When The Elm finally admitted it was closing, we were certainly surprised, but not all that broken up about it (while it had style to spare, the haughty hotel-based eatery had very little heart). Pacifico’s Fine Foods, on the other hand, was essentially all heart, and consistently made some of the most memorable food we’ve had in the last year, with both the restaurant and its chef, Shanna Pacifico, topping every single one of our recent “best of” lists.
So we were legitimately saddened and shocked when she reached out to us on Friday night, prior to issuing a press release announcing that Pacifico’s would shutter at the end of this week. Due to financial struggles, partner Roberto Aita has decided to remake the wholly original seasonal Brazilian spot into a paint-by-numbers Italian trattoria—despite the existence of three identical restaurants within a two block radius.
And while she’s quick to stress how grateful she is for the experience and opportunity, the understandably disconsolate Pacifico spoke candidly about the dissolution of the restaurant, from the supposed source of its financial woes, to what the next step is in her culinary career.
Considering our own regular, resounding endorsement of Pacifico’s, along with overwhelmingly positive feedback from critics and customers alike, we can’t say we saw this one coming. Did you?
We all knew we were at an “oh crap” moment. There were lots of talks about figuring out how to hold on and make the restaurant work, because we were busy during the weekends but slow during the week. My sous chef left in September, and my partners decided not to replace him, and we made cuts where we could. We had secured a final bit of money to get us to the next quarter, and my assumption was that we would make even more cuts after that. But when Roberto approached me next, it was to say that he had decided to transform Pacifico’s into an Italian restaurant instead, because he knew he could do it for cheaper and make his money back.
That just seems so bizarre, considering there’s already a critical mass of Italian restaurants in Brooklyn. Not to mention Crown Heights. Not to mention that even the Franny’s team couldn’t rouse all that much excitement over Marco’s. It’s also the rare restaurant that turns a profit in its first year, so why pull the plug when the concept is sound and the food is on point?
It was a business decision, not a personal decision. That doesn’t mean I think it’s the right decision, but I respect that it was his decision to make. Roberto is Italian; he knows Italian food. And in all reality, people want to eat Italian. When people discuss what they want for dinner, it tends to be a toss-up between Italian, French, sushi and Mexican. And while his Clinton Hill restaurant, Aita, hasn’t gotten very much buzz, it’s making money and is paying for itself. It’s also in a wealthier neighborhood where there isn’t so much as a bodega within three blocks in any direction. Of course, Crown Heights is different, and I don’t think Italian is what this neighborhood wants or needs. But since Roberto didn’t spend all that much time here, the decision was ultimately based on numbers, not on the kind of feedback we’ve gotten from our customers. I got asked for hugs three times a week, just for cooking food! The restaurant was working on every level but financially.
So why do you think Pacifico’s proved financially unsustainable?
Roberto has always believed that it was the concept, because the Italian restaurant down the street is busier than us. But it’s been there for two years. Maybe if we opened in this neighborhood three or four years ago, and were one of the first great restaurants on the block, it would be a different story, but this neighborhood is saturated right now, and the truth is, good restaurants close all the time, everywhere. I also think people thought this was a fancy restaurant at the beginning, maybe because of the “Fine Foods” part of the name, even though I named the restaurant after my parents carnival food business. Maybe it was the menu, because at the beginning, I would watch people walk up, read it and walk away. So we’ve been moving the menu around a thousand different ways; I changed any foreign words out for English words. And it helped a little bit, but not enough. And who knows if any of that was the issue. When it comes down to it, we were a new restaurant in a neighborhood where people don’t necessarily go out to eat every night of the week.
Do you think it was Roberto’s hope that you would stay on despite the new concept, or do you think the intention was to push you out entirely?
I believe Roberto was genuinely hoping that I would sign on and keep the name Pacifico’s. But I didn’t feel like it was the right thing to do. Not that there was bad blood, but too much had passed for me to all of a sudden change gears and make lasagna. I like to try to make things unique and my own vision and maybe I’ll never be rich because of it, but I just can’t cook, or live, any other way.
When you initially signed on, you were an actual partner, not just a chef for hire. So what does that mean in regards to your future interests in the company?
I was a working partner with both a salary and a percentage that would increase over the years until I was an equal partner. But I’m cutting ties. Even though they wanted to keep me on as a partner, the decision was made without me as a partner. So its just time for me to stop and reevaluate what the next step is in my career.
Prior to Pacifico’s, you were essentially one foot out of the city. You had left Back Forty West, after having worked with Peter Hoffman for ten years, and were bartending in order to clear your head. So where’s your head at now?
Since I’m really heartbroken, it’s hard for me to think about it clearly. I guess I could go and be an executive chef somewhere else in the city and get paid a decent salary and work for somebody else again, but I enjoy working for myself. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ll ever open another restaurant in NYC. So yeah, I guess you’d say I’m about a foot and a half out of the city at this point. There are thousands of people like me who are talented and have ideas and want to work for themselves and put their head down and make a life. And with all of that competition, it’s become increasingly hard for anyone to fill a restaurant; even the big, well-known establishments. I can feel it through the way everyone constantly advertises on social media. Because if you drop your guard for even one second in this industry, people are going to forget all about you.