With thousands of restaurants flooding the NYC streets, it can feel overwhelming to choose the perfect spot that will satisfy your appetite. Between the latest buzzworthy Brooklyn farm-to-table eatery or the crazy joint that sells rainbow-colored bagels, NYC is known to supply some of the best and most unique restaurants in the world. So it only makes sense to empty out your bank account to get a taste of what the Big Apple has to offer. But even though there are plenty of spots that are taking over your Instagram feed with their five-tier milkshakes or one-of-a-kind meals, sometimes, you just want to eat at a restaurant where they’re known for their constantly good ingredients, their hospitality, and their atmosphere. And, for us, we believe today’s Boss Babe restaurant has all these qualities and more.
Alex Shapiro is the co-partner of Flex Mussels — the neighborhood spot your friends (and mother) probably have told you about. Shapiro, who has been a part of the restaurant industry since she was a little girl, has followed her parents’ footsteps by continuing their legacy and creating her own through growing and overseeing the business. While her parents have taught her plenty of life and business lessons, Shapiro is proving time and time again that her old school mentality and quality-over-quantity ideals are making a difference in the shelfish space.
New York City
New York City
Favorite meal from Flex Mussels:
This is a tough one… my favorite meal changes a lot, but right now it’s the Peel & Eat Shrimp or our Lobster Gem Lettuce Salad, some Lil’ Sharkey Oysters (named after me!), and the San Daniele Mussel dish.
Best drink pairing with mussels:
We are introducing a sake list this month, so I have been tasting a ton of sake in anticipation and I am really excited about it. Sake is the perfect pairing for our food. There is a stigma surrounding sake that it only pairs with Japanese food, but that’s not the case. The Japanese have a saying that translates to “Sake does not fight with food” meaning no sake will overpower a specific dish, only enhance. Its light, refreshing, and so, so delicious!
Beauty product you always need in your bag:
Palmer’s Cocoa Butter Swivel Stick and Caudalie Beauty Elixir (face mist). I like to look hydrated, which can be very challenging working in a restaurant, so anything that can make me glow like an angel, really is a must.
Tune you can’t get out of your head:
The Come From Away Original Broadway Cast Recording. All of it. Start to finish. I was lucky enough to see the show and I was so blown away by the story that I have invited the entire cast and crew to come to Flex. I think it is so important to honor the message of the play — to selflessly help strangers and those in need, and to celebrate how kindness can turn a tough situation into a beautiful learning experience. But, of course, I am also selfishly hoping everyone will break out into song.
One thing most people don’t know about you:
I am a New Yorker through and through. I mostly wear all black, I live for BEC sandwiches, and I bleed Yankee blue. However, most people would be surprised to learn that I lived on a farm for two years when I was a little girl. My parents wanted to get us out of the city, and moved us to a working farm in New Jersey. My dad used to take me for rides on the tractor. It couldn’t be more opposite to NYC living, but I loved it.
Tell us a little about yourself and how you became involved in Flex Mussels?
I grew up in the restaurant business. My father owned and operated restaurants throughout his life and I always loved going to work with him. As I got older, I would hostess at my parents’ restaurants and I slowly learned the ins and outs of the industry. After college, although my mother begged me to go to law school, I couldn’t stay away from restaurants. Bonus: according to 100% of my lawyer friends, I made the right choice. When I moved back to NYC, I began to manage their Mexican restaurant called Zocalo while they were in Prince Edward Island running the original Flex Mussels. After a few years, we decided we needed to close Zocalo for renovations. As we were discussing the changes, we started to throw around the idea of changing the concept and decided to bring Flex Mussels to the US. Once that decision was made, I became a partner in the restaurant and the rest is Flex history. It is pretty amazing to actually have my own restaurant with my parents. You can’t ask for better partners or co-workers.
Because your parents are well-known restaurateurs, you’ve been involved in the industry for as long as you can remember. How have you seen the industry evolve over the years and where do you hope to see it move towards in the near future?
The industry has evolved tremendously over the years so much so that sometimes it feels like the only element that has remained consistent is the fact that we still serve food. I would say that technology has probably played the biggest role in changing the industry, for better or worse. When I began in this business, everything we did was with pen and paper, from taking reservations, to ordering from our food vendors. Technology has certainly streamlined the process. Social media also presents an entirely new platform to engage with our guests. One post can reach thousands of potential customers in a matter of seconds so it is very important to carefully curate the content we present. These advancements are for the most part positive, but they can also present new challenges, like someone posting something negative. The Internet is forever!
On a more personal level, I have definitely noticed a change in the consumer. People aren’t planning in advance like they used to, and we are seeing a much larger volume of people walking in without reservations. To facilitate this, many operators are now opening “fast casual” concepts, but I much prefer the whole experience of dining out. I like to have a glass of wine, relax into my chair, and be taken care of by a server. Just as I am not always looking for a white tablecloth meal with 18 courses, I am also not looking to meander into a food court for a “grab and go” meal. With the cost of operating a restaurant these days, the trend of course makes sense, but to me this business is all about hospitality and connecting with our guests. I have always thought that the last thing I want is to be the coolest restaurant in town. Rather, I want to be a neighborhood spot with consistently good food and regular customers.
Flex Mussels gets their oysters and mussels directly from Prince Edward Island instead of going through a third-party vendor. Why do you feel this process is vital for the company to ensure freshest ingredients?
It’s all about relationships for me. I speak with people that understand my standards and expectations, which admittedly are very high. They know that quality is the most important factor for Flex Mussels. I can get on the phone and call the farm directly and say “Hey guys! Whats going on up there? How is the product looking? How did this snowstorm effect harvest?” Just like I am accountable for everything we serve at Flex Mussels, it’s nice to speak with my actual counterpart at the farm who is also really committed to the product and quality control. I know my product is picked specifically and carefully for Flex Mussels, and that means it will always be the best that is available. Sometimes guests come in and say “I had mussels the other day and they were bigger” To us, size doesn’t matter (as far as shellfish is concerned at least :)). The big ones are great when they are great, but to me, it’s all about the flavor. At this point, mussels are my livelihood, so I better serve the best available. If you are going to do something, do it right.
While your parents have already made a name for themselves in the industry, you also carried the same passion to follow their footsteps. However, did you ever feel the pressure to uphold the family name to specific standards? How do you overcome the pressure while still revolutionizing the company itself with your own ideas?
I never felt pressure to uphold the family name, I feel pride in continuing it. My dad has had quite the legacy, and I feel honored to have learned this business from one of the absolute smartest guys out there. I, of course, don’t want to ever disappoint my family, but I think we are far past that. It is easy for me to uphold these standards because they are mine as well. All I know is how to run a restaurant as well as my parents did. I know other people in the industry, and a lot of times we don’t see eye to eye. My approach is much more old school when it comes to the restaurant industry, and that’s because I AM old school. I might be young, but I’ve been hearing about the ins and outs of the business since I was a little girl and working in it for 20 years. That being said, I am still more willing to adapt to the new technology and programs that can streamline running a business. A huge part of my journey as a restaurateur has been overcoming “What my parents would do” and making the right choice for my business in this day and age.
If you could dine with any celebrity, dead or alive, where and who would it be?
Well, he’s a celebrity to me. My grandfather worked for a company called Radio Free Europe that distributed news to countries with heavy government censorship and blocked mainly Russian propaganda during the cold war. He had top-secret government clearance, and I want nothing more than to be able to pick his brain during this tumultuous time for our country. He would definitely have some incredible insight. Plus, I just miss him a lot and would do anything to have another meal with him.
While you’re extremely passioned when it comes to sustainability and the environment in your career, what are some ways you’re actively maintaining this ethos in your personal life?
I make a conscious effort at the restaurant and in my personal life to recycle every chance I can. I always save my candles once they are burned down. I wash the holders and use them all over my house. They are perfect for storing q-tips, small creams, or even to use as wine glasses!
What would you say is the greatest lesson your parents have taught you about your career?
I’m not even sure where to begin! Of course, there is the financial stuff, how to run a business, how to be successful, but when I take a step back, they have instilled three great lessons in me: The first and most important is to treat people with kindness and respect. We are a team. I might be the boss, but these employees are my family. We hug when we see each other. We have inside jokes. I would do anything I can to help them, and in turn, they do anything to help me and Flex Mussels. It’s pretty wonderful to have employees here that have worked with me since I was a kid. We have a few guys that have been with us since before we opened Flex. We have grown up together and I would not be where I am today without this incredible team. The next lesson is, sweat the hell out of the details. Everything counts and contributes to the guest experience. My dad said to me once “A guest might not walk in and say ‘my fork is crooked’ but they know something doesn’t feel perfect. That contributes to the rest of the meal.” And finally, cleanliness. My parents will still walk into the restaurant and find the one baseboard with a smudge on it.
Where do you hope to see yourself in the next five years?
I hope to have a few more Flex Mussels locations. I see this concept not just in other NYC neighborhoods, but also in Boston, DC, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities. I also want to expand our brand into more than just restaurants. I want a “Flex” brand of mussels, something that people know has our quality stamp of approval. I think our sauces are so versatile and would work well with a variety of dishes so I want to package them for retail. Maybe a cookbook? Who knows? The world is our oyster…or mussel. Both applicable!
Any advice for future Boss Babes, especially those looking to enter into the hospitality biz?
Work hard. Do what you love. When you find what you love, you have to pour everything you have into it. Sometimes being a business owner is incredibly discouraging, and you have to stay positive not only for yourself but for all of your employees. Learn how to read people, some people need more attention than others, some need more positive reinforcement. When you learn what makes all of your employees tick, you can be so much more effective in managing people. There is no such thing as a day off. I’ve kept my phone on me during a workout class so I can be accessible. Pay attention to all the details — they matter. Get 2-ply toilet paper. Get nice silverware. Fold napkins perfectly. Kindness goes a very long way. I have built relationships with everyone from my plumber and electrician to the dishwashers to my vendors. People are more inclined to bend over backwards to help you when you are polite, kind, and respectful, and trust me, in this business, sometimes you need miracle workers.
Written by Raven Ishak
Photography via Eli Awada