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How To Create Buzz

In the first of our Meet The Makers series, co-owner of La Esquina in New York, Mr Derek Sanders, explains the secret to his Mexican restaurant’s success

There are few more competitive places to run a restaurant than New York. According to the latest available census figures, there are 45,681 eating establishments in the city – around 24,000 in Manhattan alone. On top of that, 80 per cent of new restaurants close within five years, which makes it all the more impressive that La Esquina, in Nolita, has remained one of the hottest spots in town for more than 11 years. It is now very much considered a New York institution. 

The reason it’s packed out every single night? Sure, the authentic Mexican food, the signature margaritas, the service – they’re all excellent. (You don’t survive this long in this city if you get the basics wrong.) But it’s the atmosphere that people come back for. The person who created that and has sustained it for all this time is the restaurant’s co-founder, and MR PORTER Style Council member, Mr Derek Sanders, 56, an architect-turned-restaurateur.

“As an architect, I might have spent two or three years designing a home for a family of three of four, but that wasn’t enough,” Mr Sanders explains. “I wanted my work to have a bigger impact on people, on the city. That’s why I wanted to create a restaurant like this with a great atmosphere that people love. To impact that many lives is much more meaningful to me. We get as many as 1,000 people coming through the door during the course of a day.”

And it’s quite a door. In wonderfully knowing New York style, the entrance to the subterranean restaurant is marked “No admittance. Employees only”. Once you push through it, you descend a harshly lit staircase, pass along a corridor stacked with kitchen supplies (by now you’re thinking, “This can’t be right, surely?”), then through the kitchen itself before you finally enter the dark candlelit vault of the restaurant. This, of course, is all part of the theatre.

Diners sit at tables cheek by jowl – deliberately so, to encourage interaction. The room hums with hubbub. “I love going out, but I’m shy so I need it to be a comfortable environment,” Mr Sanders says. “Because of that shyness, I prefer to express myself through my work. So I’ve created this space where people feel part of something. It’s both exclusive and inclusive.”

What’s the secret to creating an atmosphere that crackles? “It’s a symphony of so many things,” says its conductor. “Of course, for a restaurant it’s the food and the drinks, but it’s also the staff, the lighting, the décor, the acoustics, the music, the positioning of the tables… It’s not easy to get all these elements right.”

Mr Sanders is not at all showy, but as an architect and an aesthete he does have a tasteful appreciation of “the finer things in life” and of doing things well. This extends to the considered way he presents himself, the clothes he wears, the car he drives, his understated choice of watch. “This represents many of the things I hold dear in my own work: timeless design, quality, authenticity,” he says. “I think staying true to those core values is the secret to La Esquina’s longevity.” 

Mr Derek Sanders wears an IWC Schaffhausen Portugieser Yacht Club

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