By Gabriel Stulman as told to Juliet Izon
Gabriel Stulman is the founder and CEO of Happy Cooking Hospitality, a restaurant group that owns West Village spots Joseph Leonard, Jeffrey’s Grocery, Fedora, Fairfax, and Bar Sardine, as well as Studio, George Washington Bar, Simon and the Whale, and The Jones elsewhere in New York.
When did I realize COVID was going to have a real impact on my businesses? There are two answers to that question. When did I realize that this was a very major issue? When all respectable news outlets started reporting about what was going on in China. When you read about Wuhan locking down 60 million people, you go, “Alright, that’s something that’s real.” Now, other people in our government chose to not treat that like a real warning sign. I think there were a lot of cries for, “You should take this seriously!” then.
Now, when did it become obvious that this was going to have an impact on our business? I think it became obvious probably about a full seven days before we were mandated to shut down. That is when there started to be a spike in cases here in New York, and local businesses—the nail salon, the laundromat, us restaurants—everybody started to feel it. For seven consecutive days, our sales averages were dipping, and on Sunday, March 15th, we made the decision to shut our businesses. We beat Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo by like 14 hours with our decision.
The way that we’ve always been with our staff is upfront and personal. The way I would have wanted to tell everyone would have been to call an all-staff meeting and get everybody in one room. That’s the way you do it. But that’s literally what you’re not allowed to do during COVID. You can’t call a meeting for 300 people. The reality is, by the time we were making the decision, there were already guidelines that you shouldn’t have groups of more than 50 people. So how did we communicate? We had to communicate via email because you can’t get that many people together in one room.
We said, “Look, every one of you has been working for the last week. You see what’s happening to business. This should come as no surprise. So, we’re gonna take a proactive step and close our businesses and reevaluate where things are going.”
The thing that we do, we cannot do because we don’t have the kind of job that you can do from home. We’re not journalists, we’re not graphic designers, we’re not lawyers. You can’t be a bartender from home. You can’t be a waiter. You can’t be a line cook. You can’t do our jobs remotely. So, our industry, in my opinion, was the first in the trenches and the first to be completely eviscerated in terms of employment and damage, economically. And we’re going to be the last to get to reopen. I’m not complaining—I’m just stating. Offices will be able to go back to work before restaurants can.
Our restaurants are in various stages. The first initiative that we launched within days of closure was we decided to basically take the money that we had liquid in our accounts and put a stop to payments of outstanding invoices and rents, and use it to help our staff. If the government couldn’t take care of them, or if the government was failing to take care of them, how do we take care of ourselves?
Within the first five days, we set up one of our restaurants as a food bank. And every Thursday our entire staff is able to come to us and receive a 40- or 50-pound bag of groceries. There are raw fruits and vegetables, like avocados, lettuces, onions, garlic. Prepared foods like chicken salad, tuna salad, carnitas. And eggs, milk, coffee, bread, and rice. It’s enough food to last you a full week until you come back next week for another bag of groceries. Everybody can come and we take care of our staff as well as their dependents. Every week we’re putting out a week’s worth of groceries for a little over 200 people. We’ve also created an internal newsletter. The first issue was everything they needed to know to file for unemployment. The second was all of these other resources that are out there and all these proactive initiatives.
Joseph Leonard is reopened as well, and that is where we are working in conjunction with The Paul E. Singer Foundation and Jewish Food Society. We’re making 300 meals a day—150 lunches and 150 dinners—that we’re providing for our city’s first responders. Most of our meals are going to the same hospital in Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, called Woodhull Hospital.
You don’t want to feed somebody the exact same thing every day. We thought that was really important. I was like, “Look, if we’re going to be feeding the same lunch group seven days a week and the same dinner crew seven nights a week, I don’t want people to be like, ‘Oh God, Joseph Leonard … I can’t eat the fucking chicken again.’” We made a calendar for 30 days out, and it’s a different meal every day.
And then we reopened Jeffrey’s Grocery in a story that has become almost poetically full circle. Jeffrey’s Grocery is now operating as a retail grocery store for our community. So through Simon and the Whale we’re feeding our staff. Through Joseph Leonard, we’re feeding our first responders. And through Jeffrey’s Grocery, we’re feeding our community.
I am not in the mindset of taking things day by day or week by week. I think that’s fucking irresponsible. You’re only thinking week by week? Cool. You might as well just roll over into your grave. That’s not how you save your business or get reopened. You need to be forward-thinking, to be proactive. I’ve been thinking since day one about what the future looks like. And the reality is a lot of the answers to it are things that we can control, and a lot of the answers are things we cannot control. What are the things that I can control? I can control my concepts. I can control my labor. I can control my menu mix. I can control how we are marketing ourselves.
I cannot control how many people come through the restaurants. I cannot control the figurative and literal appetites of diners post-COVID. Even when Cuomo says it’s safe to go to restaurants, are people still apprehensive to do so? I think a percentage of people absolutely will be thrilled to go back to restaurants as soon as it is deemed safe. I think there’s gonna be a bunch of people that are going to be like, “It may be fine for Cuomo, but I’m still not ready to go.” I cannot control whether or not I get a PPP loan. So far, I have not. Will I get it in the second tranche? I have no idea. The PPP loan is a great program for some businesses, and a materially flawed program for the hospitality industry. It’s not a lifesaver. If you need to spend 75 percent of the money on labor and you’re not open, it’s fucking flawed.
I cannot control what Cuomo is going to say in terms of what reopening for restaurants looks like. Is it 50 percent seating? Is it six feet between tables? I just need to react once I get it. But the decisions that are made will have material impacts on what business looks like after this. I know one thing for certain—we’re going to be making a lot less revenue. And with less revenue means I need to find out how to spend less, and we’re figuring that out. The decision might be this works, or this doesn’t work to continue. And that’s going to be case by case based upon answers to factors I cannot control.
But forget about my opinions as an operator. As a diner with my wife and my kids, if the only way to eat in a restaurant looks like—I show up and the maître d’ digitally scans my temperature at the front door, then determines whether or not I’m allowed to sit. Then I’m sitting, and the next table will be 6 to 10 feet away. Then my waiter comes and hands me a disposable menu and talks to me about the roast chicken addition through a face mask and brings my food with gloves on? I’m sorry, I don’t want to eat in that restaurant. Forget about whether or not I want to run that restaurant. That’s not what dining is about for me. I never opened up restaurants for that kind of experience, and I’m not interested in eating in restaurants with that kind of experience. So, if that’s the only way to open up a restaurant? Cool. Some people might be like, “Oh my God, I just want to get out of my house.” No judgment for that. For me, that’s not an enjoyable dining experience.
But, am I hopeful the city will be resilient? Hopeful is not the right word. I would say I’m certain. I have zero doubt. I’ve literally not a shred of doubt that we will persevere. I will persevere. I am resilient as they fucking come. And I am not alone. There are going to be plenty of people that rise up and are amazing, and I can’t wait to join forces with them.