James Famularo, president of retail leasing at Meridian, is bullish on New York City’s commercial real estate market. And for good reason. Along with the city itself, Famularo and his team have emerged from the COVID doldrums stronger than ever. In this interview with Commercial Observer, the veteran dealmaker — with over 20 years of experience, more than 1 million square feet of leased retail space to his credit, and a specialization in food and beverage establishments — shares secrets of his success, visions for the future, and why he’ll always love opening-night festivities at his clients’ restaurants.
Commercial Observer: Looking back at 2022, how do you characterize the year?
James Famularo: It has been the best year on record for the leasing team at Meridian and for me.
Congratulations. To what do you attribute your great year?
Thank you. To answer your question, it’s a combination of pent-up demand, lots of capital in the market, and the sheer amount of vacancy. People need restaurants, salons, fitness studios and a variety of other services. Two short years ago, you couldn’t get a haircut and nobody was going out for dinner. Now people are enjoying going out, and places are opening to accommodate them. We’re in the mix, getting commercial leasing deals done.
Can you break that down into numbers?
We’re looking at roughly 550,000 square feet of retail leases this year. According to my count, we signed 194 leases as of November 2022. We started the division in 2018 with five people on board. Then we grew it to 20 and COVID happened. As a result, we lost a few brokers. Now, however, we’re at 45. Through it all, we remained optimistic, we stood up, went with the flow, and leaned into it. Based on past experiences, we knew that COVID and its punch to the retail real estate economy would pass. We recently closed our 500th deal since 2018.
How did you celebrate?
In true Meridian fashion, we celebrated for 30 seconds and started thinking about our 5,000th deal. We give high-fives and get back to business. We don’t rest on our laurels. We’re hoping to hit 1,000 deals next year.
Is there a deal that particularly stands out to you from 2022?
Figaro Café, at 184 Bleecker Street, was an amazing deal — and it makes for an amazing story. During the 1960s, Bob Dylan frequented the place. Lenny Bruce and Jack Kerouac hung out there. It was a staple of Greenwich Village. It was so iconic. Nevertheless, Figaro closed in 2008 and the landlord rented it to a chain Mexican restaurant. That spot shut down after one year. The company that owned the restaurant guaranteed a 10-year lease, lived up to its promise and kept paying rent. So the Figaro space sat empty. Finally, the lease was over and the landlord hired us to rent it. We teed up a big-name chef with a Michelin star. He was ready to go. Then, in 2020, the shutdown happened, and the offer was rescinded. At that point, I got a call from a developer in Brooklyn. I told him about Figaro. He loved the history and rebooted it as Figaro Cafe, paying homage to the original Figaro. And it’s right across the street from Café Dante, which is another reboot. These reboots — including Whitehorse Tavern, which we were involved with — fit well in Greenwich Village.
Anything interesting in Midtown?
There’s the old Hakkasan space at 311 West 43rd Street. That was a great restaurant but it shut down during COVID. At the same time, Masa Takayama’s old restaurant, Tetsu, became available. We were cultivating a Manhattan deal for a client with a sushi restaurant already popular in Williamsburg, Fushimi. The old Tetsu space didn’t work out because they wanted something bigger with more foot traffic. Fushimi saw what had been Hakkasan, wanted the space, and a long negotiation ensued. Ultimately, we were able to get Fushimi into this incredibly well built out space and reincarnate it.
What about the old Tetsu space?
Just as we finished the Fushimi deal, I was contacted by a Canadian gentleman wanting to do an Indian restaurant. I said, “Wait, Tetsu is available now.” He moved in there. A lot of these places are launching at the same time. I’m going to have a busy two weeks, with 10 clients opening new restaurants.
After all that you’ve done, is it still a thrill to attend restaurant openings?
For sure. It always makes an impression on me. I look around on opening night, see all of the positivity, a lot of happy people, and I think about what went on and how we got it done.
You make the deals sound easy.
They are anything but easy. You must have tenacity, creativity, patience and focus as well as a certain demeanor to do this type of work.
I can see how you possess the demeanor, after having been in the business for so long. But considering the rapid growth of Meridian’s commercial real estate division, how do you get freshly hired brokers up to speed?
We have a new training program that teaches brokers everything from A to Z. No other company has a program like this. There is no coming in as a new agent and wondering what the next step should be. We take our new people from the first point of contact to the pitch and the evaluation process to closing. Attorneys come in to talk about leases and riders. We teach, in a matter of months, what could take 10 years to learn on the job.
Did clients come to you with any particular challenges in 2022?
Here’s one that I enjoyed. The owner of Campagnola, a venerable Italian restaurant at 1382 First Avenue, saw all the old buildings around him being sold and turned into high-rises. He wanted to relocate before it happened to his building. But he needed an amazing space, which could retain the old-world charm of Campagnola, and it had to be in the neighborhood. We found him a spot at 1456 First Avenue, just three blocks north of the original. It checked every box: big basement, double-height ceilings, space for private events, back-of-the-house downstairs to maximize every square inch of dining on the ground floor. The owner envisions closing his old space one night and seamlessly opening the next day at his new space.
Is there a new listing that you can talk about?
Right now we are working on 57 Great Jones Street. Andy Warhol owned the building and leased it to Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat made art there and he lived there. After Warhol died, the estate sold the building to its current owner. The ground floor is zoned for commercial, and it has remnants of woodwork that Basquiat did. You look at photos of him and see him standing right in the space. There’s no artwork left behind — believe me, we looked — but the provenance is a big deal. We’re talking to people wanting to rent the space and use it as a gallery or a private club or a restaurant and have it be a tribute to Basquiat.
What is in the hopper for next year?
Right now I am looking at 20 different hoppers. We hope to be at 100 agents by the end of 2023. As I see it, we’ll keep growing and the environment will keep improving. We’re optimistic, and I always train myself to expect the unexpected. That is what I love about this business. It keeps us open to new challenges that are sure to come.