“There is no daycare on the island of Manhattan south of 100th Street that’s open past six thirty PM. Isn’t that insane?”
Our interview is drawing to a close when Christine Brayton, the newly-appointed Head of Operations at Casa Nela restaurant group drops that somewhat stunning piece of information into the conversation. As a person who spent some odd five years of my twenties moving in and out of restaurants — places run, managed, and held together almost entirely by women — realizing what the women who make a career out of the service industry are up against is still shocking to me.
“When we were looking for daycare I was like ‘there’s no way, this is Manhattan, there has to be something,’” Brayton continued ruefully. “So, for a while, I joked that was going to be my new business: I’m going to open a daycare center for women in hospitality.”
Honestly, it’s not a bad idea.
Christine is no stranger to long hours or punishing schedules, but the lack of support for women who pursue families and career became clear when she had her first child about five or six months ago. When we sat down for an interview at Roey’s in the West Village — the newest addition to Casa Nela’s still-growing restaurant family — she mentioned one of the things that drew her to work for Carlos Suarez, the restauranter and owner behind the restaurant group, was his emphasis on family.
“Every owner speaks for their company and their culture, and Carlos’ philosophy that a restaurant is part of a community is something I love,” she explained. “Rosemary’s is named after his mom, he’s half Italian, and it’s Italian cuisine. I’m Italian and my whole family is Italian, if I ever did own a restaurant it’d be named after my mom or one of my grandmothers. Those are all reasons why this specific restaurant group was appealing to me.”
Brayton joined Casa Nela only recently, but her pedigree in fine dining, and in Manhattan restaurants, specifically, is a long one. Beginning her hospitality career at the tender age of 16 as a busser at the Four Seasons hotel in Philadelphia, she’s moved from that teenage hustle to work at some of the most renowned restaurants in New York, from the gargantuan halls of Tao, to the glistening sushi of Atlantic Grill, the elegant Italian of La Pecora Bianca and the majestic, if pricey, seafood towers at the Meatpacking district’s celebrity haunt, Catch.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Brayton attended Cornell and studied hospitality management, a program that included working stints at the opening of the Borgata casino and hotel in Atlantic City — for class credit. Working at Morimoto in Philadelphia after graduating, along with a multi-year stint at the Four Seasons Aviara in Carlsbad, the urge to return to New York brought her to Tao, and later, BR Guest’s Blue Fin restaurant in Times Square. The trifecta of Atlantic Grill, La Pecora Bianca and Catch rounded out her time before Casa Nela, where she now incorporates decades of experience as a restaurant manager and director in both the down-home, local realm and at the corporate, national level.
“A restaurant that makes $33 million a year, can make money no matter what they do,” she explained. “Whereas smaller restaurants have to be really strategic and thoughtful about how they manage things. I think that’s why a lot of small restaurants fail, they’re up against big behemoths like Catch. So now, my mission is I really believe if you get enough of these small restaurants together, then they have a fighting chance.”
As Brayton moves deeper into her new role at Casa Nela, the goal will always be to bring these smaller, unique neighborhood gems together to create a stronger whole: one that is capable of keeping smaller, independent places in business. And through that work, also preserves the neighborhood where the restaurants function as gathering places and cornerstones of the community.
The Casa Nela restaurants feel more like cousins than sisters, maintaining separate identities even if a string of smart similarities — the careful decor, attentive service, and accessible menus — ties them together. All four of Casa Nela’s properties in the West Village are distinctly European-influenced, with Rosemary’s and Roey’s offering a fresh twist on beloved Italian, while Claudette’s cuisine is French with a North African twist that ends up feeling a bit Mediterranean, and Bobo’s serves more traditional French cuisine.
“The restaurant industry needs small restaurants like Roey’s, or Rosemary’s,” Brayton said. “Because everywhere else, especially outside New York, it’s all becoming chains — and I don’t want it to be that way. I want it to be small places like this that have personalities and are artistic. But I think it requires, among many things, people like me that know how to do it strategically. So that’s where I’m at now and what I want to do going forward.”
To that point, the hospitality industry also ends up losing a lot of its talent — experienced leaders and deeper thinkers like Christine — because of the lack of infrastructure and support for women who move up in their jobs, but also want to have a family while they continue working.
“This is something that leaders like me — and Carlos, not just female leaders — need to be thinking about in order to attract female leaders on all levels that have families,” Brayton said. “In 1950, the dad had this career. Now both men and women work, and everything else needs to change to go along with that.”
Working to solve the childcare issue in hospitality won’t just improve the lives of working mothers, it might help change how the infrastructure of a city unfolds, too.
Casa Nela partnered with Cinnamon on a recent event in New York. We’re grateful for the partnership.