Bed-Stuy resident Norman Kai Lee was only 23 when he designed and then built his first business in Fort Greene.
The 29-year-old Flatbush native had no background in design and construction. But it didn’t take him very long after graduating from college before he decided he wanted to work for himself.
“I read 'Rich Dad, Poor Dad' and decided I wanted to be financially stable,” said Lee. “I wanted multiple streams of income, and I knew the only way was to just make it happen for myself.”
He wasn’t even sure in which direction to begin. But he asked his then-girlfriend what her dream job would be. She told him that she always wanted her own storefront where she could develop and sell her personal brand of makeup.
So he bartended until he saved up enough money to buy a small storefront on Fulton Street. He then hired contractors and laid out his vision for the space. He watched the contractors very closely as they worked, then eventually joined them in helping to build out the interior.
It was mostly just a project for him—to see if he could start and finish something that he set his mind to. Two years later, in 2007, Hawa Cosmetics opened its doors. And the finished product was stunning. The store has since moved from up Fulton Street, from Fort Greene, to downtown Brooklyn.
Also, since that time, it’s been fast-forward for Lee. He’s been conceiving of, buying out, building up and then flipping over new businesses in Bed-Stuy for the past five years.
“Well, I don’t know if I would call it ‘flipping,' because a lot of these places were not business before I came to them," said Lee. "I just build them from the ground-up and then sell them. I guess you can say I jump-start the block."
His latest project? Stable House Bar and Café in Bed-Stuy.
The swanky restaurant, located at 1177 Bedford Avenue, between Jefferson and Putnam avenues, opened five weeks ago. Already, the place has generated enough buzz on the block to spur the opening of two new businesses on each side of the restaurant and also convince one newly ordained Bed-Stuy elected official to throw his victory party in the restaurant.
Lee gets his design ideas from all over the world: He regularly travels in short spurts to Greece, Italy, Prague, France—anywhere that he can jet away for a few days—to sit inside of café’s, walk the streets and observe the architecture.
And judging from Stable House’s interior, the quick flights for inspiration definitely are paying off.
The décor inside of Stable House is decidedly Mediterranean with a New York City attitude: There's a little bit of Greece, a little bit of Persia and a little bit of downtown NYC-Bohemia. The lighting is sexy, the furniture beckons you from the door, even the floor is seductive, leaving newcomers only to assume the food must be good.
But alas, if you want the Stable House experience, you might want to hurry: The store has attracted hordes of potential buyers, and he’s already preparing to sell the business— to someone who wants to use the space for a gourmet market!
“My idea wasn’t necessarily to come and stay,” said Lee laughing. (You’d need a microscope to detect in his eyes even a sliver of remorse).
“When I came here, there was nothing on this block. I invested money into it, opened a business and now the block is beginning to flourish… I think a gourmet food and fresh meat market would be good for this area; we don’t have that over here.
“Besides, somebody else wants me to take their storefront two doors down and re-do their building,” he said.
Lee admitted, the deal with the gourmet market buyer is not yet set in stone. But you get the sense from his non-committal demeanor that, if not the market, then definitely something else.
So run, check out Stable House, say “hi” to Norman Lee, and be one of the lucky few to say you were a customer, “back when it was…”