A story I wrote for Carolina Eats.
Photography by Alex Dixon.
It’s the last night at Mozzarella Kitchen and Alan Sukirin is clearing a table overflowing with plates stained from curry, stroganoff and ginger papaya salad, and empty bottles of wine; the remnants of a five-course fusion feast.
The Asian-Italian fusion restaurant at 401 W. Franklin St. opened in August. On Feb. 6, Mozzarella Kitchen’s owner and chef, Sukirin, decided to sell off the building. In a few days, the new owner will tear down the moose head that currently hangs on the wall, strip the lace tablecloths and remove the neon lights.
(photo courtesy of Brenden Powell)
Failure and Food
Restaurants are a notoriously difficult business; some studies claiming a one-year failure rate at 90 percent.
However, a 2005 Cornell University study produced a more optimistic rate: 26 percent failure in the first year. Still, the study found that failure rates were significantly higher for smaller, independent businesses like Sukirin’s.
Sukirin was often the only guest in his own restaurant during his time on Franklin. But his restaurant had a passionate, if small, community of disciples.
Sukirin is celebrating and mourning the last night with a group of UNC-Chapel Hill students and twenty-somethings. Another younger group of students is expected later. Wearing a black beanie and zip-up sweatshirt, Sukirin fits in with backpack-toting college students. He sits next to Brenden Powell, a UNC-Chapel Hill senior from Ocean Isle Beach, N.C.
Powell gestures over to the table. He says the five-course dinner was more than a meal; it was an event. Mozzarella Kitchen was the site of birthday parties, late-night dinners and dates for Powell’s group of friends. Though Powell has only known Sukirin for a few months, they interact like close friends.
Powell occasionally texted Sukirin after a night at the bars and asked to pick up an order of dumplings or calamari. Tonight, when Powell compliments a dish, Sukirin laughs and says, “I love you, man” on his way back to the cramped back kitchen.
“When you come in, you feel like you’re at home,” Powell says. “They treat you like you’re their family. Where else can you get that?”
The Journey to Chapel Hill
Sukirin took an unlikely path to Mozzarella Kitchen. He was born in Malaysia, moved the U.S. with his family and graduated from Harvard in 2007 with a digital film degree. Working as an animator for films like “The Wolverine,” he started catering after going out to eat with friends and thinking, “I can do better.”
He moved to Chapel Hill after his uncle, who owned the former Trilussa La Trattoria,had a heart attack and moved to Italy. He cleaned up his uncle’s kitchen, which he said his friends called “the worst kitchen they had ever seen.” He wished he could make his own pasta and buy a sous-vide cooker, a French method of slow cooking in water. But he made do cooking with fresh, local ingredients to create his own curries and sauces, his favorite things to cook.
But after tidying up the kitchen and transforming the dining room from traditional to quirky, Sukirin says he realized that Chapel Hill was not accustomed to fusion food.
He says in New York, Milan and Boston (where he owned to another restaurant, Sweet and Basil), fusion food is mainstream.
In New York alone, Asian-Italian restaurants abound: Dieci, Basta Pasta, Greenwich Grill … not including restaurants fusing everything from Mexican to Vietnamese. In 2011, the New York Times featured DoraNonnie, an Italian-Asian tapas restaurant started by Top Chef contestant Danny Gagnon.
In Chapel Hill, Sukirin says people have prejudices and fears that kept them out of the restaurant. Once, a customer started crying because her pasta dish wasn’t traditional enough. People often walked by the restaurant and looked inside, but they rarely came in.
“There is some prejudice over here,” he says. “When they try a meal, they won’t like.”
He says others laughed at “an Asian cooking Italian.”
He says that an unwillingness to try new food in Chapel Hill ultimately caused him to close.
“Less adventurous, less business for me,” he says.
He motioned toward Powell and Zachary DeBartolo, 30, owner of Mission Service Inc., a Chapel Hill marketing consulting firm. He says people, especially students, were also his favorite part of his Chapel Hill experience.
“I love them so much,” he says. “They’re the ones that keep me going and going. They make me feel like home again.”
DeBartolo tried Mozzarella Kitchen in September. To him, Mozzarella Kitchen is like nothing else in Chapel Hill. He thinks the restaurant ultimately failed because Sukirin did not have an effective social media and marketing plan. Sukirin could cater to a high-cuisine market, but his youthful vibe appealed to students. Lost in the middle, Mozzarella Kitchen failed.
As DeBartolo talks and eats teriyaki salmon hot from the kitchen, Powell lets his friend, Kevin Thomas, 36, in the front door. Thomas is a Chapel Hill musician and producer who goes by Kaze. It’s his first time in Mozzarella Kitchen.
“I’ve heard a lot about you, man,” Thomas says to Sukirin.
“Two legends clash!” Powell shouts.
Thomas, Powell, Sukirin and DeBartalo sit around the not-quite cleared table with a bottle of wine. Sukirin brings out calamari, and Powell passes the plate over to Thomas, telling him to try it out. It’s Thomas’ first time having calamari and he is hesitant—he always had an aversion to it.
“You turned me on to calamari, Alan,” he says, and takes another bite of the lightly breaded garlic aioli calamari, dipping it into homemade marinara.
He says that he regrets not coming to Mozzarella Kitchen earlier.
“I’m mad you’re leaving, and I just found out,” he says to Sukirin.
Thomas says that as Chapel Hill grows and more restaurants like McDonalds and Jimmy John’s move in, there’s a risk.
“We need more places like this,” he says. “It’s getting real corporate on Franklin.”
As they finish their calamari and wine, another group of students walk in the door.
There’s a Facebook event for tonight—“Resuscitate Mozzarella Kitchen,” started by Jalynn Harris, an UNC-Chapel Hill freshman from Baltimore.
“Ok. Mozz is going to be gone (aka closing) in less than 48 hours,” the event page says. “Please celebrate a legacy of the most delicious $5 sandwiches (and food in general) on this side of the hill. Give lots of love to Churi and Alan. Dance in the kitchen. Let them let you make your own food.”
Juiliana Ritter, a UNC-Chapel Hill freshman from Carrboro, N.C., throws her bag down and introduces herself to the table.
“Alan’s the best,” she says. “This is the worst situation ever.”
“We all feel the same way,” Powell says.
Ritter’s been coming to Mozzarella Kitchen since the fall. Sometimes, she cooked desserts, like fried cinnamon sticks, with Sukirin and his mom, Churi, in the kitchen. Her favorite dish was the Bacon Beacon stuffed bread, best described as a croissant stuffed with bacon, ham, parsley and mozzarella cheese.
“I get to spy in the kitchen, hang out with Alan, have a dance party,“ she says. “It feels like the best thing to do any given night.”
Two weeks later, the deal is off. Sukirin had celebrated too early — his buyer, the former owner of Hot Dogs & Brew, Chris McCracken, couldn’t secure a loan and Mozzarella Kitchen was once again caught in limbo.
Sukirin broke even in February, but next month? He had no idea.
Days passed. People walked by and looked at the menu photos pasted lopsided on the smudged windows. They still didn’t come in.
But Sukirin’s disciples were there, day after day. One of these disciples is Joao Ritter, an UNC-Chapel Hill sophomore from Carrboro. He was at Mozzarella Kitchen with his sister Juliana when Sukirin decided to close.
When the Sukirin’s deal fell through, Ritter had a plan. He was passionate about making Mozzarella Kitchen successful.
“Normally when I bring people here for the first time, they are interested in what this place can be,” Ritter said. “They look around and see really poor marketing and poor design, but they taste this delicious food. There’s this instant desire to make this place better, and make it better fast.”
He asked Sukirin to let him help redo the décor and rewrite the menu, which was scattered with misspellings. He wanted to fund the renovation with a sort of crowd-funded investment scheme—students and loyal customers throwing in $50 to $100 dollars, making their investment back within a year if the restaurant turned a profit.
It took a few days, but Sukirin sent Ritter a text message:
“Let’s do it.”