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Dan Kluger On Building A Pandemic-Proof Restaurant

Finding ways to pay the bills, keep staff employed, operate safely, obey the rules, and stay sane in crisis.

Dan Kluger, a 2014 James Beard Award nominee for Best Chef, New York City, is the chef/owner of Loring Place in Greenwich Village. He recently released his first cookbook, Chasing Flavor. His second restaurant, Penny Bridge, is scheduled to open in mid-November in the Jacx, a creative office complex in Long Island City, after its spring opening was delayed by the pandemic.

2019 was a very rough year in a lot of ways, especially financially. In 2020, January starts a little slow, February is pretty decent. March, we’re actually doing really well. The Monday of the week we closed, we had one of our best Mondays. Tuesday, so-and-so called, their event space had just cancelled, COVID related, could they do the event here, 50 people, tonight? Like holy crap this is great! None of it was really registering.

By Thursday we’re starting to read in Eater—not that you’d hear it from the government in some way because that would be, no, too appropriate here—that we have to go to 50 percent occupancy, with no real understanding of what that meant. Panic started to set in. We made personnel and menu changes. I woke up Sunday morning—it sounds corny—with a certain heartache of “I need to make money to stay alive both personally and professionally, but this doesn’t feel right, not for our staff or our guests either.”

We closed that Sunday after brunch. It was a very surreal thing. For the sake of the team, I was the guy saying, “Don’t worry, it’s temporary.” In the back of my mind, I knew it was much more. I believe that should’ve completely locked this shit down back in March, and the country would be back to normal. June came, we opened back up for takeout, then outdoor dining. That’s been its own nightmare, and here we are today.

I wish I could say that it felt important to reopen Loring Place because it is a celebration of New York and all things local. The idea was more about what we needed to do to keep—I hate the word—the brand alive. The idea of not being open and present in people’s minds seems like its own sort of death wish, but I don’t think we were opening as much for other people as we were for our own sake.

It was for the well-being of everybody but the restaurant, and that is what so screwed up about this. You open to start paying vendors, to pay rent, insurance bills, staff. It felt good to give some business back to our vendors and certainly to farmers, but it was far from the best thing you can do.

As we opened for outdoor dining, we started to see that we were kind of a service. It sounds so cliché, and we’re not frontline workers, but people needed us. We needed it too, but people wanted to go back to dining out, and their lives, seeing their friends. That’s when your own mental shift happens. You feel more needed than ever—like you have a duty to be open. It’s really painful when you think about not being open.

Building the outdoor patio for Loring Place. Photos: Courtesy Dan Kluger.

When it’s raining, it feels like, “It can’t rain, we can’t feed people then, what are we going to do?” It’s a very different level of stress than normal. We only have 26 seats outdoors and are fully reserved nightly. I don’t want to say no. I can’t say no because this person’s out, they need to get fed, they haven’t had a meal outside in six months.

It’s great to finally be able to open for the 25 percent indoor dining. I understand everybody’s hesitancy and concerns. I’m surprised we have reservations already for indoors. I fear people are going to show up and say, “No, I thought you knew I was reserving for outdoors,” and then they walk away.

On so many levels, indoor dining is a double-edged sword. I want to be open for indoor because I want to feed people when it’s cold and rainy, to be able to give people a job, to chip away at the mountains of debt we have with vendors. But the regulations especially are causing more debt and more issues.

I’m not holding my breath for 50 percent indoor occupancy. I would love it, but if we had opened two months ago at 25 percent indoors, we could have employed the staff we need for indoors and outdoors this whole time. Instead, we’re opening the beginning of October, when it starts getting cold but not too cold for people to dine out. You need double the staff. I have to anticipate that indoor and outdoor are equally busy.

Setting up the patio at Loring Place. Photo: Courtesy Dan Kluger.

But what happens in November when it is definitely too cold outside? I have to terminate people. That certainly doesn’t feel good. I don’t believe people are going to be comfortable or happy eating outside. I ate outside in Montauk recently. No fault of anybody, but it was not an enjoyable experience. I love the idea of propane heaters, but I don’t want the insurance liability.

Even opening indoors at 50 percent doesn’t really matter. All of our labor and rent is now ours—it’s no longer covered by PPP. I don’t know too many restaurants that weren’t struggling before. We’ve had an incredibly low COVID rate in New York City, which I think is somewhat due to Governor Andrew Cuomo. I’ll give him some credit for that, and also to New Yorkers who are smart and want to see this go away.

But explain to me how New York City has been doing so well, but has had no indoor dining, and upstate New York does have indoor dining? They don’t have the regulations of putting in new filtration and UV lights into HVAC systems that the city does. What’s the rent in Syracuse for a restaurant space versus the rent in New York City?

Now you want us to open at 25 percent or 50 percent, but with 100 percent of most costs. You can control your labor, but you still need X amount of people to open up the door, and you still have rent. My landlord’s trying to work with us, but it’s still more than 25 percent rent. For 25 percent occupancy, should I pay 25 percent rent? Shouldn’t payments for my dish machine, ice machine, Canon copy machine, Dell leases, insurance all be 25 percent?

Every vendor wants 100 percent. Nobody wants to hear anything anymore. You’re only able to make 25 percent, maybe 50 percent of revenue. That’s wishful thinking—our 25 percent occupancy will probably generate 20 percent revenue. Our 50 percent occupancy will probably generate 40 percent revenue. If vendors are willing to work with you, they’ll work with you a little bit, but they’re not willing to go to 25 percent.

Maybe other operators know a hell of a lot more than I do, because there’s plenty of them talking about how amazing it is, and they’re bringing back tons of staff. I don’t see how that’s possible. The last thing I want to do is put anybody in harm’s way, or for one of my employees to tell me they got sick from working. I’m a staunch believer in the masks. I’m infuriated by the majority of our country that thinks this is a hoax. These people protesting it’s unfair for a child to wear a mask to go to school, it’s against their civil liberties and their constitution to wear a mask and so on—I’m completely against those people. I’ve lost two very close friends to this pandemic. But unless the government’s going to do something for us, we’re all going to close.

Restaurants employ a ridiculous amount of people across the country. In New York City, we’re the second-largest employer next to government agencies, yet where is the actual help? We need true financial support. The government did it for banks that were ripping people off, for the auto industry that failed. Airlines got $25 billion. We need to actually have somebody to speak to.

There are so many agencies, each one of them saying something different. We need the financial, legislative, and emotional support of knowing we can call up so and so, who will tell us what we can and cannot do, and that’s going to be the final word. Not someone else then saying something different. We need consistency. The key to a great restaurant is consistency. Our government has no consistency right now.

What are we going to do, and what does it mean? Which city agency is going to come by and tell you something different, or fine you? The city’s got to make up its money somewhere—it’s got no taxes coming in. Instead of spending money sending DOT, NYPD, and DOH to collect fines and bust people’s chops, let’s send them around to be helpful. Let them be a task force to work with Amazon or Wayfair or Home Depot to create discounts for restaurants.

We spent close to $5,000 building that outdoor space, and close to $10,000 to upgrade filtration and HVAC. I built out planters and my whole barricade system. I built out about 20 linear feet, another 40 to go, and thought I was good. A DOT guy came and said, “No, you have gaps in between.” I spent the next weekend building more things to go in between. DOT comes back a week later and tells me that I have to have plywood on both sides, even though there were now no gaps. I said, “There’s no plywood left in New York, and you’re telling me I need to do this by tomorrow?” And he said, “Yeah, you can go to New Jersey to get the plywood.” I can drive from Loring Place on 8th Street up to 125th Street and find 25 places that are not meeting the standards the DOT was constantly busting our chops about.

It’s all wonderful, reopening. I love it, but quite honestly everybody should have gotten their head out of their ass a long time ago and said, “We’re in this for the long haul, let’s not just think about this for one week.” That’s exactly what everything has been like. We’re going to extend this for a week, for a month, we’re going to do this or that. Instead, let’s look at this from now until December—or in reality, all the way to the third quarter next year. That would be the smart thing.

Unless we solve this, restaurants are not going to be here. Though it feels like an interesting and slightly nerve-wracking time for my cookbook Chasing Flavors to come out, and an awkward time to be opening Penny Bridge and creating something new, I am excited. People hopefully are cooking, and this would be an exciting time to try and teach them how I like to cook, with peaks and valleys of sweet, sour, spicy, salty, crunchy, and soft. But there’s so much other stuff going on in the world—an election and with the economy—that sometimes I wonder who the hell cares about another cookbook right now. I have faith that by the time we open, we’ll be at the 50 percent capacity, and that we won’t end up with another shutdown. But I’m nervous with that, too—nervous opening up a restaurant at this time in the world. I’m sad we’re not open with more time for outdoor dining, but it gives us time to iron out the kinks. When the spring comes, we’ll have a ton of outdoor space that will be ready to roll.