Thankfully, his theory worked. Today, the Chelsea Market is one of the most thriving gourmet retailers in the city, offering kitchen and pantry staples from fruits and vegetables, to fresh baked brownies, artisan bread, exotic flowers, lobsters, steaks, wine and more. And yes, an eight-year-old could do just fine here. What's more, Cohen's unorthodox business theory—offering retail and wholesale—has allowed these operators to survive lean economic times with dual income sources—one from the home cook and the other from the restaurant business. The beauty of this model is that when the economy has slowed down and restaurant clients cut their orders, home cooks increase their shopping and fill the gap in revenue. "These past couple of years our tenants have continued to do well even though the restaurant business is down by 20 to 30 percent," says Cohen, "I think most of our retailers are up."
While Cohen no longer manages the property, his vision alone is the reason that this neighborhood has thrived. "We helped spur development in the community," he says. "Now people like to live there. The Highline is something I believe we had a lot to do with."
Cohen is now technically retired (he is a grandfather of 11, which also keeps him busy), but he continues to work as a public servant to help develop unused real estate with the city and the state. His latest project is also visionary: a groundbreaking "Market Mile" that will be located on the Park Avenue sidewalk under the Metro North tracks from 112th to 131st Streets in Harlem. He hopes to fill it with multi-ethnic, local food businesses, each 80 square feet and possibly constructed from discarded shipping containers, and each selling one dish that represents a particular culture. Cohen also plans on teaching the vendors the skills necessary to serve the catering and airline industry operating out of New York. He is also working with upstate farmers to find a way to ship their local produce by barge along the Erie Canal into a terminal for easy distribution.
Whether discussing the Market Mile, the barge project, or the Chelsea Market, Cohen is emphatic about one thing. "The only reason I was able to succeed in this business is because I was fortunate enough to attend Brooklyn Law School," he says.
Cohen is incredibly sincere when he discusses his education. "My parents came from the Ukraine and Poland and could not read or write English," he says. "I was the first child to go to college, and I was the first person to go to professional school from a family of 17 cousins. Brooklyn Law was the most important part of my development, and the time that I spent there was the most worthwhile experience that I had in my entire business life. It was the castle of my dreams and it still is."
“Brooklyn Law was the most important part of my development, and the time that I spent there was the most worthwhile experience that I had in my entire business life. It was the castle of my dreams and it still is.”
— Irwin Cohen