Caviar Comes to Harlem

David Mills is putting his money and new gourmet store where he hopes his customers' mouths are -- in the once-blighted district of New York

David Mills knows that opportunity comes from taking risks. And he's definitely a risk-taker. Mills is the force behind the new 1,275-square-foot upscale caviar boutique and tasting bar, Emperor's Roe Gourmet Emporium coming to New York's Harlem in March, 2006. Stocking his store with the finest caviar and delicacies such as foie gras, artisanal cheeses, and tins of escargot, Mills is betting that today's Harlem, with its newly renovated, million-dollar brownstones, is ready for luxury products -- like $220-an-ounce Beluga.

While naysayers find caviar and Harlem -- for years an economically depressed neighborhood -- an incongruous combination, Mills insists the opposite is true. "When I [first] held tastings at hotels many people came down from Harlem," he says. "There have always been salons in Harlem serving fine wine and cheeses."


  For Mills, opening Emperor's Roe here makes sense. "I want to take the intimidation factor out of caviar," he says. "Having this here is one way to do that."

Mills certainly knows his roe from his sturgeon. While still a college student, he got his start at famed Manhattan purveyor Caviarteria, working his way up from part-time packager and stock boy to general manager by age 23. Mills apprenticed under Caviarteria's founder Louis Sobel, whom he credits Sobel with helping to refine his palate and eye.

"I developed a big clientele," he says. "I was the personal selector of caviar for some of the oldest, wealthiest families [in New York]. There were times that if they knew I wasn't there they wouldn't come in the store."


  While at Caviarteria, Mills helped the retail and wholesale businesses expand to locations in Las Vegas and Beverly Hills, as well as launch the nation's first caviar-champagne bar. In 1997, Mills left Caviarteria briefly to work as the food and beverage director at the Empire Hotel's West 63rd Street Steakhouse, before returning to his first love. But like every entrepreneur, Mills dreamed of running his own operation.

So in 2003, Mills launched his own online and mail-order caviar outfit, Emperor's Roe. Building upon the relationships he had made with clients and distributors over the years, Mills slowly acquired a name for himself in the rarified world of caviar. Mill's caviar tastings at Manhattan hotels helped him attract new customers who helped spread his reputation among caviar aficionados.

The business flourished. Operating for only two months in 2003, Mills says he earned revenues of $84,000, and the following year sales almost doubled, to $160,000. However, without a retail space, Mills says he felt his business was running at a disadvantage. "Some clients want to taste and be guided through the buy," he says. "Caviar is a high-end product and you want to be there and see where it comes from, especially my clients in New York."


  So Mills came up with a three-tiered business plan based on his gourmet philosophy of "affordable luxury and everyday elegance." In addition to the mail-order division, he opened a tasting bar and retail area, and then a formal dining room. He projects sales will reach $760,000 by the end of 2006.

Mills has a number of factors working in his favor. For one, America is the world's largest consumer of caviar. And over the years, due to a variety of political and ecological factors, demand for wild caviar (predominantly found in Russia, Iran, and the Caspian Sea, where the sturgeon is reportedly near extinction) has increased, lifting the price.

And while the U.S. banned imports of caviar from the Black and Caspian Seas last year, there are a growing number of quality American caviar farms to fill the void. Mills says that while he develops the tasting bar and restaurant, his online and mail order businesses can sustain the entire operation.


  Mills has sunk $400,000 of his own money into Emperor's Roe. "It was a conscious decision to use my own money," he says. "I wanted to get the business up and running before opening it up to investors." Eventually, Mills says, he wants to open shops based on the same business model around the country -- and then he will seek investors to help him expand. "But first I wanted this to be a functioning business and not just an idea." And Mills is confident that his opening gambit in Harlem will be a hit.

For decades, Harlem lay in economic ruin. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) says that his district has come a long way since he took first office in 1971. "There were abandoned buildings and windows were boarded up with tin foil," he says. "It was so embarrassing. The community hired people to paint blinds and flower pots so that it didn't look so much like a war zone."

In the past few years, Harlem has begun experiencing something of a boom. A number of investment programs have come to the area, including the Rangel-sponsored Federal Empowerment Zone project, aimed at revitalizing America's urban neighborhoods by bringing investments and loans to small businesses.


  "In the past three to four years, the opportunity for retail businesses, restaurants, and luxury goods in Harlem has expanded dramatically," says Kathy Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City. "We've seen middle- and upper-class investment in residential stock increasing, and that has created a very strong marketplace that local entrepreneurs hadn't had for decades."

Mills recently ran into New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg at hip Harlem eatery, Mo-Bay. Mills, who had quietly selected caviar for the mogul mayor for years when he worked at Caviarteria, told Bloomberg about Emperor's Roe. "The mayor said, 'Do you really think that caviar will do well in Harlem?' And I said: 'You're here dining, why not?'" According to Harlem's new king of caviar: Why not indeed.