To call what’s happening inside the walls of Flying Star Cafe’s location in Nob Hill a “renovation” falls short. “Remodel” doesn’t do it justice either. Contractors are taking the World War II-era building, which was the first Flying Star (nee Double Rainbow) down to its original brick walls, installing new, well, everything, from sewer pipes to seating. The rebooted restaurant is slated to reopen the week of October 21, just in time for the Albuquerque chain to celebrate 32 years as a local, independent business.
In many ways, Flying Star is going back to its roots. More than three decades after founding the business, Jean and Mark Bernstein are doubling down on the location where the journey began, and they’re back at the helm of day-to-day operations.
Investing almost a million dollars in the flagship location was an act of cognitive dissonance, Mark says. The cafe was no longer a sales leader among the Bernsteins’ six Flying Star locations. (They also own six—soon to be seven—Satellite Coffee locations and the bakery that serves their restaurants.) They say construction along the Central Avenue/Route 66 corridor during the Albuquerque Rapid Transit project had hobbled the Nob Hill location’s business. “It redirected casual traffic and took the business out of people’s temporary memory,” Mark says. They weren’t the only business that felt the squeeze. As they looked around the neighborhood, they saw empty shop windows and several shuttered restaurants, including Elaine’s, Scalo and Zacatecas.
They considered whether keeping Flying Star in Nob Hill was a sound long-term decision. An evening walk through the neighborhood one Friday changed their thinking. They strolled the neighborhood in which they had lived and worked for decades. When they arrived at the restaurant, they found it hopping. Friends sat laughing in window booths; couples toasted date nights. It remained a neighborhood gathering place—just as it had been from the start. “We’ve served millions of people at that location. Many of them over and over again. And they’re still there,” Mark says.
And upon reflection, the Bernsteins acknowledged that the neighborhood’s current status felt familiar. In 1987 when they launched their business, Nob Hill was in a similar slump. The neighborhood recovered in the 1990s, and the Bernsteins see it poised for a similar growth cycle now thanks to the addition of several luxury condo apartments and long-term housing under construction from east of I-25 to Washington. “It’s still one of the only funky urban areas in the city. It’s the only place among malls and out-of-state corporate developments that we Albuquerqueans can call our own,” Jean says. So, the Bernsteins went all in—again.
The Bernsteins’ vision for the rebuilt restaurant reflects how their guests use space: as a place to congregate and linger. The front door will open into a room with a long communal table. Booths will still line the windows looking out onto old Route 66. A new wine and beer bar, which the restaurant had when it first opened, will offer similar views. The restaurant will also have lounge areas, with couches and low coffee tables, encouraging customers to hang out for a while. Exposed brick walls will play backdrop to seating upholstered in warm tones. “It will be comfortable, yet sophisticated,” Jean says. The design lives up to the business’s new credo: fine cuisine in a coffee shop scene.
Flying Star Nob Hill isn’t the only thing that’s new again. “We’re a completely different company than we were a few years ago,” Mark says.
On January 30, 2015, Flying Star filed for bankruptcy. The filing seems overdetermined considering all the factors that were stacked against them. “She points to the Great Recession, from which New Mexico was slow to recover, as a key factor in the business’s downturn and the steady dribble of people and families that left the Metro area during this time. She cites the 16-day government shutdown in 2013, the third-longest shutdown in U.S. history, as the final straw leading to the bankruptcy. During that period, furloughed employees from Kirtland Air Force Base and Sandia National Labs, and small government contractors, which make up a large portion of the Duke City’s workforce, stayed home—turning Flying Star’s otherwise bustling restaurants into ghost towns.
And if that didn’t urge some soul-searching, the specter of a hostile takeover gave the Bernsteins laser focus. “It helped us see our own worth,” Mark says. But persisting meant the Bernsteins had to invest their own life savings to recover the company. “We believed in it and felt we were the only ones that could resurrect it,” Mark says.
The Bernsteins resumed daily operations, which they’d previously handed off to a management team. They let their top-level managers go. “The great news was that our customers stayed and our best employees stayed. Through the whole thing, all the best people stayed,” Jean says.
Unburdened by money-draining downtown Albuquerque and Santa Fe Railyard’s leases, the Bernsteins were able to emerge from the bankruptcy proceedings two years after filing. “It’s truly one of the greatest turn-around stories you’ll ever hear,” Mark says. Resuming the operations has been, “just as exhausting as I thought it would be,” Jean laughs. “We’re very involved, and the pace is relentless.”
“But seeing the customer response keeps us going,” Mark adds. “And the people,” Jean counters. “We like who we work with and our customers. If you don’t like people, you shouldn’t be in the restaurant business.”
Pulling Flying Star out of the red has meant getting back to basics: good food. They chased dishes customers craved. They traced recipes back to their beginnings and followed them to the plate, eliminating food waste and improving execution along the way. They grew their in-house bakery operation, including providing a chef’s line of desserts to hotels and food service. Jean says it’s now one of the largest homegrown bakeries in the state.
Jean reminds that the menu starts with high-quality ingredients, like humanely raised meats that are free of antibiotics and hormones; eggs from cage-free hens; wild-caught Atlantic cod; and organic whole grains. Products are also made in house, from the pickles and strawberry jam, to salad dressings, the flexitarian veggie burger and of course, all the cakes and pastries. They source and roast organic coffee beans from a women’s cooperative and other certified origin sources. They partner with Rishi Tea and Botanicals, a fair-trade importer that sources from ecologically sustainable gardens. “After 32 years, what we do gets taken for granted,” Jean says. “We still want to be the best at what we do.”
Their efforts are paying dividends. Mark says Flying Star’s business is setting new sales records. In fact, “it’s better than any time in our 32-year history,” Mark says.
Flying Star has gone back to its roots, from rebuilding its original location to placing its founders at the helm. Choosing to root in Albuquerque—yet again—is a tenacious choice when so many pull up those roots instead. It reflects the spirit of Nob Hill, which stands as a vestige of the Duke City’s independent and eclectic entrepreneurs. And it reflects a belief and pride in Albuquerque—and her people.