MONEY & POWER, Upping their stake by serving up steak; [NASSAU AND SUFFOLK Edition]
Richard Galant. Newsday. (Combined editions). Long Island, N.Y.: May 2, 2005. pg. A.23
Full Text (1192 words)
(Copyright Newsday Inc., 2005)

Quotes: 'Fathers have a tendency to talk down to their children...I have learned now that that's not the way to do business with your children.'-John Bohlsen, who is planning to open a steakhouse with his son Michael.'

Michael Bohlsen's grandparents were German immigrants who ran restaurants on the Lower East Side and on the South Shore of Long Island. His father, John, grew up above the West Islip restaurant, ate downstairs and did everything from cleaning bathrooms to washing dishes to waiting on tables.

John studied restaurant management at Michigan State, ran officers' clubs while he was in the Navy and opened his own place, an Arby's, in 1969. Today the family owns a steakhouse, a seafood restaurant and two casual dining places in Suffolk County.

Mom helps with the paperwork, and everyone pitches in to keep the business going, and while there was once tension between father and son, "our family gets along better now than we ever have," says 35- year-old Michael. Another son is taking a break from the business to spend time with his young child.

And now the Bohlsens are stepping into the ruins of another family business by taking over the site of CoCo's Water Cafe. They plan to spend more than $3 million to turn it into a steakhouse on prime real estate facing Huntington Harbor.

The Bohlsens have struck a 40-year lease deal with Oreste Albicocco, whose family ran the controversial CoCo's through years of conflict with neighbors and Huntington Town. His late father, Sam, was famous for building first, and getting approval later for changes to his harborfront land, originally a stone and gravel yard.

In its peak years, CoCo's would draw crowds of more than 1,000 revelers to its cavernous restaurant and sprawling deck, complete with volleyball court, live band, clam bars and floating dock.

Now the deck is empty and the walkway to the dock is blocked off. The dining room is deserted. The phone rings regularly, and there's still cooking oil in the fryers, but no dishes are being served at CoCo's.

Once the Bohlsens get their liquor license, the deal will close, says Oreste Albicocco, who sued some of his family members in 2002 over ownership. In a settlement last year he was named president of the family companies. He says CoCo's needed a major renovation, and he decided it was better to put it into someone else's hands. "I'm very happy to get someone like the Bohlsens. They're very nice people," he says. Albicocco will continue to operate the adjacent Harbor Club as a catering business.

There was a point at which John Bohlsen thought he would get out of the restaurant trade. He sold his empire of 52 fast-food franchises and retired in 1983 but immediately felt a need to get back to work. "I couldn't take it," he says. "My life is my work. I'm not a golfer, I don't play tennis."

Within a few months, he was an investor in a casual place in East Islip called the Beachtree Cafe. It wasn't long before he had three of those restaurants operating in Suffolk County.

Then John Bohlsen's career took a different turn. North Fork Bank chief executive John Kanas recruited him as a director in 1986, and he came aboard full-time as the bank faltered in the recession of the early 1990s. Bohlsen became vice chairman in 1992.

As the bank's fortunes have improved, so have his. Last year the 62-year-old earned $9.1 million from North Fork in salary, bonus and long-term compensation. On weekends he turns his attention to the restaurant business and does everything from pulling weeds to solving ventilation problems in the kitchen.

"The restaurant business is such a social business and such a manic business that once you do it, it's hard to get away from it," he says. "It's very capital-intensive, very labor-intensive. You have to have deep pockets." He says his restaurants are profitable and that the company has no debt.

Michael Bohlsen, a Duke University graduate, joined the business after earning an MBA from the University of San Francisco. It wasn't easy at first.

"I didn't know what I was doing, and my father did. I took it personally. It created a lot of stress between us." He says he's learned a key lesson from his father. When he saw something going wrong, his tendency was to immediately lash out at a worker at the restaurant. Now, he says, he tries to stay serene and wait a day before calmly sitting down and discussing the problem.

Family businesses are tough, says John Bohlsen. "Fathers have a tendency to talk down to their children. It's very hard to be reasonable and rational. You don't even realize it till your wife hits you over the head with it. I have learned now that that's not the way to do business with your children."

Pg. A15 ALL 5/3/05] Converting CoCo's to a steakhouse isn't the family's first major building project. In 1999 the Bohlsens opened Tellers Chophouse in a 1927- vintage bank building in Islip. The building had been used as a Chemical Bank branch until Chase bought Chemical in 1996. John Bohlsen had scouted it as a potential location for a North Fork branch, but Chase, which had a branch down the street, wouldn't let it be used as a bank. The Bohlsens restored the original 32-foot ceiling, lofty pillars and Art Deco touches and turned the vault into a wine cellar.

Michael Bohlsen says the new restaurant might evoke the feel of the Central Park Boathouse and could include electric sliding doors that would open to the deck. Up to 250 diners would be accommodated inside, 50 more on the deck.

It will take three months to design, a month or two to get bids and six months to build. The plumbing needs work, and the bulkhead on the harbor needs shoring up, Bohlsen says. He hopes to open next spring and bring in $6 million to $7 million a year; the Islip steakhouse garners $5 million.

Huntington is home to more than 60 restaurants, and Michael Bohlsen says people there have high expectations: "Our first goal is to impress them."

His father says Long Island restaurants were slow to catch on to what city eateries stress - investing in dramatic design. "Today, in order to be successful, you have to look at the food quality and the service quality, the ambience and the wow factor," he says. "If you don't have all four, people are going to go elsewhere."

E-mail Richard Galant at rgalant@newsday.com.

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