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Gary Greengrass On Playing The Long Game Through The Pandemic

Keeping the family business going through take-out and mail order.

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As grandson of the eponymous founder of the family business, Gary Greengrass finds himself in a tough spot while keeping New York institution Barney Greengrass open during restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Fortunately, there’s still high demand for fish sandwiches. See our ongoing coverage of how the hospitality industry is coping with the pandemic.

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Right now, a place like a steakhouse—people aren’t going to call them up and order a steak to go. It just doesn’t doesn’t lend itself to that. Luckily here, we’re selling smoked fish. We have a reputation of doing this for over 100 years. The peaks and troughs are less for us. When things go so terribly like now, they’re a little less bad for us. And they might not be as great for us when things are really great for the next person. We go for the base hit, not for the home run. We’re just trying to keep the expenses tight, as this is an expensive place to operate.

The restaurant’s closed. But we’ve always been a takeout place as well as a mail-order place. That’s helping us lose less. It’s still a big hit. Business is down more than 50 percent. It’s something you can’t get back. The restaurant is a profitable part of the business—maybe not the most profitable, but right now it’s just not available.

We have people calling for orders. We’re sending mail orders all over the United States. People are coming by for pickups and deliveries. But this past weekend, when restaurants weren’t closed, our restaurant was just so quiet, just so dead. Like most restaurants, we thrive on tourists as well as locals. There’s no theater, there’s no Lincoln Center, there’s no ballgames, there’s no museums. There’s no draw to the city and there’s no tourists. That just brings everything to a standstill.

The waitstaff—right now, we’re not having them come in. There are no customers for the waiters or the bussers to serve. Everyone else we’ve kept on and tried to utilize as best we can. We’ve scaled our hours back slightly, an hour or two a day to cut back a little bit on payroll. Business just isn’t there. We’re not that busy, but we’re short-staffed. Some staff don’t want to travel into work right now. I’m here but I’m not going to force anybody to do anything they don’t want to do.

People should still go to their favorite places and get their order to go. If the restaurant is even open. Some of these places are closed altogether—high-end places just don’t lend themselves to home delivery.

My problem is I don’t drink and I don’t smoke. I eat. When I stress, I’m eating. It’s not good. The gym I went to a little bit is closed now also. It’s not a healthy situation, as we say. I just try to be positive, and God willing, this whole thing is going to pass over so people get back to normal. Unfortunately, being a realist—things turned south very quickly here, within a week, and I don’t see it coming back that fast. It’s very fast going down the slopes. But I think it’s gonna be a long climb up the hill. It’s going to be a challenge.

As for advice to everyone else, I’m not a shrink. But I’ll make one joke. I had a customer today, she ordered numerous smoked fish sandwiches with tomato and extra onion, she asked for a lot of onions. I said, “What’s that, your version of social distancing?” I know, it’s not funny, but we try to keep it light.