EXCLUSIVE: After more than 30 years in the local restaurant scene, Chicken Masters’ owner Vinnie Mazzone has served his last piece of fried chicken in New York City, and closed up his Avenue Z shop for good.
But he’s not leaving because sales are slow or rent is high. He’s leaving, he told Sheepshead Bites, because New York City has taken all the joy, respect and honor out of running a small business.
“I’m going to miss this,” he said, hours before locking the doors for the last time. “I’m going to miss being a business owner of an established business. But I’m going out on my terms. I’m not being forced out of here. I didn’t go out because I couldn’t pay my bills. I’m going out because the writing is on the wall.”
That writing comes by way of inspection reports, sales tax audits, employment forms and a slew of other city- and state-mandated regulations that drive up costs and drive down morale.
“The atmosphere for a small businessman [30 years ago] was that you were treated with respect,” Mazzone said. “The government treated you with respect. They didn’t bother you. When the Health Department came in, they weren’t criminals. The whole atmosphere was just awesome and you were proud to be a small businessman.”
Now the government has turned hostile, working, he said, to wring money out of small businesses to fill city and state coffers.
“It’s evolved into a situation where I don’t feel I’m an independent business anymore, I feel like I’ve become a government employee without the benefits,” he said. “And instead of a CEO or CFO, I’m a CCO, which is a chief compliance officer.”
The change didn’t happen overnight. Mazzone has been in the business for three decades, beginning with stints at local joints including Jordan’s Lobster Dock, then diving into ownership with a tiny coffee shop adjacent to the Sheepshead Bay train station called Vinnie’s Bay Station – “the best little food house in the Bay,” he said.
After two more local ventures, a small fried chicken take-out joint on Avenue Z called Well Bred Chicken hit the market in 1997, and Mazzone snagged it and re-branded it as Vinnie’s Chicken Masters and compelled people to “Eat my chicken.”
“We had a three-foot-by-six-foot yellow background with green letters that said ‘Eat my Chicken!’ And when I flipped that light on, you should have seen the commotion around here. They went crazy!” he said of his opening day.
Years later he bought the property across the street – then a garment manufacturer staffed largely by Asian immigrants – and moved to his current location at 1201 Avenue Z.
Business has been good to him, providing enough money to live comfortably and support those around him.
“For 30 years, I created my own means of support and for countless, countless other people,” he said. “If I was ever to get everyone who ever worked for me, I’d need Shea Stadium, Yankee Stadium and into Madison Square Garden. How many people!”
But the city has recently made that impossible. He points to the labyrinthine beauracracy of government agency overseeing small businesses, from the Health Department, to the Department of Consumer Affairs, the Department of Finance to any one of the slew of agencies he’s now held accountable to.
And all of them, he said, are now under orders to wring revenue out of local businesses.
“The government used to say small businesses are the backbone of the economy. I don’t hear that no more. You didn’t bill that – that’s what I hear,” he said.
He calls the Health Department’s window displays a “Scarlet Letter,” and says of the unending parade of Bloombergian surcharges, “There’s nothing more permanent than a temporary government surcharge.”
Mazzone isn’t alone in his frustration with the city. New York is rated as the fifth worst state to own a small business. Salons are being fined for gender discrimination for pricing haircuts for men and women differently. Immigrant-dominated commercial strips are being hit for violations their non-English-speaking-owners don’t understand. And the number of fines given out every year is believed to have ballooned so much under Mayor Michael Bloomberg that Public Advocate Bill De Blasio is suing the city to release what he thinks will be damning data.
“They learn from the wiseguys,” Mazzone said of city administrators. “They learned how the wiseguys work, and now on the legal side they use it.”
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg in a city of hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of small businesses that Mazzone says are being nickel-and-dimed to death.
“We pay our fair share. We contribute more tax money than anyone else. We contribute to the community, the schools, the churches, and now it’s all going to end,” he said. “They come after you like an animal.”
For Mazzone, the breaking point came recently, when he was hit with his second sales tax audit in just a few years. He said the new processes have a bias against long-established business owners who lack computer skills and still run their business the old-fashioned way: with pen and paper.
Rather than taking on the additional expense of hiring someone to handle the books electronically, or risk taking a fine from the city in the future, he chose to forego the headache altogether and close up shop.
Chicken Masters shut its doors for good on Tuesday at 5:00 p.m., and Mazzone kicked off a private party for friends and family, doling out free food, drinks and hugs to those who’ve helped him along the way.
But his story isn’t over. Mazzone is flying out to Santa Barbara, California, later this year, where he’ll begin a road trip across the country, gauging the business atmosphere in municipalities along the way. He plans to hit states well-known for their laissez-faire attitudes, including Florida, North Carolina, Texas and Kentucky.
“This is a second phase of my life, I call it. There’s nothing more I can learn here. I’ve taken it to the fullest, and now it’s time to move on to a whole new endeavor, and what that’s going to be, I don’t know,” he said. “I’m going somewhere where they’ll allow me to ply my trade. You see, I didn’t do this for money. If I did it for money I would’ve hung myself years ago. I do it for the joy … it’s an expression of my innermost self.”
But don’t think he’s leaving his chicken behind. Mazzone said he’s packing a bag of his breading for the trip and getting a counter-top fryer, “because I’m not going to get this anywhere else.”