Sam Nidel is a co-owner of Motel Morris and The Commons, two restaurants in Chelsea. Photo: Michael DeSantis
Sam Nidel graduated from college in 2009 thinking he’d spend his years working in the family business of real estate. Instead, Nidel helped launch another type of family business: food.
Nidel, 31, now owns two businesses on Seventh Avenue — a coffee shop cafe called The Commons, and Motel Morris, a comfort food restaurant. With the help of his family, Nidel achieved his goal of bringing two food establishments to serve the Chelsea community. Now that they’re here, Nidel and the rest of his team are hoping to not only survive, but thrive, in a city that has a track record of being tough on small businesses.
Nidel worked for his uncle’s real estate company, Paley Management, for three years after graduation. During that time, he helped his brother, Brett, and an old friend with their hot cocoa stand on the High Line. Brett Nidel and his friend had won a competition that led to them to open a winter stand when the High Line was just starting to venture into food and beverages.
“I helped them out during that venture and I really loved it,” Sam Nidel said.
The trio opened a second location in Hudson River Park’s Christopher Street, which was an all-day cafe. Nidel helped manage that on weekends. From there, he fell in love with service and interacting with people seeking food and coffee.
Nidel quit his real estate job in 2011. Later that year, he, his brother a family friend Matthew Mogil transformed an old shoes store into The Commons. From then on, it was a family affair. Nidel the opened Motel Morris in April 2017 after signing a lease for it in 2016. With the help of his family, Nidel was able to get the businesses off the ground.
Sam, along with Brett and Mogil, is the co-owner of both The Commons and Motel Morris but focuses on the former venture. Brett is the “brains” of the behind-the-scenes work that includes venting, electric and plumbing. Brett’s wife, Tamara McCarthy, is the business’s graphic designer and designed the Motel Morris bathroom. Nidel’s cousin, Jessica Corr, designed the restaurant’s furniture and lighting. Mogil takes care of a lot of the company’s finances. Arlene Novick, Sam and Brett’s mother, bakes a dessert called Arlene’s Special. And their father, Richard Nidel, is a lawyer for their business. In fact, Nidel and at least a dozen of his family members live in the apartments above Motel Morris. Though the building essentially serves as a motel, that’s not how it got its name. Morris Paley, the Nidel brothers’ late grandfather, served as part of the motivation. Mogil’s great-grandfather was named Morris Minsker.
The way Sam described growing up with his family evokes his passion for food.
“Every day growing up, I was lucky enough to have two parents who loved to cook,” he said. “There wasn’t a day where I wasn’t obligated to come home and have dinner with my family. My brother and I used to hate it when we were little because we weren’t able to go out and be with our friends all the time. Our mom would kind of be like, ‘You have to come home for dinner.’ But now I definitely think that was a major contributing factor too for our love of food and this industry.”
The Commons serves roughly 30 drink options ranging from coffee and tea to hot cocoa and cocktails. Food-wise, it offers egg sandwiches with bacon or sausage, scrambled eggs, mushroom or avocado toast, a variety of sandwiches and more.
“It started off as something that we thought the neighborhood needed desperately,” Sam Nidel said of his motivation to found The Commons. “Being that we live [in Chelsea] and there weren’t any coffee shops, really. Or places to get a good, quick breakfast. The need of the neighborhood really drove that.”
Eileen Millan, 67, who has lived in Chelsea for 40 years, only began going to The Commons this summer. She said she now goes twice a week after falling in love with the sausage, egg and cheese sandwich.
“It was one of the best egg sandwiches I’ve had,” Millan said.
Motel Morris, where Nidel takes more of a backstage approach, is run by a dating couple, Bill McDaniel and Jamie Steinberg. They serve as the head chef and general manager, respectively.
McDaniel, 49, is responsible for putting the Motel Morris menu together. Under his lead, the restaurant offers American comfort food.
“The whole idea about American food is that they’ve taken things from everybody’s culture,” McDaniel said. “I feel as though being a chef in the United States is a great opportunity because you get to just pick all the great things.”
Lunch items include soups, salads, chili, a burger with cheddar, bacon, onion rings and black garlic barbecue sauce, a noodle bowl and a crispy fried chicken thigh sandwich (a personal favorite of McDaniel’s).
Dinner features skirt steak, roast chicken, chicken fried buttermilk pork chop, grilled trout or roasted salmon. If diners still have room, they can have dessert: butterscotch banana pudding pie, a chocolate s’mores sundae, or Arlene’s Special, which rotates.
McDaniel, who grew up in Arizona and has been cooking for 32 years, said he tried to take as many individual preferences into account as possible when creating the menu.
“The American cuisine now has really developed through understanding the diversity of people and what they need,” McDaniel explained. “Restrictions, likes, dislikes, gluten issues, allergies. It is, to a different degree, a new way to write menus.”
Steinberg, 44, also runs the beverage program. Motel Morris serves about 10 different cocktails, dozens of wines and a handful of different craft beer selections.
Between The Commons and Motel Morris, Sam Nidel heads a well-oiled machine. However, there’s always the risk of dealing with rent and wage increases. New York City isn’t the easiest place to run a small business. Millan said she’s seen numerous restaurants and other long-time mom and pop shops leave Chelsea in her 40 years of living there.
“The problem with Chelsea is that it wasn’t always expensive and it wasn’t always as hip to live here,” Millan said. “It’s gone through a gentrification. Most of the mom and pop shops are gone.”
Nidel’s restaurants are doing well with rent and the owners have a good relationship with the landlord, but he feels he may need to make some changes with the minimum wage set to increase to $15 on December 31.
“I love that our workers can make more money and that’s what we want for them,” Nidel said. “But we’re going to have to raise prices most likely.”
Nidel is concerned that restaurants around the city having to raise their prices could scare off customers.
Millan has a feeling that Nidel’s family business will be able to manage and that the community will stick with them.
“I think they’ve gotten their customers,” she said. “The buzz is out about them. The food is really, really good.”