Make It

Mama mia! How two friends built an empire on meatballs


Meet the meatball makers

Daniel Holzman, Chef, Owner and co-founder of The Meatball Shop.
Liz Clayman | The Meatball Shop

In 2009, two childhood friends teamed up to open a different kind of restaurant and changed the food world forever. That would be Daniel Holzman and Michael Chernow of the wildly successful New York-based Meatball Shop chain.

Their first Meatball Shop opened on the Lower East Side in 2009. They have since lauched five more, in Williamsburg, the West Village, Chelsea, on the Upper East Side, and most recently on the Upper West Side. And the company just introduced its own Meatball Shop branded tomato sauce, sold in their shops and Whole Foods.

So how'd these two restaurateur chums hit it big and create what some are calling an entirely new category of dining that brings in an average $3.5 million a year per restaurant? Click ahead for the whole [marinara] saucy story.

— By CNBC's Josh Weiss

Posted May 2016

From vegans to carnivores

Daniel Holzman, left, and Michael Chernow, co-founders of The Meatball Shop
Melissa Hom | The Meatball Shop

Holzman and Chernow's dream of opening an eatery can be traced back to their formative years in high school when they worked as delivery boys for a vegan restaurant on the Upper East Side.

"Over the years Michael migrated to the front of the house, working in the dining room and behind the bar and I found my home in the kitchen cooking the food," said Holzman.

They launched the first Meatball Shop with around $400,000 from friends, family and anyone who could be convinced that the duo's business plan would work.

They just wanted a place where they'd love to work everyday, which also happened to serve great food.

Why meatballs?

Some of the meatball slider options offered by the restaurant.
Melissa Hom | The Meatball Shop

The idea for The Meatball Shop was inspired by Chernow's experience with Spanish Tapas bars.

"I wanted to explore Byzantine cuisine and loved the idea of a restaurant who's food was set in a different time period," said Holzman.

However, the idea for a meatball-focused eatery was hatched one day when the friends were sitting in a Whole Foods in downtown Manhattan. Once the concept was decided, they opened their first location and waited to see how the public would react before taking it to the next level.

"We incorporated both of our non-negotiables, and while we knew we wanted more than one Meatball Shop, we also knew that there's no point in thinking about growing a concept unless you have something worth growing," Holzman said.

Setting up shop

A Meatball Shop location in Manhattan.
Melissa Hom | The Meatball Shop

"We were extremely lucky with the timing of the first shop," said Holzman. "The restaurant was very busy from day one, well exceeding our expectations. Based on its success it wasn't long before we began the process of opening our second and third locations. Six years and six restaurants later (with a seventh on the way in Hell's Kitchen) we're running a successful growing business that has stayed true to it's original intentions."

Customers of The Meatball Shop have the choice of five different kinds of meatballs, a selection of sauces and seasonal veggie sides, house-made ice cream sandwiches, and a carefully curated selection of beer, wine and craft cocktails.

In the long-term, the team wants to expand outside of New York City and ultimately become a household name.

Laying on the sauce

Liz Clayman | The Meatball Shop

The Meatball Shop has allied itself with Whole Foods, which recently began stocking jars of the restaurant's just-launched tomato sauce. They've also published a cookbook, which has sold over 50,000 copies.

"The cookbook has already been such a great success, bringing The Meatball Shop into homes across the country and we hope the sauce will do the same," Holzman said. "Ultimately bringing guests into our restaurants is our main goal and we hope that introducing people to our brand through all of our products will encourage them to come and give us a try."