, which seats an additional 30, features a zinc bar imported from Paris. Crunch time is pre-theater.

The business is a hybrid that has evolved. The cafe and dining room are treated as two entities in terms of analyzing costs, but there is one bottom line. Of the 50 employees on the payroll when staff is at its height, about a third is dedicated to the café. There is some crossover during busy times.

Collaboration is key. Glenn, who focuses on the full-service component, shares an office with the café manager, Jimmy Villegas. They make sure they are not duplicating purchasing. Thanks to S.T. Management’s buying power, Glenn uses some of its established purveyors, but also has some of his own for specialty ingredients. “It is very cooperative,” he said.

Operating in the busy transportation hub has some challenges for deliveries. In the beginning, the restaurant benefited from being next to a street that was closed to traffic after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It provided a convenient place for smaller vendors to stop and make a quick delivery — there is also a nearby loading dock. The street was reopened recently, making it harder for small purveyors to park and dash in. One ice cream vendor gave up the account rather than battle with traffic, said Jim Tula, general manager.

The receiver comes in at 5 a.m., and there is always at least one employee at the restaurant who can receive orders at any time, Tula said.

Aminor issue has been handling the occasional troublemaker in a neighborhood that still has its share of hustlers, panhandlers and runaways. “In the beginning we were tested by shady characters,” Tula said. “They were asked to leave in a nice way.”