A growing pandemic trend of restaurants shutting down and leaving New York CIty.
By Delores Tronco-DePierro as told to Chris Mohney
Delores Tronco-DePierro opened Work & Class restaurant in Denver in 2014, garnering national acclaim and multiple James Beard awards. She relocated to New York and opened the Banty Rooster in New York, with her husband John DePierro as chef. Due to the effects of the pandemic, the pair have decided to close the Banty Rooster and reopen it back in Denver. The last night of service in New York will be August 22nd.
When lockdown happened, we had been open for 96 days. Just over three months. We opened December 11th, so we were a brand-new restaurant in the West Village.
Prior to lockdown, things had been really ramping up. We felt like we were establishing ourselves in the neighborhood and in the city. We’d had a lot of press come in. Pete Wells of the New York Times had come in twice. We were on that trajectory of establishing ourselves. And then it all changed.
In that week before lockdown, it was tremendously confusing. You had Mayor Bill de Blasio saying healthy people should be going out to eat, so go support your neighborhood restaurants. Then a few days later, we’re at 50 percent capacity. News is breaking that Danny Meyer is shuttering, David Chang is shuttering. I’m a smaller, newer operator in New York, and I’m looking at those guys thinking, “All right, if they’re closing, we need to follow suit.”
I was trying to make my own decisions about what I felt was the right thing to do for my team. Initially I felt a moral obligation to try to keep them working, and that was quickly replaced by a sense that my greatest moral obligation was to keep them safe, to keep them at home. In a city where a lot of hospitality workers can’t afford to live within walking distance of work, they’re using public transit to commute. That especially felt risky. And that was a big consideration in New York, as opposed to another market where your employees might have their own vehicles to drive to and from work.
So we closed down. Our initial assessment was to keep everybody safe and healthy at home. I think like most people, we thought—wrongly, of course—that by May 1st we’d be up and running again. I can remember saying goodbye to the team—”See you in a few weeks. We’ll stay in touch.” It quickly spiraled, and it became really clear that things weren’t going back to normal anytime soon.
I made the decision not to open for takeout, for a couple of reasons. One was that we were incredibly new. We were still really in the process of building our business. I wasn’t sure we had a base of customers that would be looking to us as a to-go kind of place.
The concept of the Banty Rooster was meant to be a full experience. My background is in the service and wine and business side of hospitality. My husband is the chef. And for us, it was never meant to be only a food-driven destination. It was a destination meant to be the whole package—everything from the playlist to the staff’s uniforms to the way we greeted our guests, just our entire approach to hospitality. I felt that that didn’t translate well as a to-go container.
And the other reason is that we had not processed a single to-go order since we opened. We actually told people no. People would ask, “Could I order fried chicken skins to take with me?” The kitchen team felt strongly that those kinds of things don’t travel well, and that they’re best enjoyed at the restaurant. At a time when we had 75 seats and we found ourselves full most nights, and sales weren’t a problem, we didn’t particularly want Caviar drivers or delivery people coming in and out of our dining room and disrupting service when we weren’t set up for it.
We made an intentional choice when we opened that we weren’t going to do to-go sales. We were going to see if our in-house sales were sufficient. As long as they were, we would stick with our model. So when some operators were suddenly pivoting to to-go, for us that would have required putting the infrastructure in place, trying to order all of the takeout supplies we needed, and perhaps changing the menu.
It’s not that we couldn’t necessarily have done those things. I don’t regret that we didn’t. But at the time, it also seemed like the pandemic would last four to six weeks. That seemed reasonable then. At that time, I’m thinking if I still have staff commuting in, what if they get sick? What if we have a positive case in the restaurant? What if, God forbid, myself or my husband got sick? We are the Banty Rooster. If one of us goes down, then we’re really going to be in trouble. So it felt like the safest and smartest thing to do was close the doors and to wait.
At home, I spent a huge amount of time trying to follow what was happening in Congress and what kind of aid programs would be passed. I did a lot of advocacy work and joined all kinds of groups, whether it was the Hospitality Alliance or the Business Interruption Group. I was in a group chat of 50 different downtown New York restaurateurs, all trying to pool ideas and resources.
Early on, I did some interviews trying to raise awareness about the way that business interruption insurance claims were being patently denied without even a review. It felt like we had to, as small restaurateurs, try to unite our voices and shine a spotlight on what was happening. Within the industry, people are aware that restaurants are suffering, and many are closing. But outside of the industry, it’s sort of like a footnote. That’s how it feels.
For us, the real nail in the coffin came with our landlord. I was able to successfully get a PPP loan. Originally, 25 percent could be used towards rent and utilities. That was later increased to 40 percent. So for us, in broad terms, we got just over $200,000 in total. And of that, originally it was $59,000 that I could use toward those non-payroll expenses. Later, when they changed the legislation in late June, it increased to $92,000. At that point, I knew that we had to work with our landlord.
Because we were a new restaurant, we were in our abatement period in March when the shutdown came. So rent wasn’t an immediate concern, but I knew it would be coming quickly. Our rent for our space was $23,000 a month. I went to our landlord and I offered $69,000 total. This was in early May. I asked her to amortize that over the course of eight months with 8 percent of sales. I said, “We’ll open for takeout, we’ll get open right away, as soon as I know that we have a tenable path forward.” She patently refused the offer. She countered with a $5,000 monthly deferral repayable in 2022. So we still would have had to come back with $18,000 a month. And keep in mind, at that time there was no outdoor dining, which didn’t start officially until June 22nd.
I wrote financial projections. I measured the restaurant. I demonstrated how many seats we would have with six-feet social-distancing rules. We would have had 23 seats inside. We previously had 75. We’re in a no-standing zone outside, so we have 18 seats outdoors. But of course, just like today, that’s very shaky. Sometimes it’s working, sometimes it’s not. I showed that if we did the same number of turns that we were doing previous to COVID with that new number of seats, here’s where we end up. I really presented it as, “This is just math.”
All that fell on deaf ears. Her standpoint, and I have this in writing from her, was simply that a percentage-based rent is a disincentive for me to work hard, and that this was no different than 9/11 or the 1970s in New York, and that business would be back in no time. By the end of June, it was clear to me that we were too far apart.
The moment I realized there wasn’t a tenable path forward in New York, I was sitting in the restaurant and looking around and feeling such a sense of loss and grief. But there was also the senselessness of it, of having a business that was doing so well and had so little time, just three months. It was through no fault of our own, and it was nothing that I could have foreseen. There was no contingency plan for a global pandemic.
I had laid off 32 people when this all started. Now those would become permanent layoffs. I had an SBA loan for the property, and I realized I could very well be defaulting on that loan. It was really initially overwhelming. And then it dawned on me that maybe I could do something really outside the box to save my restaurant, and that was to move it back across the country to Colorado where I had started.
I was looking around and seeing that I had built out this whole beautiful space. And I’m looking at all this equipment, and I’m thinking about all these beautiful ceramics that we had made. We were so thoughtful about every little piece of this restaurant. As I sat there thinking of all that going to waste, it occurred to me that maybe I could just move it.
I essentially had proof of concept. I felt a real sense of responsibility to my investors who stepped up and said, “We believe in you.” I’m not Danny Meyer or David Chang. I am a single-restaurant operator, at least for now. It was my first venture in New York City. I have shown that I can be successful in Denver, but this was a move into a bigger market. There were many people that believed in me, and I wanted to make good on that. I didn’t want to just walk away and say, “It’s just over. It couldn’t be helped. I did everything I could.”
For me, there was this opportunity to leverage the success that I previously had in Denver, and the support and the relationships that I have there, to resurrect this restaurant. I knew there would be some obstacles, and I’m still working through them.
The bank that did our SBA loan wouldn’t allow me to actually move the restaurant. I said, “Would you rather get nothing?” They’re a Northeastern bank, and they didn’t feel comfortable with me going outside of their footprint. I had to find a way to pay off the loan. I’m in discussions and moving forward with a couple of investors. I’m scraping together what I can of my own. And I am working with the bank that helped fund my first restaurant in Denver, Work & Class. I had a great record with them, so they believe I can be successful in Denver. They’re assisting me with some bridge financing to get me out of New York and into Denver.
I called my real estate broker who did my first restaurant. They’re keeping an eye on the market. There’s a couple of neighborhoods that I find appealing in Denver. One is LoHi, or the Highlands. And the other is RiNo, the River North Art District, where my first restaurant was. They’re different neighborhoods, but what they have in common is a draw. Other markets outside of New York are different because people drive or get dropped off. They want to go to areas where they can walk around. Not every neighborhood has that, but those neighborhoods do. There’s enough of a nexus of food and beverage and retail that it becomes a stop both for people who live in the city and people who are visiting.
So I’m looking for spaces. I think we’ll sit out the fall and winter, then hit it in the spring or early summer next year. And hopefully we’re further down the road with this virus. The move allows me to sit out what may be a really difficult period. Maybe I lend my hand to somebody else in Denver, get a part-time job, or do whatever I need to survive while still keeping the Banty Rooster simmering on the back burner.
My landlord demanded that I leave all of the major equipment in the restaurant and actually sent someone to come photograph it as a condition of my surrender agreement. All of the kitchen equipment stays, and then the furniture, the tables and chairs, and our light fixtures, which were quite precious to me. But it’s okay. It’s just stuff.
What we’ll take is the small wares, and those things actually add up. We’ll be able to take all of the pots and pans, all the smaller types of kitchen things. I was able to take all the art, which is actually really meaningful. I had curated 14 different pieces of black-and-white art that went into the space. That’s really so much of the feel and the energy of the Banty. All of the ceramics will go with us, thankfully. They were made by one wonderful woman in Gowanus.
I’m taking the intellectual property. That’s what really matters. I have an immensely talented husband who has masterminded this menu with the help of a couple of other guys in the kitchen. I’m hopeful that at least one of them may move to Denver. He wants to leave New York. It’s just a matter of where he’s going. A couple of other members of the team are seriously considering moves to Denver, which is exciting. I also have all of my former employees at Work & Class who are no longer working there, and who have indicated they would love to come on board.
I’ve got to find the space, but I have the concept, I have all of the branding, I have the intellectual property of what this restaurant is and what it feels like, and what that playlist is like, and what the whole vibe and experience is. And I have a team to help me execute it that said, “Hey, we’re behind you. You just let us know and we’re in.” And that’s really exciting. That makes a huge difference.