A massive uptick in online grocery sales keeps everyone on the job—and drives the opening of a new restaurant.
By Jeremy Schaller as told to Chris Mohney
Jeremy Schaller is the third-generation owner and operator from the family behind Schaller & Weber, the German butcher and market that’s been a fixture on New York’s Upper East Side for almost a hundred years.
Everything happened so abruptly in the city, the whole lockdown. Fortunately enough, the Schaller & Weber store, which is the heart of our company, was an essential business. We had to readjust for all the precautionary stuff in the store. We had to get all the PPE, we had to put up the plexiglass protectors and social distancing signs. Initially we had someone at the door letting people in, making sure that the door was open and that nobody was touching anything. Schaller’s Stube, which is our little sausage restaurant, was also capable of staying open. We were doing street service right out the window. We were fortunate to be allowed to sell alcohol out of the window as well as our sausages.
Especially in America, there’s never been a crisis that’s shifted businesses, small businesses in particular, more than this. During 9/11 we went through it. That hit everybody’s heart really profoundly. But it didn’t really affect our business as much as this did. There’s nothing that’s shaken up so many different industries as COVID has.
We were very, very lucky—we received money immediately from the Paycheck Protection Program. That was a huge help for us. We had to shut the Stube that’s in the DeKalb Market, because all of the markets shut down. The new Essex Crossing market, The Market Line, we’re in there, and that was shut down. Since then, we’ve gotten PPP money for both of those too, so that’s great. I’m not expecting those markets to reopen at full capacity. And are people really going to want to go into those kinds of markets?
Luckily, all my employees have been healthy. Nobody got COVID, which I find fascinating because we’re in New York and that first wave came through so strong. We were able to keep everyone. In order to get the full fulfillment of the PPP, we couldn’t let anyone go. We had to keep the same number of heads employed from the start to the finish. And we were busier than ever. We went back to our numbers from last year—March, April, May—and we doubled our business in the store. And the Stube also had a huge increase.
Even though we could only have six people in the store at a time, there was a line down the block of people waiting patiently. But a huge component of that was Mercato, the grocery delivery service. Before the pandemic, we probably made $5,000 in the two years we’ve been set up with Mercato. Now we’re doing $7,000 a week. At the peak of coronavirus, we were doing $27,000 a week.
Some of the employees from those other markets, we brought them to our store where we built a little section to cater just to Mercato orders. Our national deliveries also went through the roof. It gave us access to different neighborhoods in the city. We got orders from Brooklyn. We got orders from downtown. We had orders from Tribeca, the West Side, places that never ordered from us before. I think people got on Mercato and saw that we were available, and then they just were like, “Oh, I can get Schaller & Weber delivered? That’s amazing.”
We’ve also created a new concept. It’s called Blume—a full sit-down dining menu modeled after an Austrian wine garden. They have them in Vienna. That’s the inspiration for what we did here. We have all imported Austrian wines, a menu that’s very inspired by everything from the Schaller & Weber store. It’s an outdoor area with an open kitchen that seats 20.
Permitting is so much easier since they got away from the Department of Buildings and had all of the seating regulations go to the Department of Transportation now. They just gave us a form to fill out, and they gave us a permit in a day. If they pull that, which I expect they will at some point, it’ll be a shame for us, because we’re really loving having this little restaurant concept. But maybe we’ll move it into a different location that’s more suited to a full-time restaurant with indoor seating.
The expedited permitting—for New York, it’s a phenomenon. The to-go alcohol, it’s incredible. I don’t know if New Yorkers will ever give that back. People will be in an uproar if they take it away.
For my store, I’m going to be ultra-cautious going forward. We’re still doing specialized cleaning with a professional company once a month. I don’t want to have to close my store or have an incident where my employees get sick. We will maintain all these procedures until there’s a vaccine. Otherwise we’re trying to be as safe as possible and stay open. We have very strict, cautious rules about social distancing. If they allow like 25 percent capacity indoors, we’ll think about it, but we’re not in a rush.
Delivery services like Mercato—that’s going to be a constant going forward. I think it’s a good thing that New Yorkers are now cooking at home more often and taking advantage of grocery delivery services. And it’s a good thing for grocery stores to have another way of getting their products out there. This virus has changed the world for us, for better or for worse. People should enjoy more outdoor seating, and maybe they will allow restaurants to have more of these permanent setups in the street. It has more of a European feel. I think it’s cool.