lower east side
From outback Australia to co-owner of beautiful Benson's bar in the Lower East Side comes a talented, driven and hard working bird. Annie Morton shares with us her story of opening a bar in one of New York's trendiest neighborhoods, the power of saying 'yes' and doing what you love.
Do you remember your first week in New York?
I had previously spent eight months in New York in 2010/2011, so when I moved here it was so easy. It was like I’d never left.
Did you always want to come to New York?
Both times I’ve come here have actually been on a bit of a whim. Originally a friend of mine was going to move to Ireland (she was pretty keen on Irish boys).
That’s a good reason [laughs] …
She suggested I come with her, I basically gave it half a seconds worth of thought and said ‘I’m in’. At the time though, their economy was pretty rubbish and my friend asked me what I thought about New York. Just as flippantly I said ‘yes’. That was the first time I was here for eight months.
When I was back in Sydney, I had a bit of a ‘moment’ at my job. I was working for a start-up media company as a production manager. My background is in sports media and marketing, which I’m really passionate about. I’ve been passionate about every job I’ve had, I think I just like working. The business wasn’t really going anywhere though, and lacked direction. It made me really hone in on the fact that I what I wanted was to be my own boss one day.
The way that I figured I was going to be able to do that was to go back to hospitality, which I’ve done since I was 14. I love it. It’s such a cool thing that you get to put on a good experience for people. Your whole job is to create the best part of someone’s day.
That’s a really great way of putting it.
With that in mind, I mapped out how I could make it happen. I wanted a bit more experience in the back of house side of things. I came back to New York and started working at The Australian in midtown. I was there for almost three years, working my way up from being a bartender, to a duty manager to doing marketing and then eventually taking on the general manager role.
So you came back to New York knowing you wanted to start your own bar?
Yes. Originally I thought I might be here for 2 years, get the experience and then open a place in Sydney. However, I ended up getting the opportunity to stay here. I also started dating an American boy; he’s pretty excellent and was worth sticking around for … he’s still worth sticking around for.
How did you meet your business partner David? How did Benson’s come to be?
I first met Dave through mutual friends on ANZAC day a couple of years ago. It was while I was at The Australian, and obviously every ANZAC day it’s packed. There was one table spare, so I was just jamming all of my friends and connections into this one table. One of my friends who works for the Rugby club was friends with Dave. The Australian sponsors a Rugby team. We all started spending a lot of time together and exploring the city.
When I was looking to do this business, he was also transitioning from his job at the time. He was also looking for something that he could sink his teeth into, and actually care about. There are so many skills that you need to have to do well in this business. A lot of them you can teach but a lot of them you just have to have. Dave reached out to me to see if I was looking for a partner, he didn’t have any of the skills that you can teach but he had all the ones you can’t in spades. It’s been a blast. We’re both pretty level headed, if one of us is having a rough day, the other one will take the reigns.
How long have you been open?
So far so good. We have an awesome local clientele … people are actually walking in and shaking hands with other people as they sit at the bar.
That’s the dream!
It’s what we wanted to cultivate, a really relaxed, welcoming and local environment.
What’s been the hardest thing about opening your own bar?
Going without a salary for six months. People have the impression that owning a bar is really glamorous and cool. Sometimes it is, but I clean toilets, I work 80 hours a week and I don’t get paid. I wouldn’t change a thing though. I’m a sucker for this industry, and I really enjoy it. If I thought it was going to be easy I would be an idiot.
We had a few surprises during the build out, and those surprises are never good. But once you actually commit to doing something, it’s a lot easier because anything that comes up you just have to deal with.
I anticipated that the hours would actually be the hardest thing, and that both Dave and I would lose any semblance of a lifestyle, but I think we’ve managed to work that out quite well. It is just Dave and myself working front of house here at the moment; we’ll hire people once trade picks up in September. We’ve done really well though to balance the hours, one of us will work nights for a week but then they’ll work days the next week. The best thing about this business being a bar and restaurant is that your friends can always come and see you.
Have you gotten a lot of support from the Australian community?
We have had so much love from the Aussies in town. It’s unavoidable because Dave and I are both Australian, so a lot of our friends that live here have come through that network. The American Australian Association has been fantastic in supporting us and getting the word out. There are a few Australian/New York meet-up groups and we have hosted a bunch of events here. It’s been great to have that support.
We have a couple of Aussie beers, and a few things on the menu that are a throwback to Australia. In saying that though, we steer clear of branding this as an Australian bar. I feel like I’m kind of done having to justify why a place is Australian vs. not Australian. I’m Australian, but we are not an Australian bar.
Have you been welcomed into this neighborhood?
Everyone has been really welcoming. I found that surprising, I know the community board and residents are pretty opposed to new bars opening because it means more alcohol and people in the area. For us, we’ve had such a great response. We’re in a nice position in that we don’t have a lot of apartments above us, and in the immediate vicinity there aren’t a lot of other bars. A lot of food bloggers have stumbled by us in the area, and have lost their mind over our burger.
I’m coming in for a burger.
It’s so nice to see people’s reactions when they get to try your product.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
Have a plan, but be prepared to wing it. But I give terrible advice.
We’ll put a disclaimer under this question … don’t listen.
[Laughs] Well, people say ‘I’m moving to New York, what did you do?’ I arrived on a tourist visa with $200 in my pocket. If I was to say ‘do that’ it’s terrible advice. Come here with a plan; be more prepared than I was. In saying that though, if you have to wing it, then wing it. That was my M.O when I first got here. Within two days of moving here I had a job, and within seven days I had two jobs. When you only have $200, you don’t have that after three days. You have $2.
In New York you have $0 after 24 hours.
You put yourself into a position where you have to work your ass off to make something. Come prepared to work at it. New York is not an easy place to be, nothing is going to be handed to you on a platter. There are a lot of people here who are prepared to work a lot harder than you. The most motivated people in the world are here because they know that’s where all the other hard working people are. It’s a competitive city.
Take every opportunity you can, say yes to everything you can. That’s how you make friends and see new parts of the city.
In terms of advice for someone starting a business, don’t be afraid to ask for advice. I’m really stubborn, and I try to do everything on my own. Sometimes that backfires, in hindsight you realize you could have made things a lot easier on yourself. There is no such thing as being too thorough or too prepared. Work really hard. You have to be passionate and committed to what you’re doing. If you’re doing something purely to make money, it’s not the right thing to do. All of a sudden if it’s not making money you’re going to resent what you’re doing.
You don’t get to open a bar or restaurant and have it be profitable from day one. It doesn’t work like that. We love what we’re doing; it makes it enjoyable to be here.
I remember when we first opened, Dave and I had a couple of really busy nights and we would just look at each other and think ‘we made the right decision’. It feels so good to see people in here, happy and having a good time.
It must be incredibly satisfying.
It’s so rewarding. My family back home obviously doesn’t get to experience it. My dad is coming over though in a couple of weeks, he’ll see the bar for the first time. Ironically though, my dad doesn’t drink, but I’m sure he’ll love the burger.
It’s great to be able to send our reviews back home for my family to read. If you can’t have them here, it’s nice to know they have some gauge of how it’s going here.
Speaking of visitors, what’s your favorite place to take visitors when they come to New York?
I love going to Eataly. Not the rooftop but just cruising through the market.
My favorite thing is to take people out of New York; I love getting out of the city. If people are in town for long enough, I’ll jump on the train with them and go hiking in Cold Spring.
A boozy brunch is always fun, get some chicken and waffles. There is an amazing bakery in Chelsea called La Bergamote, they do the most amazing almond croissant, and then you can go and hang out in Chelsea Waterside Park.
Do you have a favorite New York moment?
One year in December I was walking by Radio City Music Hall. I was on a trip to a store near there to get my friend in Australia a giant box of Nerds. It was a joke gift for her husband for Christmas. I was on a mission.
As I walked past the entrance to Radio City a couple of women grabbed my attention and explained that they were going to see the Rockettes Christmas Spectacular that night and their friend couldn’t make it at the last minute. They had this spare ticket and asked if I wanted to come and see the show with them. The tickets were amazing, center and close to the stage, they said the only catch was just that I’d have to sit with them. I’m constantly in a state of ‘just say yes’; you should always be really open.
The giant box of Nerds would be there tomorrow, and the women seemed really great. I watched the show with them, and true to their word the seats were awesome and the show was great. An iconic New York experience. It’s such a generous thing to offer to share this experience that they knew would be special and they wanted to enjoy.
What does New York mean to you?
It’s growing on me. I’ve never been the person to say ‘wow, you live in New York, that must be so amazing’. I’ve never really been entirely sold on New York. I think it has so much to offer, but it’s changing since I was able to start getting out of the city a lot more. Everyone is so caught up in this concept of ‘busy’. People intentionally make themselves busy, as though it’s a competition. That really frustrates me.
It almost seems like a failure here to relax, or to do nothing for a day or weekend.
To have a lazy weekend is a sin. I come from a little town in Australia; I want to be out running around in the hills and swimming in the beach. It took me about a year and a half to discover my lifestyle here, and to create a life that I’m really happy with.
Visit Benson's NYC at 181 Essex Street, New York.