By Chris Mohney
March 16th was the day that they closed restaurants. We took a couple of days off and talked about what we wanted to do. And we decided we were going to reopen and just do takeout and delivery.
I’d say five percent of our business was delivery before the pandemic. We did do a fair amount of to-go, but to my chagrin it wasn’t a big part of our business. People treated this place more like a dine-in restaurant because it’s a bright, open space. We just never had the delivery potential that I thought.
After lockdown, we did takeout and delivery with a modified menu. Then we slowly realized that it was not going to be sustainable. There just was not enough business. It required me and my business partner, along with our chef and sous chef, to literally do everything. We couldn’t hire anybody. We were sweeping and mopping the floors. We were here from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m..
We decided that in order to make this work, we needed to get creative. We said, “Wow, wouldn’t it be great if we could raise a fund to feed hospital workers?” It created this win-win situation where we were going to raise cash and be able to pay people to make food for those on the front lines. So we started raising a GoFundMe on March 18. We did our first delivery to Woodhull Hospital a week later. They hadn’t really been seeing COVID patients yet. That’s how early it was. Obviously the situation deteriorated very quickly.
Then we decided we were only going to be open for the weekend, Saturdays and Sundays, which was always our bread and butter. We’d be open with pastries and coffee and breakfast sandwiches in the morning, and our rotisserie chicken at night. We did that pretty much every weekend for quite some time. It was fine. It paid the four of us who were working, but that was about it.
I don’t know if it was smoke signals or karma or whatever, but because of the nonprofit work we had started doing, we got contacted by an organization called the LEE Initiative, which was founded by chef Edward Lee in Kentucky, to feed unemployed hospitality workers. We got pretty significant grant funding through them to serve meals and pantry items four days a week. We did that for about a month. It was a great thing to do. It was awesome for us as a team. It was paying the bills.
The one thing we couldn’t reconcile was the idea that we were in the middle of this hot spot in the pandemic, and we were telling people to leave their houses to come get food. We were getting to the peak of deaths and infection rates in New York City.
So in the middle of April, we shut down completely. We all went home and quarantined for 14 days. I hadn’t seen my fiancee in two months at that point. I was just in the city alone. She went out to her parents’ house in Connecticut. We decided we all needed a break. It was a lot of stress being on the front lines every day. A lot of anxiety, more than anything.
During that two-week quarantine, we decided we were going to be a soup kitchen and do what we set out to do through the LEE Initiative, but we were going to do it contactless and send food to the hungry and front-line workers. Hospitality workers are important to us, but there was no centralized way to feed them this way. A lot of those people—unless they were undocumented, which is a horrible situation in and of itself—were able to get unemployment. With those checks, they could pay for groceries now.
We were able to create this ecosystem through a partnership with City Harvest and Rethink Food to produce 1,500 meals a week. I actually ran on the City Harvest marathon team, so I had deep connections with the organization. We were able to convince them to facilitate the pickup and delivery of the meals to the right places. So we had this beautiful thing going on where we had funding from Rethink Food, and we also raised $50,000 on our own, which was a massive undertaking. It was very rewarding to be able to raise that much money.
And we have been doing that ever since. We are still a soup kitchen. We are still doing 1,500 meals a week.
Then three weeks ago, we reopened as the Gertie Summer Shack—a for-profit takeout and delivery business. We had a lot of frontage on Grant Street, which was supposed to be an open street as per the Department of Transportation. So we decided, “Why don’t we do a hand food concept?” Instead of our normal menu, it would be a small selection of sandwiches, sort of giving the people what they want—fried chicken, schnitzel, cheeseburgers, shrimp rolls. Everything you’d get at a beach shack. We did that because we didn’t know when the city was going to open up for inside dining. We figured we’d set up some beach chairs literally on the street.
Frankly, despite the fact that we executed the concept really well, and the food is delicious and it makes so much sense, it has not been a success financially yet. Maybe because a lot of Williamsburg people have left the city. I live in Crown Heights, and the difference in foot traffic between the two neighborhoods is pretty astounding. Williamsburg, at least our pocket of it, is just empty. We’ve never had a lot of luck with foot traffic because we’re literally next to the BQE. We hired somebody and had to pay for all these materials to beautify our street space. It hopefully will attract people, but it’s a total crapshoot at this point.
When it rains, outdoor dining is like baseball. It gets rained out. Even if you have a tent and a tarp, people aren’t coming out if they see a downpour in the forecast. It’s tough.
I would say at this point we are not going to reopen for indoor dining indefinitely, unless there’s herd immunity or a vaccine or they say it’s safe enough to do it. As long as it’s not snowing outside, and it’s not really cold, I think we’re going to continue doing outdoor dining. We also have a patio space that we haven’t even opened yet. We’re blessed in that we have a ton of frontage. We can fit a bunch of tables outside. And if we want to open up our patio, which is now a construction site, we could do that.
We’ve set up this really safe way to feed people. No one comes into the restaurant except to use the bathroom downstairs. All of the service goes through our double doors at the front of the restaurant and through the windows. There’s no contact. You can order with your phone from the table if you want to.
I personally don’t feel comfortable going out to eat where there’s a server wearing a mask. It doesn’t make sense to me that we’re risking our health to serve people food when it’s not an essential need. You can order delivery, or you can cook or whatever. I get that people want to eat out. As a restaurant owner, of course all I want is to serve people. That’s why I got into it. But it doesn’t feel right to me at the moment.
I’m the chair of the reopening committee for Relief Opportunities for All Restaurants, so this is all I talk about on a weekly basis. As an organization, we’re trying to put together guidelines for diners that the mayor and the governor could talk about at press conferences. The restaurants shouldn’t be the ones policing everything. The guests need to take it upon themselves to understand that the virus transmits through the air. If we’re wearing a mask, then you should be wearing a mask when you’re talking to us.
I also advocated for the mayor and the governor to push indoor dining back, because the last thing anybody wants is to regress. The worst thing would be like what’s happening in California right now, where they reopened and now they have to close. That would be the last nail in the coffin for a huge percentage of restaurants. Just think of all the financial disaster for restaurants if the predictions are right about a surge in the fall. We’re talking about the Paycheck Protection Program funds running out at the exact same time that we might be forced to close again. I don’t know how we’ll survive that. I don’t know how anyone survives that.
As a community, we’re adamant that bad actors need to be policed, and policy needs to be smart enough that it doesn’t have unintended consequences. For instance—and I’ve been preaching this like a broken record—it’s awesome that they gave us the lifeline to do to-go cocktails and to-go wine. But they have to put some restrictions on the containers if they want people to drink it responsibly on the streets. You can’t give somebody a margarita in a plastic to-go cup with a straw, and expect that they’re going to wait until they get home to drink it. It’s just not how it works. So it’s a combination of smart policy and us, as a community, saying, “Guys, if we fuck this up now, there will be none of us left. Why are you putting that at risk to make some bucks now?” I get it that people are desperate. I wish that we had more business, certainly, but I’m not in the business of supplying mass gatherings on the street with open containers. It just doesn’t make sense.
The restaurant community has been forced to subtract and subtract from what we’ve been doing during the pandemic. We’ve been asked to reinvent ourselves time and time again over the past four months. There has to be some change in order to allow us to crawl out of this. It’s not just government funding. It’s long-term change to make restaurants more profitable to begin with, so that if there is a crisis we actually have cash flow. I mean, Gertie is a relatively successful business, and it loses money. That’s the reality for most restaurant owners at this point.
So what does reform look like? It looks like labor reform allowing us more flexibility with tipping and surcharges. We’re not allowed to tip the back of the house. We’re not allowed to tip out management. We’re not allowed to put a surcharge on the bottom of the check to help us pay for public safety, because we’ve been asked to police it ourselves.
Allowing restaurants to serve on- and off-premises liquor and wine for the long term is another lifeline. Just from a cash flow standpoint, you’re talking about restaurants that can have hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes millions of dollars, tied up in wine inventory. And when a crisis like this hits, we just need cash. If we need to liquidate assets and we can’t sell wine to-go, it’s a huge problem.
Then there’s health and safety reform. The way that the Department of Health does their inspections right now, the whole thing is sort of unethical. You always get fined. This city is always finding ways for us to get fined. What would be so much better is if there was an actual certification process whereby you knew when they were coming, or they came blindly but you knew that if you did X, Y, and Z, that you would pass. It wouldn’t matter who the inspector was, or what their motive was.
There’s also general real estate issues, like how much our rent goes up every year, and how much commercial rents are to begin with—where the real estate industry is driving the profitability of restaurants at the end of the day. I don’t know how you change that. That’s much harder.
At Gertie, we’re going to iterate on a small level. We feel really good about the menu and the number of items. We feel really good about where we’re going with our new furniture and with our new setup, and we’re hoping that it builds the rest of the summer and into the fall. Right now we’re open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Maybe we could open up Thursday nights—but last Friday was not promising to show us that we should be even open on Friday nights.
We had an opportunity to pop up in Prospect Heights, the Crown Heights area, at a bar called Bar Meridian. It’s my neighborhood hang. It’s a really new spot, and the owner hasn’t been able to hire back help on the kitchen side. I proposed to him that Gertie come and do this. It was a longshot, and then he hit me back and said, “Let’s talk about it. I love the idea. People are asking for food and only having one drink because we don’t have it.” So we’re going to be popping up there two weekends in a row, with the idea that it will become a residency for us.
The pop-up is an opportunity for us to think about the long term—like maybe there are better neighborhoods for us. Our clientele may not be in Williamsburg. We haven’t had as much neighborhood support as we would have liked. I think a lot of it has to do with location. It’s a good opportunity for us to be in a different neighborhood and expand ourselves instead of retracting.
I’m the type of entrepreneur that never gets complacent. I’d say I act too quickly sometimes to make changes and iterations and come up with new ideas. So I’m sure there will be some changes if things don’t work out. But at this point, we need to give it some time and see if it works.