When she was a little girl growing up in Tbilisi, Georgia, Netty Davitashvili’s father, a diplomat, traveled to New York City. When he returned to their hometown he brought her a gift and told her about New York.
“I remember that very clearly,” she told RealClearLife. “That kind of ignited the love for the American things.”
Davitashvili, now 29, recounts this story one afternoon from a table at her restaurant, Cheeseboat, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which she opened when she was 27. After decades of idealizing New York City from afar, the Georgian native finally visited New York by herself for the first time at 19-years-old.
“I fell in love, it was insane,” she said, her Georgian accent still apparent. “It was so diverse, it was the America I loved, mixed with the European flair. It’s a melting pot, so you can find anything you want. It was freezing, I was not dressed properly and I got sick, but I still loved it. So I decided to move here.”
Davitashvili started attending Parsons School of Design. She willingly admits she made mistakes, but added that you have to figure things out in New York or “it will break you.” A lot of Davitashvili’s friends in the design and fashion world moved out of New York because they couldn’t find jobs, and she realized that she had to find sustainable work that would let her both live a comfortable life and allow her to pay off her student loans.
Hence Cheeseboat. The restaurant, which is just over a year old, came about when Davitashvili and her friends started going to Georgian restaurants in New York, and Davitashvili noticed that the places would do things in a way that wasn’t actually done in Georgia anymore. They were very traditional, but Davitashvili didn’t think it translated well to people who were not accustomed to it. So she decided to start a place that would showcase her country’s food in a way that people would understand — and more importantly, enjoy. The namesake is a classic Georgian dish: an open-faced khachapuri. It is a boat-shaped hunk of bread, with a deep pool of melted sulguni cheese in the middle, and though it sounds like it would be 2,000 calories, it adds up to be about the same as a large margarita pizza: somewhere between 400–700 calories, depending on size and toppings. The classic boat has an egg cracked in the middle after the baking is done. Other menu items include dumplings, soups, dolma (stuffed cabbage rolls), elarji (Georgian cornmeal w/ mozzarella and feta cheese), and more.
The cheeseboats and soup dumplings are the best sellers, and for good reason. The cheeseboat is a gooey, salty, cheesy mess that is best eaten by hand — you pull the bread off the sides and use it to grab hunks of melting cheese — and though the Imeruli Khachapuri (or classic cheeseboat, which costs $16) is always a safe bet, both the spinach ($16) and the bacon ($19) cheeseboats provide a twist on the traditional meal. The soup dumplings, on the other hand, are almost impossible to eat without the the soup drips down your chin with the first sumptuous bite. (Though with enough practice, you can learn to tilt it away just in time). Perfectly seasoned with Georgian spices, they are worth the $12. Along with the warm atmosphere of the restaurant itself, the meals are perfect comfort food for even those of us who have never been to Georgia.
It took Davitashvili two months to find the space on Berry Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s hipster epicenter.
“Imagine this girl in Doc Martins going up and looking at spaces,” she said, laughing. “They were like, ‘What are you doing here?’ and I was like, ‘Starting a restaurant.’”
Davitashvili knew very little about the endeavor she was about to undertake, but found help and resources within the community, including the Brooklyn Allied Bars and Restaurants. There were what felt like endless aspects to starting the eatery, including neighbors, noise, and permits. So many permits.
“It costs time,” she said. “Then it costs 100 dollars, 200, 1400. If you’re a small business, that’s a lot of money.” That’s the reason, Davitashvili added, “a lot of young people cannot start businesses.” Davitashvili had no safety net. She sold her apartment in Georgia and used her savings to start Cheeseboat. It was terrifying.
But Davitashvili found another form of support as well: her family. Slowly, they all moved here, and have been helping with the business ever since. They drive her crazy sometimes, and it took time to figure out boundaries—like not using the company credit card for Uber rides—but they all pitch in. Davitashvili’s mom writes all the recipes (Davitashvili herself comes up with the mix of cheeseboats), and her sister and her brother help run the place. Walk into Cheeseboat any night of the week and you’re guaranteed to find family members and many of Davitashvili’s close friends.
Would she do it all over again? Davitashvili is thinking about creating a “fast-food version” of Cheeseboat in Colorado or Texas that would be a hole-in-the-wall place; selling only cheeseboats and dumplings. If she does, she’ll be more prepared, having picked up valuable lessons from the challenges she faced as a young business owner.
“Fear is a big part of it,” she explained. “You’re scared of something because you’re thinking. Do not be afraid of that fear, there will be fear.”
She also learned to use that fear to jump in.
“A lot of times before we make that step, open a business, start a new job, get into a relationship or a breakup or whatever, we dwell and think and after a certain time it becomes a burden and then it will stop you,” Davitashvili said. “So jump into it. I think that’s the best advice anyone has given me. And I did jump into it and it was terrifying. But guess what, if you’ve failed, at least you tried.”