Photo illustration by Johansen Peralta
Aug 29, 2022
‘Me, the menu … or both?’ Behind the scenes at Leland Eating and Drinking House
Randi Lee and Jeannette Zinno open up about their popular Prospect Heights eatery — and their recent reality TV experience
People who pay close attention to the Brooklyn dining scene will have heard of Leland Eating and Drinking House, a restaurant in Prospect Heights that somehow opened during the pandemic and survived through ingenuity, hospitality and really good bread to go.
People who watch a lot of reality television will recognize the proprietors of Leland Eating and Drinking house: Randi Lee, the restaurant’s co-owner and his fiancee Jeanette Zinno appeared in the Food Network docuseries “Me or the Menu” over the summer. The show focused on couples whose relationships were under strain because of the attention and effort that goes into running a restaurant. The title of the show sounds like an ultimatum but the series is over and the couple is still together — they still don’t have a date for the wedding, though — and Leland Eating and Drinking House is enjoying its neighborhood darling status.
Zinno and Lee join us on “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast” to discuss their experience on the show, the story of the Leland Eating and Drinking House and … how to survive as a couple that gets into business together (spoiler: maybe don’t).
This transcript has been edited for readability and flow.
Avid TV watchers might have heard of you from”Me or the Menu.” The premise suggested by the title is that one of you — in this case Randi — is all in on the restaurant. And the other one — in this case Jeannette — would like a little more attention paid to the relationship. Is that a fair recap of the show?
Randi Lee: They followed us for four months. Following us every waking moment of our days, trying to get a little bit more information about our relationship and how working and living together is difficult, and how you run a restaurant that’s just been born at the same time. There’s a lot of nooks and crannies that they dove into.
And Jeanette, you invested it. You never had the goal of going into the restaurant industry but here you are.
Jeanette Zinno: Yes. And on the show, I say, “It’s not my baby.”
But you survived the show. It was called “Me or the Menu.” So who won?
Zinno: I’m still here. We’re still together. So I guess I won. But the restaurant still does exist. It was a wild ride and we both survived. Barely. We’re alive and the restaurant’s doing well.
You were engaged before the show. Are you guys still engaged? Do you have a date? What’s the status?
Zinno: We got engaged right before the pandemic. So we had plans during the pandemic to have an engagement party and a wedding. And then everything happened. Now we are starting to talk about that again. It’s just still no date.
Lee: I mean, the funny thing is that we’re now entertaining other people’s weddings.
Let’s go back to the beginning. You signed the lease, what, in February of 2020?
Lee: It took us almost a year and a half to get in front of the landlords. We love our spot. We love our landlords. They’re kind of part of our family. We’re part of their family, I guess.
It’s where Dean Street bar used to be in Prospect Heights. Talk about that timing. So finally, February 2020, you guys are good to go and then nothing bad happened.
Lee: Luckily we had something in our lease that said that during a catastrophe, we could get out of the lease and we could leave, but we decided to stick it out. For what reason? Just because we needed to, we had to.
Zinno: It was March and I was like, “Well, basically what do we do? We’re either in or out.” And then we’re just like, “Well, we have nothing else to do. This is your dream. Move forward. And just do it.” That’s what New Yorkers do.
Do you get the sense that having been on the show has helped awareness or do you worry that it might tarnish your brand a little bit? Was there a question there about doing it?
Zinno: In the beginning I was like, “We have to do this. It will give us a huge platform and be able to tell our story.” And in the beginning it was not really a couples show. It was a little bit different because when they found us, they had pitched it a little bit differently, but I guess that’s how TV works. So I was all in. Randi doesn’t have as much TV experience and is not as open and loud as me. So I feel like you did question that a little.
Lee: I mean, I questioned it every day. I was being recorded for 12 hours a day for four months. There’s amount of time where you look back and you’re like, “Oh, did I say that? Is that how I said it? Was that in this right order or not?” There’s a lot of questions that you have.
But you would say that the experience was a net positive, now that you’re on the other side of it?
Zinno: Food Network to work with was amazing. We do get people that come in that are Randi super fans.
You are both very telegenic.
Lee: We’ve actually had people from my hometown come and there was a couple of people from L.A., Texas, it’s been interesting. Obviously with film, TV and streaming, it can keep on going.
Going back, then, you signed this lease in February, everything sort of shuts down, but that gives you a time to sort of renovate. You create this beautiful space. And then by the time you’re ready to open, the pandemic shuts indoor dining for a second time, is that right?
Lee: We kind of had a hard date that we sat and talked with the team and said, “We’re going to open up on December 10th.” And that was probably a month out because it was a week after Thanksgiving. People would be back. They would be interested. And for three days we had a restaurant. I think it was Thursday we opened up and we had a great service. And then Friday, my brother texted me because he was on Bloomberg and it came across the ticket and was like, “Hey, New York’s shutting down on Monday.”
The one time I ate there, it was probably the most amazing focaccia I’ve ever had. Talk about the baking program that you’ve come up with. And I know your background, Randi, is you were a bartender. You were at Del Posto and Spotted Pig.
Lee: I don’t think you can love beverage without loving food or vice versa. So all my trips around the world were based off of food and wine. When I became a sommelier, I decided that I really wanted to kind of immerse myself in the other parts of the industry, which is fermenting and bread making and all these things that when we threw our own parties at our house, our own dinner parties, we wanted something special and there’s nothing more special than fresh bread. That was something that I took on. I just started baking a lot of different types of bread. Pizzas and bagels and sourdough, focaccias. I just thought that there was just this thing that was out there that I needed to learn more about.
And that was something that really was going during the darker days of the pandemic. People could come by and pick up bread. People couldn’t eat there.
Lee: It was funny because we learned a lot. Obviously during the pandemic, you never knew who was going to be walking by because we didn’t have reservations. We just basically baked bread. And if you came by, you were lucky enough to get it. You could have come in for a wine. Most people came in for a bottle of wine and maybe they looked over and, “Oh you have bread here too.” And then it was kind of a routine.
You mentioned that a lot of the food is locally sourced. What’s the menu like today? What can people expect?
Lee: As much as possible we’re trying to source things within a three hour drive from where we are here. So we’re in the Catskills. Montauk is where most of our fish come from or in Shinnecock Hills. Those are our two ports that we use. All of our meats and vegetables are New Jersey, Pennsylvania, upstate New York, Catskills. That’s kind of the base of all of our food.
It’s a pricey way to run a business I would imagine.
Lee: Funny enough, we have these great relationships with all our team, our farmers, the distributors, and we’re traveling less. Now that there’s a lot of tariffs and shipping and transportation costs, it kind of comes down to a better economical decision for us. I can tell you a lot of our farmers are just excited that they can offload stuff. Right now we have a yu choy on the menu, which probably wouldn’t sell anywhere else.
You originally went to art school, right? How does this happen?
Lee: I went to the School Art Institute of Chicago. It was eons ago. I really wanted to become the next ceramicist, potter, whatever it was. And then I went to the art institute and they basically took pottery out of my brain because that’s a craft, not an art. Back then at least it was. And so I started getting into foundry and I’ve always been in the wood shop. So I started running the wood shop program there. And at the same time I was working at the restaurants to pay my way through school. I still love the arts. I mean, I look at what we do now in the restaurant more as a craft.
How did you guys meet?
Lee: Jeanette was a customer of ours. Of mine. I was at the Spotted Pig.
Zinno: I heard there was a secret menu. So I came in and I was like, “I want to see the secret menu.” Randi was at the host stand and he’s like, “There’s no secret menu. Why don’t you wait for your table at the bar?” So I had a drink and he told me there was going to be a little wait and sat me right away. And then I was like, “Oh, who’s this guy?”
The Spotted Pig obviously came to sort of a crazy end. Were you there for any of that? [Ken Friedman], the owner, was faced with sexual misconduct charges. What was the vibe like? Were you there?
Lee: I was at Del Posto for the first opening year and then after the first year, the whole team, after we got reviewed, kind of dispersed. The Spotted Pig had just opened up during that time. It had just received its first Michelin star. Everybody in the industry was talking about it, but they didn’t have a general manager. So the first year and a half was really crazy. People were partying and you know what happens when you don’t have anybody in charge. So I came in to kind of wrangle all of that and put systems into place. But at the same time, keep what the Spotted Pig was, which was a casual neighborhood bar that really highlighted its neighborhood and its friends and its family. It’s very easy to get away from what your original concept is. Especially when you get that popular.
What do you take away from that experience having been there? I guess it closed in 2020. You were long gone at that point.
Lee: The positive things obviously, are that neighborhood is everything. We do this here at Leland, which is every person who comes through here that’s local, who lives down the street, we’ll bend over backwards for them, their family, their dogs, everything that you want in a neighborhood restaurant. That makes you kind of different and unique. There’s a lot of places that get really popular when they first open and they forget about the people who built them.
Do you guys have advice for couples who go into business together either willingly or accidentally?
Lee: My big advice is try not to bring home the work. While it’s hard for us to go out to dinner without observing things that make a restaurant tick, we also have to have stuff outside. So make sure that your whole life isn’t about the business.
Where do you guys eat? Give shoutouts to some other places that you have no vested interest in. What’s a date in Brooklyn for you two?
Lee: I will shout out to Brooklyn Crab because we go to Brooklyn Crab on a Monday day after we’re running to IKEA, Home Depot, whatever it is to crush a Dungeness crab when they’re in season and have a beer on the water.
Zinno: Leland is closed on Monday and Tuesday. So those are kind of our days to actually dine out and try places. I’m seagan so I eat basically mostly just fish and vegetables. So that works for me.
You guys are very ambitious. You’re good at pivoting so there must be something on the horizon.
Lee: Right now, this is our first year really because during the pandemic. We weren’t able to open inside when we first opened. Now we’re able to book the restaurant. So we’re really excited to have this first year of having a business that is up and running. Right now we’re going to do a Tuesday night pop-up dinner that we’re working with Prospect Butcher, they’re doing a breakdown of a hog. And then we’re cooking a bunch of different courses for that. We’re currently open Wednesday through Sunday. We’re looking to expand our service for another day, which will be amazing because I know on Mondays and Tuesdays, it’s slim pickings out there for restaurants.
Are you able to pull yourself away from the business more now, Jeanette, or are you still…
Zinno: I’m actually not at Leland that much anymore. I do our Instagram and all of that stuff, but yeah, I’m not bartending or hosting or doing those things anymore, which is really nice to kind of have a little bit of a separation, even though I do all PR branding, marketing or merch and all that fun stuff. But I’m working on my own show, a travel show. I do a lot of travel writing and would involve food and beverage. I’m in the pitching stage. So it’s nothing much to talk about, but that’s my next dream job.
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