'Last Hurrahs and Tears': Tribeca's Souths Awaits Its Last Last Call

Souths' owners Roger Herr, left, and Johnny Griffin. "I feel like New York was telling us: It was a great 18 years but step aside. Let somebody else give it a go," Herr said. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Apr. 09, 2018

Sometime in the wee hours of Saturday morning, April 28, “Tiny Dancer” will play above the din at Souths, signaling as it always does, last call at the bar. But on this night, the Elton John classic will usher out not just a night of drink and saloon chatter, but a cherished hub of community. After nearly 18 years, the restaurant-bar at 273 Church St. will be one more empty storefront in Tribeca.  

“You're going to see a lot of last hurrahs, a lot of tears,” said Jason Moore, 44, who has tended bar at Souths since the day it opened in the summer of 2000. “There will be so much emotion, the closing probably won’t really hit me until a week later.”

The news is hitting many regulars hard. One of them, Bob Eckman, 56, has been coming to Souths for lunch and after work for some 10 years. “Oh my God, I found out yesterday at work and literally I started to cry,” said Eckman, whose office at the Environmental Protection Agency is nearby.  “This has been a part of my life for so many years. When my father passed away I spent the afternoon here.”

“It’s a personable place that you don’t get when you go to other bars that are just a business,” he added. “This is not just a business to Roger and Johnny.”

Nevertheless, it was a business, owned by Roger Herr and Johnny Griffin, and it struggled in the last couple of years.

The partners took over Souths (originally called S.J. Souths & Sons) after working for years at the Ear Inn on Spring Street. The days following the decision to close were “very tough,” Griffin said, and all the more heartbreaking because many of the workers had been there for so many years. “They are staff but they’re friends as well,” he said. “And lifetime friends now.”

One of them is Carla Lucentini, a server at Souths for close to 10 years. Like other staff, she said she stayed because Herr and Griffin treated her well, and the clientele was easy. “Most of my friends today are from this place, some customers and workers,” Lucentini said. “So it’s hard to leave this little sort of family. Feeling comfortable. Feeling loved.”

Last week, the staff gathered to talk about the closing. Led by a tearful Herr, the meeting was short and filled with silences, Lucentini said. “Everyone was processing their feelings and keeping it to themselves, trying not to show,” she said. “And adjusting to the news. It was like, wow, it is happening.”

And why did it happen? Every business that closes has its own story, and often it’s not a simple one. Here, in an edited interview, is what Griffin and Herr said about Souths.

What led to your decision to close Souths?

Johnny Griffin Business had begun declining two years ago and last year was our worst year ever. The building last year was up for sale. We were approached by a potential buyer of the building and we agreed on a buyout price and he had already lined up another restaurant to come in here. But he and the owner couldn’t agree on a price.

Roger Herr We were hustling. We tried for a year to figure out the best way to either renegotiate our lease—or there were a lot of different strategies. The landlord’s been great. People will tell you we’re at market or under market. It’s just that the market is different now.

There must have been a number of factors that led to the decline in business.

Griffin It’s a combination of different trends. I’ve been saying for the last year or so, lunch is a dying meal. And that’s not only citywide, it’s nationwide. I’ve read several reports on that. People are bringing their lunch to work, or going to the supermarket and picking up a salad and having lunch at work. That’s where it started for us. Our lunches started taking a hit. In this neighborhood we had a great lunch business and then coffee shops opened up in the neighborhood doing like sandwiches and salads. Gourmet Garage opened up.

Herr It’s also losing office workers and that’s a function of rent as well. A lot of offices are closing shop and moving elsewhere—it’s what happens when rent goes up

Griffin Commercial buildings in the neighborhood are turning into residences; people at 346 Broadway [a large former city office building now being converted] were great customers.

Herr These were our friends for years.

Griffin Having commercial buildings in the neighborhood is good for your lunch and your afterwork business. I think Tribeca in particular has gone through a dramatic change. The commercial is slowly moving out and who are these people buying these apartments. Many are not living here. And at one time Tribeca was a destination neighborhood. But then there was the explosion in Brooklyn and other neighborhoods. So what are the reasons for coming down to Tribeca now on a Saturday night? Where do the young people hang out? They go to a neighborhood where they can get their food and drinks cheaper.

Herr A lot of restaurant workers would come in after work but at that time they lived in Manhattan so after work they’d pop in and have a drink and go home. Now, they get on the train and go to their local bar in Brooklyn and Queens. It just felt like a big shift and it’s hard to put your finger on one thing. I feel like New York was just telling us: It was a great 18 years but step aside. Let somebody else give it a go.

What drew you to Tribeca and this space?

Herr There were a lot of artists who were our friends. There was culture. There was the Knitting Factory. Tribeca was weird and cool.

Griffin It was a destination then. We figured we could put in a good neighborhood bar-restaurant because there wasn’t one on this side of Tribeca. I liked the concept of neighborhood bar-restaurant with good food and we just kept the foot on the pedal in terms of quality and damage control.

Herr And we were young and dumb. I remember poking a hole in the wall to see if there was brick behind it. We took a closer look at the bones of the place and you could see it, there was charm underneath it. And from day one we were committed to getting involved supporting the arts in whatever way we could. We had great relationships with the local theaters, The Flea, Soho Rep, Access Theater.

Griffin But The Flea moved and Soho Rep was temporarily closed. So that made last year even tougher for us.

Isnt it inevitable, then, that a place like yours can’t make it?

Herr Starbucks would be fine in here. Or somebody who is backed by a big investment group or a corporate kind of approach to a place. A little place like this where you try to sell a $14 burger and a $7 20-ounce pint, you just can’t do it. If you look at the square footage and how much income you have to generate to pay your rent, its not viable. More small businesses are closing than opening for the first time in years. We feel like were kind of that wave.

Does that mean you can't see yourselves opening another place?

Griffin I don’t know. I won’t say no.

Herr We’ll have to lick these wounds for a little while.

Griffin For now there’ll be an adjustment period. It’ll be strange not walking down here every day.