In the fall of 2014, Trellis owner Kaie Razaghi and his son Alex closed the diner they operated in the heart of Roosevelt Island to begin a renovation project that was expected to last a few months.
The overhaul took more than three years.
Today, despite a new look and new name, the restaurant’s owners say the important things haven’t changed: their commitment to creating a neighborhood eatery and their love for Roosevelt Island.
Island teens Bryan Cusick, Nathaniel Gillespie, and Dylan Marfey recently sat down with the two owners to discuss the renovation that went wrong, the challenge of starting over, and the family ties that make it all worthwhile.
The interview is part of an ongoing Time Capsule project spearheaded by 16-year-old Mark Strong Shinozaki in conjunction with the Children, Youth, and Education Committee of the Roosevelt Island Residents’ Association (RIRA). Throughout the year, the group will be interviewing Islanders about their experiences and their hopes for the next 25 years. You can read past interviews here.
From left: Bryan Cusick, Adib Mansour, Kaie Razaghi, Dylan Marfey, and Nathaniel Gillespie at Nisi.
Bryan Cusick: In chatting with you the other day, we uncovered very interesting stories about your ancestry. Please tell us more.
Kaie Razaghi: My background is from Russia. From Russia with love – but it has nothing to do with James Bond. My great-grandfather went to Russia and he literally built an empire to a point he was wining and dining with the Tzar. He was a very successful businessman; he had his own militia. When the Russian Revolution started in 1917, one of his servants stabbed him to death. My grandmother took my father and my uncle and ran away so she wouldn’t get killed.
She grabbed whatever jewelry she could and went over the mountains. She wound up in Persia. She was robbed twice and she managed to have enough to raise two kids without having to work for the rest of her life. My father grew up in Persia, and his last job was the Chief of the Treasury. At that time, we lived in the Shah of Iran’s summer palace. I was born in 1949. They tell me a story that when I was two years old I set one of the couches on fire in the palace.
When my father decided to leave, we ended up here in 1962. The Shah was in power for many years after. We moved to Queens where I went to high school before I went to Queens College with a major in Political Science. I went out thinking of coming back to college to study law. But that never happened.
Cusick: This sounds like the premise of an Oscar-winning movie. Alex, what influence have these stories had on your life and your sister’s?
Alex Razaghi: Interestingly enough, that is the first time I’ve heard these stories from my father.
Alex: Yeah, absolutely. You never talked to me about our past. Everything I know about our history is from my grandfather, my uncle, and aunt. My father has told me stories, but not those and not in detail.
Honestly, I learned about my family history very late in life – mid-high school I would say. My father always told me I was Russian growing up. But I never connected the two: that my grandfather was Persian and spoke Farsi and that he was also Russian. As far as growing up, the history never had any influence in my life.
My mother raised me Greek-American. I went to Greek school, learned Greek dance. But later on, I really came to appreciate my culture and my history. I still have a lot to learn about it. Seems a lot of it was shrouded. It does feel empowering, I would say, to know that you have such a rich history. But I don’t think it’s shaped who I am.
Kaie: Yes, my father and his brother had a falling-out. They didn’t get along. My uncle stayed in Persia while we came here. My uncle gathered pertinent papers because Russia was right across the border – papers to prove what my grandfather had had. During the cold war, the United States came up with a law that if you could prove what you had in a Communist country, they would give you the equal here, which means I could’ve owned half of New York City. But my uncle never gave them up. In spite, he didn’t give to my father what was necessary for our family to collect this fortune.
Alex: And that’s only half of my father’s family. My paternal grandmother has a very interesting family history. She was originally from Afghanistan; she was royalty. Her uncle was a king or a shah (not sure what the correct terminology is). To overthrow him, they killed him. So she had to run away as well. Realistically, both my grandfather and my grandmother were refugees when they met each other. So I’m not quite sure what kind of bloodline I have; whether it’s Russian or Azerbaijani, Persian, Afghani, or Greek. Even the Greek part is in question (my mother will never admit this). Her maiden name is Neofotistos, which means “new light,” which is a name you give to someone who’s newly baptized or newly accepted. This is one of my aunt’s crazy theories - but no one listens to her. There is a possibility that the family had Turkish roots and they were re-acclimated into Greek society. It is not something that I will ever know… unless I do Ancestry.com.
We are products of history. You have all the knowledge of everyone in your history that is learned and passed on through generations. So even if you know only one or two generations of your history, it is good to know where you come from. If people really knew their history, there would be less racism. You’d understand that we are all children of God. Everyone should know their history.
Alex (left) and Kaie Razaghi, owners of Nisi
Dylan Marfey: I would like to ask you, Mr. Kaie, about your childhood, your education, and your jobs prior to Trellis and Nisi.
Kaie: I grew up in Brooklyn, moved to Queens. I wanted to go to law school. I made the mistake of leaving school to work for a couple of years to save some money. That was the end of it. I strongly advise the youth against going out of school. Finish your school. Education is important. Listen, I told my kids, “You have two choices in life, work hard the first 25 years or work hard all your life.”
When I was in school I had a job where I would travel weekends and sell encyclopedias. We would go to Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Jersey. I was always lucky to be in my own business from the get-go. I think I only worked two or three other jobs before I got into my first business. My first business was a small deli. I was 35 or 36 years old. I had a very good business. I was in the garment district. I had lines that would literally wrap around the store. I was three doors away from the subway entrance. People would line up inside the subway on the stairs in front of two other stores.
Nathaniel Gillespie: So, in a previous life you would have enjoyed being a lawyer?
Kaie: Absolutely. I would have made a very good lawyer. I think I have what it takes. You need to have an open mind. I always wanted to know what’s what. How things are made. This is one of the things that you need to be a good attorney. I had it. I don’t have it anymore.
Cusick: Mr. Kaie, how did you meet your wife?
Kaie: I was in my 30s and I thought I should get married and settle down. I was lucky to find my wife. I met my wife at a pizza place that was down the block from the travel agency I used to work in. One thing led to another so I asked her out, and we went out. I have two kids and now I have three grandchildren from my daughter. Alex is still single and I am looking for a girlfriend for him.
My daughter is a high-powered real estate manager. She had 14 buildings she was managing with 75 people. She’s 34 years [old] and has 75 people working for her as an on-site real estate manager. She just moved to a different location and has a series of new buildings.
Marfey: It sounds like you were well prepared to open Trellis all those years ago. What prompted you to open it here on Roosevelt Island? Describe the Island as it was back then.
Kaie: Originally the store was called the Green Kitchen, then it became Andy’s Place. I think Andy was part of the Green Kitchen and then he purchased it and changed its name to Andy’s Place. I purchased it from Andy and changed the name to Trellis.
Gillespie: Alex, how old were you when you started at Trellis and what do you remember the most about those years?
Alex: When I was around 14 years old, I would take a rag and wipe a table and make it probably a bit dirtier and Mr. Harry – my father’s partner – would give me $20. I considered Harry family. I loved him. That was the beginning of me working.
My father did a very smart thing by teaching me the business from the ground up. I started as a busser, washed plates. I’ve pretty much done everything except something that I have a real passion for, which is cooking. Something I don’t have time for at the moment. My father always had restaurants. I grew up in the business and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What I remember about Roosevelt Island as a child, and it was something I loved the most, was all the parks. As a kid I would come here with a bike or a soccer ball, with a basketball or a baseball. Whatever it was. I would come here on my rollerblades. Most of Roosevelt Island was parks. So as a kid to grow up in an area like this, where you didn’t worry about crossing the streets... it is the safest and nicest place to grow up. Roosevelt Island always has been a hidden gem in New York. I know it has become more popular now, but it is still beautiful. This sense of community will always stay dominant. I have a hundred grandmothers and grandfathers that raised me. I’m part of so many families. That’s not something you have anywhere else.
I remember the bucket of lollipops that every kid would come and get at Trellis. It is something I would like to bring back. I am very fortunate that I come from this family of mine. I have an amazing mother and an amazing father that raised me with love. I’ve always seen my father, personally, as a leader in the community. I’ve seen him caring for people around him. He was not in the business of making money. I think it is because of this friendly business motto that we got to renew the lease. They are big shoes to fill. I try my best to imitate him as best as I can.
Being gone for three and a half years and coming back here and seeing the welcoming embrace we got from a lot of people is very humbling. It is a big lesson I learned in my life. It is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life. No matter what difficulties that came from it, it was well worth it.
Cusick: Was it painful to close Trellis and what prompted you to close it?
Alex: Absolutely it was very difficult to close Trellis. This was my house and everything I’ve known. It was bittersweet to see Trellis go but it was a 50-year-old establishment that needed a lot of fixing. We had to renovate to get a new lease. It was one of the things we were asked to do.
Designing the inside was a combination of both of us. There were limitations to what we were able to do. We really had to redesign the interior on the fly. The exterior was my idea and I’m still not sure if it was a mistake or an ingenious idea. I’m very happy with the final product. I know certain people aren’t. My decision was to make a storefront that can act as an advertisement. With today’s social media, the hope is for people to put it on the internet or tweet about it… generate business.
We’re still building the business. The Island has drastically changed in the last three years. It is not the same as when Trellis was around. There are different demands with a different generation. We’ve been here seven days a week in the last seven months and we’re really working on establishing the business with quality food. I want to make sure we’re doing the job the way it is supposed to be. We’ve finished our first winter and just started our first summer and we still have to get a good handle on how to operate the business correctly.
Cusick: Why did it take three years to open Nisi, and how costly was this delay?
Kaie: The reason for the prolonged renovation was nothing to do with me but with Murphy… Murphy’s law! Everything went wrong from the beginning all the way to the end. I changed three contractors, four architects. It was absolutely costly. I don’t know anybody who can survive three and a half years of unemployment without any source of income. Anybody. To top it off, I had the building expenses. I had my Con Edison bill at $1,500 per month with a closed store. I had to insure practically the whole building because I was doing construction on its bottom. On and on, the expenses were beyond my control. Because of that I owe everybody: friends, relatives, whomever helped me out, loans, whatever I could get.
Marfey: Can you remember celebrities that have visited Trellis or Nisi?
Kaie: All of the politicians stopped by in here, almost without exception. I started off with Rudy Giuliani. The only one that didn’t come here was Bloomberg. He didn’t come by. Of course I wasn’t here for the last mayor. But every person running in the district has been in here. We’ve also had a few actors in here. As a matter of fact, I’ve closed the restaurant a couple of days here and there and rented it for shows and movies, such as Dark Waters. Grandpa Al was a regular here; he lived upstairs and was here all day for a long time. They were all beautiful people.
Gillespie: When you opened Trellis in 1998, was there competition (other restaurants)?
Kaie: No, I was the only place to sit down and eat. All my relatives and friends that are in the restaurant business told me that I am stupid. They also told me that I had a captive audience and that I should be charging everybody an arm and a leg, because I could. But that was never my goal. For example, coffee in Manhattan was $1.75; in Queens it was $1.50. I was selling it for $0.75. even though I could have sold it for more, but my intention was not to make money but to belong.
I didn’t know the community before. I heard through a broker that there was a place here for sale. When I came to the Island for the first time and saw the store, I realized it had potential, even though the place was beat up and had a lot of problems. In fact, I came with a friend and he told me “no way.” He was supposed to be my partner but he didn’t want any part of it. He opted out. But I saw the potential, and I stayed.
I did decent the first time I was here, now let’s see the second time.
Gillespie: Who was your first competitor and did they force you to make changes in terms of marketing and menu?
Kaie: I’ve been in this business for 40 years and never looked at my competition. I always try to do what I can for myself in my own space. I don’t have to sell coffee as they sell it across the street. I don’t believe we should compete for customers, I think we should build our clientele and that’s what I did. I never looked at anybody as competition in any way; I try to do the best I could with my own food.
Marfey: What is the most difficult aspect of being a restauranteur on Roosevelt Island? If you would change something, what would it be?
Kaie: I don’t think I want to change anything. The difficulty in being a restauranteur has nothing to do with my clients. It has to do with the job itself. It is a seven-days-a-week job and it is not a 9 to 5 job. It’s at least 20 hours a day. It needs attention. It needs you to be on top of things; solve the problems naturally.
Alex and I are very hands-on. Even the new people I’ve hired are hands on. I would not ask my staff to clean the toilet, I would do it myself. Simple as that. Like any aspects of the job. Because whether it’s waitering, cleaning the counters, bussing the tables, being part of the kitchen or the basement – whatever it is, I am hands-on. If they see me do it, they don’t hesitate. Sometimes they might need a nudge.
Gillespie: Alex, what about you, if you had the opportunity what would you change?
Alex: That is a very loaded question, because if I told you I would not change anything, it would mean I am content with where we are and that would be setting my own glass ceiling. Yes, there are a million changes I want. I always want to do better. But I will say I wouldn’t change how we came about to opening Nisi. It was very difficult. Being closed for three and a half years and paying all the expenses was very difficult. But I really meant what I said before: it was a big life lesson for me. It made me closer to my family. It has humbled me and brought me down to the ground. It was a lesson I needed in my life. Possibly not a lesson my parents needed; they’ve been through what they had to go through. To know that my father worked 60 years of his life, seven days a week; to see my parents struggle for three and a half years at an age where they should be enjoying the fruits of their labor creating something for my future was very difficult to take in. You never want to see that. I want to see my parents relaxing and enjoying themselves.
It was a blessing to work with him on Nisi. To be honest, over three and a half years, I butted heads with my father too many times and I should have known better. I was a pretty sh***y son at times, honestly. I understand that now and I apologize. I’d like to believe that my father taught me very well. I am my own man because of it. Don’t get me wrong, I learn things from my father every day. A fool thinks he knows everything; a wise man knows he doesn’t know everything. I am not saying I am wise, but I am wise enough to know that I still have a lot to learn from my father.
Gillespie: Mr. Kaie and Alex, even though you endured massive delays in the opening of Nisi, you stayed the course. What is it about Roosevelt Island that you like the most?
Kaie: The people! They’re friendly; they’re more a family than any other place. I’ve been in many places and a lot of restaurants. Everybody there is just a customer, that’s it. Come, eat, and pay your bill. But here I find that people would sit down and enjoy themselves. Enjoy their meals. It is something that doesn’t happen in other places.
Many of my customers have been here longer than me.
Cusick: In my research, I found out that restaurant owners change chefs a lot. What is your process of hiring chefs and how do you evaluate their success?
Kaie: Fortunately, I’ve had the same back-of-the-house staff for 20 years. So I guess, if nothing is wrong, I don’t keep changing the staff. If they are good from the beginning, I take care of them; they take care of me. I have the same chef from Trellis.
Marfey: What do you think Nisi will be like in 25 years? And what would you say to your future self?
Kaie: Twenty-five years is a long time. I don’t think I will be around. I will retire in a couple of years. Ask Alex the same question and see what he says.
Alex: In 25 years I’d like to see my son running Nisi. I don’t know… all I could say is I hope in 25 years I would still be on Roosevelt Island. That’s very true. It is more of a home to me than my house is. I grew up on this Island. God willing, Nisi or not, Roosevelt Island is a place where I want to retire – a place to build my family when the time comes. As far as Nisi goes, it is a dream that we’d be here in 25 years.
Kaie: I am happy to see the kids I was giving lollipops to become young men and women; some of them are in college. It is really a pleasure to see them grow up [tears in his eyes]... grow up to be good kids. That’s the important part.