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Living the dream?

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As Caroline Bell serves shot after shot of espresso in her beloved Greenpoint coffee shop Cafe Grumpy, she often wonders one thing: if she knew then what she knows now, would she have given up her restaurant job to open her own cafe?

“I always thought it would be really great to have a coffee shop, but now I don’t think that the romanticized image of it is true,” said Bell, who opened the Meserole Avenue coffeehouse with her husband in 2005. “If I had known it would have been this hard — if I had known the struggles we would have faced — I probably wouldn’t have started it.”

From espresso entrepreneurs and beer bar dreamers to high-hoped bakers and self-taught chefs, Brooklyn is filled with people who gave up their humdrum lives to live the dream.

But for many, the dream becomes a reality once the bills start piling up, the customers stop coming, and the novelty wears off. And in today’s economic climate, it wears off pretty quickly.

From the start, it wasn’t easy for the then-enthusiastic Bell to open her shop.

Brokers ignored her calls for weeks, and when she finally opened at the corner of Diamond Street there was one immediate problem — a lack of customers.

“It was a really big struggle,” Bell said. “Both of us worked seven days a week, and we were sitting there the whole time, just waiting for people to come in.”

Eventually, they did, and her Greenpoint shop has grown more profitable as the surrounding blocks have gentrified.

But even though business is going well enough that Bell is planning to open a third Café Grumpy location, she hasn’t escaped from the coffeehouse grind.

“Running a small business in New York City means you always have to work hard,” she said. “You just can’t make a lot of money in coffee. If you had a lot of people backing you and a lot of support, that might be different, but if you are starting on your own, all of the financial struggles you have to take personally. You have a lot of anxiety. If something goes wrong, you have to take responsibi­lity.”

Taking responsibility means being in charge of everything from hiring and firing employees, to navigating the city’s complicated web of permitting and licensing.

“A lot of people probably don’t know this, but one of the biggest challenges is the paperwork — getting everything to fall into line so that you’re allowed to open,” said Michelle Giancola, who opened Root Hill Café in Gowanus with her brother and a friend last April.

“Even dealing with Verizon and getting our Internet service to work was a pain,” she said. “You don’t think about these little things, but it’s a lot of red tape to deal with.”

Opening a cafe also takes a huge investment to cover rent, insurance, and equipment (commercial coffee machines cost at least $5,000). That leaves many cash-strapped entrepreneurs working long hours instead of hiring staff.

“The worst thing is having to be here at 6:30 am,” said Giancola, who before opening Root Hill Cafe worked in film and theater — two industries notorious for their long hours. “I work all the time now. I don’t sleep much anymore.”

Like Giancola, Jamey Hamm can almost always be found behind the counter of his Roots Cafe on Fifth Avenue in Greenwood Heights. Hamm opened the place late last year and has barely gotten a break since.

“Some of the days are 18 hours days, but I definitely love it,” he said. “For the first month, I was working 120 hour weeks. Now I’m down to 85.”

Some dream. He’s not alone in seeing the lead lining in the capitalist cloud:

• Sarah Peck, co-owner of Ortine, has worked seven-day weeks since she opened in Prospect Heights in December, taking off only five days in four months.

“Quite simply, it’s a lot of hours,” she said. “I’m working maybe 60 or 70 hours a week. It’s time-consuming.”

• Renato Poliafito, one of the owners of the sweet-shop Baked, abandoned his love of ceramics when he quit his job as a web designer to open the Red Hook eatery.

“You have to really love it or you are doomed to fail,” Poliafito said. “It becomes your life. You kind of lose your free time because your mind is always on work.”

• Jacob Rabinowitz, owner of the Gowanus bar Fourth Avenue pub earns less than half as much as he did when he worked as an attorney and campaign consultant.

“There is no way that you can make as much money in a small business as you can as a working professional in New York City,” he said. “You can’t even come close.”

That said, Rabinowitz and the others will fight to continue living the dream. But for some Brooklynites, the sacrifices were too great.

Television producer Sara Nahas opened the Windsor Terrace coffeehouse Lonelyville in 2005 in hopes of finding a more relaxing profession, but she shuttered the Prospect Park Southwest shop last year when it had done just the opposite.

“The goal of opening the shop was to simplify our lives, but it ultimately made things more complicated,” said Nahas, whose business was breaking even — but also bringing her to a breaking point.

Nahas had hoped that she and her partner would be able to step away from their intense media jobs to run the shop — but Lonelyville was never lucrative enough for them to fulfill their dream.

“If coffee is what you care about and that’s the driving force, then open a coffee shop. If you want to make a lot of money or have a social and relaxing job, this is not for you,” she said.

Industrial engineer Alexandra Kameneva hasn’t had much time to relax since she realized her longtime dream by opening the Oak and Iris Cafe in Kensington in August.

“I went through all of my college years in coffee shops and I always loved coffee shops,” said Kameneva. “I’ve lived all over the world and the first thing I did whenever I went somewhere was find a coffee shop.”

The entrepreneur has been juggling her time between her full time job and the bar in her Fort Hamilton Parkway cafe.

In the future, she hopes to dedicate herself entirely to the newly opened coffeehouse.

“I’d like to just run the shop, but I’m not making enough profit off of it to live,” she said.

Baked [359 Van Brunt St., between Wolcott and Dikeman streets in Red Hook, (718) 222-0345]; Cafe Grumpy [193 Meserole Ave., at Diamond Street in Greenpoint, (718) 349-7623]; Fourth Avenue Pub [76 Fourth Ave., between Bergen Street and St. Marks Place in Park Slope, (718) 643-2273]; Ortine [622 Washington Ave., between Pacific and Dean streets in Prospect Heights, (718) 622-0026]; Root Hill Cafe [262 Fourth Ave., at Carroll Street in Park Slope, (718) 797-0100]; Roots Cafe [639A Fifth Ave., between 18th and 19th streets Greenwood Heights, (205) 246-2149].

Posted 5:19 pm, March 12, 2009
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