Real estate is about so much more than buying and selling homes. It’s about fostering community and creating connections; it’s about watching a neighborhood morph into a lively and eccentric home for residents with new businesses, boutiques, eateries, and cafes paving the way.
Our real estate agents understand that small businesses are the lifeblood of a community. In fact, some of our agents are restaurant owners and entrepreneurs themselves – deepening their connection to the neighborhood and the people who live there. Below, we’ve interviewed Triplemint agents Chris Lee, Natalie Miniard, and Jeanine Royce – restaurant owners across Brooklyn, New Jersey, and East Harlem – who manage careers in both real estate and hospitality with the goal of uplifting the communities around them, one day at a time.
What was your impetus to become a real estate agent and restaurant owner?
I became a real estate agent back in 2014. I had always been interested in architecture, construction, New York City, and people so I thought it was a great way to blend those four interests together into one job. After working as an agent, I transitioned to the sales strategy and development side of the business and helped grow a department within Triplemint. In 2016, one of my oldest friends approached me with the concept for Café Erzulie, a café, bar, and flower shop in Brooklyn. We opened the business together and have grown it over the past five years into one of the most popular nightlife venues in Brooklyn.
Recently, I transitioned back to being a real estate agent, which gives me the schedule flexibility to work more on Café Erzulie – we hope to expand to additional locations. I love being an agent again, especially having recently purchased and renovated my own place. It’s great helping people find a place they are excited to call home. And with Café Erzulie’s potential expansion, I’m able to combine my love for real estate, renovation, and hospitality into one project!
I’ve been a real estate professional since 2002. Before that, I worked in restaurants. I fell in love with helping people achieve their real estate goals in an area that had stolen my heart as soon as I moved from Florida to New Jersey in 1996. I led my team in 2007 & 2008 to be recognized as the #1 Sales Team in all of NJ at the NJ SAM awards. In 2014 I partnered up with a developer and opened a successful real estate agency, and in 2017 moved on to start my very own: Dominant Properties. In that same year, I reconnected with an old friend from high school, Tory Aunpach, who was a well-respected and highly talented private chef on luxury yachts. I’d say one of my best qualities is I can spot a good opportunity! I did what I’d been doing for years and convinced Tory Aunpach to put roots down in Jersey City. His vast knowledge of the restaurant business and my local connections made us a great team. After searching for the perfect spot we found a run-down building in a very industrial part of Jersey City. To be totally honest, the location made me nervous but I could see Tory’s vision and I knew his food would pull people from all over. So, Hooked JC was born! We got so much love and attention from our community that word quickly spread and the 2nd month we were open we were recognized by NJ Monthly as one of the 10 new restaurants to try in August.
My wife Kate and I opened Chu Ros Thai as a take-out restaurant in February 2018. We both have restaurant experience, but this was our first foray into restaurant ownership, so we decided to start with take-out and learn the ins and outs of the business before expanding into in-person dining. We also brought on another partner and head chef with decades of restaurant experience between them.
How did you decide on the neighborhood and cuisine for your restaurant venture?
“The location had served the community for so long that we felt a huge responsibility to continue its legacy.”
– Natalie Miniard
Chris Lee: Cafe Erzulie | Bushwick | Haitian cuisine
My business partner and friend, Mark, was living in the area at the time and we found the space through a friend of his father’s. The property was a hole in the wall and operated as a flower shop, but it had a large backyard that had a lot of potential. We developed a concept that would allow the florist to continue running his business out of our café, which also helped bring him new business. We had to gut renovate the space, which was my first (but not last) experience navigating the NYC Department of Buildings process. Mark is Haitian and the space and cuisine are a tribute to Haitian and Caribbean culture, design, food, and music.
Natalie Miniard: Hooked JC & Cafe Alyce | Jersey City | Seafood & Cafe
Being part of the Jersey City community and having spent my entire adult life talking about all the great things this neighborhood has to offer, I also knew what it was missing. My business partner Tory knew he could create a fresh, never frozen local seafood shack that really fit the vibe of the space.
My second restaurant venture, Cafe Alyce, was named after Tory’s late mother. We took over a space that had been a luncheonette for 100+ years. It served as the unofficial waiting room for dads waiting for their wives to give birth at the Margaret Hague Maternity Ward in the Hospital across the street. The location had served the community for so long that we felt a huge responsibility to continue its legacy. Our inspiration for the menu stemmed from the neighborhood around us. Jersey City has been named the most diverse city in the country and we wanted to have a place everyone could come and feel at home. Our menu is very eclectic and we believe it represents the guests that join us day after day. No pancakes or omelet but you can get a bulgogi beef skillet, aloo paratha, shakshuka grits, or crispy bacon fried rice topped with a poached egg. Both places emphasize fresh scratch kitchens. At Cafe Alyce we make a new flavor of jam regularly to pour over our house-made biscuits that have quickly become a crowd favorite. Tory even makes the ketchup in-house!
Jeanine Royce: Chu Ros Thai | East Harlem | Thai cuisine
My wife is Thai, and she and the rest of the team are from Thailand, so we always knew we wanted to create an authentic Thai comfort food menu. Our partner was the manager of the previous Thai restaurant occupying the space, so we felt comfortable going in. We are centrally located in East Harlem (one block off the 6 train), and we regularly deliver to the various hospitals, businesses, schools, and police stations in the area.
What has been the community response to your restaurant?
The East Harlem community has welcomed Chu Ros Thai with open arms, as seen by the diverse clientele that comes through our doors on a daily basis.
– Jeanine Royce
Chris Lee, Cafe Erzulie
The community’s response to Cafe Erzulie has been great. We’ve been able to appeal to both local crowds with our daytime café concept and broader NYC and tri-state communities with our nightlife and programming. We’ve built a reputation specifically in the music scene and our events include live musical performances, world-renowned DJs, weddings, baby showers, and everything in between. We also prioritize making our space available for organizations and events in our surrounding neighborhood of Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant, including hosting food drives with local partners, civic engagement events around elections, and other impact-oriented events that benefit the local community.
Natalie Miniard, Hooked JC, and Cafe Alyce
To pick one word: gratitude. In both neighborhoods originally there was a lack of comfortable, quality, fresh food establishments. Guests continue to thank us for taking the chance in their neighborhood. We have been named one of the best brunch/breakfast spots in NJ/ Jersey City. NJ.com ranked us #3 of the best NJ restaurants in 2021. NY Times best-selling author Peter Lesar named us one of the “Top 10 places every New Jersian should try before they die” along with establishments like 11 Madison Park, Union Square Cafe, and Momofuku.
Jeanine Royce, Chu Ros Thai
The East Harlem community has welcomed Chu Ros Thai with open arms, as seen by the diverse clientele that comes through our doors on a daily basis. We are also actively involved with Uptown Grand Central, a nonprofit dedicated to enriching the East Harlem Community through a myriad of initiatives including Creative Art Works, street cleanup, tree planting, and East Harlem restaurant week. We were also featured in a segment by the new Huxley luxury condominium highlighting the top five restaurants near the Huxley.
What has been your most rewarding experience when it comes to the restaurant business? What about real estate?
I like working hard and building things from scratch, so the most rewarding experience with respect to both Café Erzulie and Triplemint has been seeing them grow from their infancy to where they are today and feeling like I’ve been a key part of the process. I also love providing services that people genuinely appreciate, so that has been equally rewarding. Repeat customers and referrals are two things that always remind me that we’re doing something right and that fuels me.
I have a strong sense of hospitality. This comes through equally in my joy when clients find their dream home and also when they take the first bite of their food. I enjoy helping people find a home and I love making people feel at home. Food makes people happy. Tory and I giggle seeing people unconsciously wiggle when the food comes to the table and happy dance in their seats when they take their first bite. The food is good!!
The most rewarding has been expanding our restaurant to include a dining room and bar. This expansion happened in January 2022 and had we expanded sooner, we would have faced closures related to the pandemic, and that would have put us in a very difficult position. Fortunately, we were able to get a “Covid deal” on our rent, so we had great timing and a little luck on our side. Having been delivery and take-out only for four years, it has been really gratifying to get to know more of our regulars in person and to see them react so positively to the new space. The feedback we’ve been getting has been very encouraging for us. In regards to my real estate career, I finally felt like I could really be myself once I joined Triplemint. I’m not a very extroverted person; I connect well with people on an individual basis. My managers at Triplemint showed me how to be more assertive in my approach to the business while staying true to who I am as a person. I’m thankful they saw potential in me, otherwise, I would have missed out on an amazing opportunity.
Being a real estate agent and a restaurant owner are two highly entrepreneurial pursuits. Did you always know you were going to be your own boss? What was it about entrepreneurship that was attractive to you?
“I love feeling like my work and efforts make an impact. It’s motivating to know that people – our employees, performers, and customers – are depending on us.”
– Chris Lee
It was always a dream to be my own boss but I don’t think I always knew I was going to be my own boss. The beauty of entrepreneurship is that you can pursue what you’re truly interested in, and you have some control over whether you succeed (depending on how hard you work!). Obviously, luck plays a role like anything else, but I love that I feel like my work and efforts make an impact. It’s also great to create a business in Café Erzulie that people care about and love. It’s motivating to know that people – our employees, performers, and customers – are depending on us.
The reason my and Tory’s business partnership works so well is because we both have an insane work ethic. I don’t think we could be any other way. I thoroughly love what I do. Even when I’m working I’m enjoying life.
Growing up, I watched my dad build a business from the ground up and that was very inspiring to me. I’ve always been a self-starter and passionate about what I do, so I don’t feel intimidated at the prospect of trying something new. I enjoy the freedom of being your own boss, although it takes a tremendous amount of discipline to be successful at it. Prior to real estate, I streamed poker on Twitch, so I have experience creating and maintaining a community, similar to the ways in which we use social media to network and grow our business in real estate.
What parallels can you draw between real estate and hospitality?
“We’ve designed our restaurant spaces to make people feel comfortable socializing while having a meal, the same we stage homes to showcase the life a new owner could enjoy in that space.”
There’s a lot that the two industries have in common. Both relate to finding and creating spaces that make people feel comfortable and at home. Both are also obviously service-forward jobs. If you’re not providing a service that people enjoy and find value in, your real estate and hospitality businesses won’t succeed. In hospitality, you’re using real estate to create a space that creates a feeling, an ambiance. I love when people walk into Erzulie and I see their eyes light up because they have just walked off bustling Broadway into an oasis that they had no idea existed. Similarly, I love when a person walks into a home and you can tell they want to be there and build a future.
I enjoy helping people find a home and I love making people feel at home. My real estate background gives me access to people coming and going from neighborhoods and allows me to hear what they love, what’s missing, or what our locals feel would make our neighborhood better. We’ve designed our restaurant spaces to make people feel comfortable socializing while having a meal, the same we stage homes to showcase the life a new owner could enjoy in that space.
Both industries are face-paced and unpredictable; you never know where the day is going to lead. There are challenges in both industries, but good communication and a strong rapport with your staff/clients are crucial to building trust and maintaining strong relationships. Also, I have found real estate and hospitality both require a high degree of confidence; it’s not really about the hard sell, but trusting yourself and believing that your hard work and commitment to your business will lead to a steady stream of customers who will want to work with you again and recommend you to their friends and family.