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How A Restaurant Gets Tough, Stays Warm, And Stays Open This Winter

Collaborating with pop-ups and building igloos while dueling with landlords and snowplows.

Salil Mehta is chef/owner at Laut and Laut Singupora in New York City.

New Yorkers are a bunch of tough assholes. We’re tough. And I feel like the ones who are leaving? Don’t let the door hit you on the ass on the way out. The ones who are staying? We love you and let’s continue to build this thing up.

Even though we were deemed essential at lockdown, I didn’t think it was essential enough to put someone’s life in jeopardy. Due to the uncertainty and not knowing what to do and how to go about things and how to keep us clean and how to keep the consumers safe, we ended up closing for two months.

As we got a little bit more educated, and as we heard a little bit more and we got better guidelines, we decided to open for takeout and delivery. We weren’t making money, but at the same time there are certain workers who are not getting anything from the government. They didn’t have money for food, they didn’t have money for rent, they didn’t have money for anything. It gave us an opportunity to give them something to run their household.

Before COVID, about 30 or 40 percent of our revenue was delivery and takeout. Most of it was from Silicon Alley in our neighborhood, and a lot of offices. All those people left, and they’re still gone. We don’t know when they’re going to come back. They say next year, but that’s a long shot in my book. Takeout and delivery is not what it used to be, not even close to what it used to be.

On the first day of indoor dining, nobody wanted to sit inside. The timing was interesting because it fell on a weekend. It started on Thursday, and nobody wanted to sit indoors on Thursday. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday came, and there were people comfortable sitting inside. We realized these were diners from Long Island, from New Jersey, who were used to indoor dining. They didn’t mind it. Even now, locals don’t feel comfortable dining indoors.

Our outside dining is constantly evolving and changing. Now we’re thinking of ways to turn it into an igloo and keep it 50 percent open. It’s going to be interesting in terms of design and choices people make. Synthetic heat is not a nice experience. I’m very skeptical about the idea.

I see the COVID rates going up right now in a lot of zip codes. I hope that we can control it like we did before. I think we’re smarter than we were four months ago. But at the same time, what if it comes back, and we spend all this money on these structures outside, and the mayor says all of a sudden, “You know what, you’re not allowed to use these structures.”

And the city isn’t even talking about how to deal with snow plows yet. We’re trying to figure out ways to engineer our structure for that, so we can have it last through the winter. We were thinking of creating a deck with little drains in the sides, so snow and water flows through there. But if it’s a 14-inch blizzard and you’re blocked in, it’s going to be tough. And snow is going to damage the structure too.

I want to be positive, but at the same time we have to figure out who our enemy is at this point, which is the cold weather. We have to think of ways to beat it.

The landlords initially weren’t ready to help, because they thought COVID was going to go away in two weeks. We are dealing with a few landlords. Some of them have really helped us a lot, so we’re still open and operating. There are some who basically just ignore us and don’t even answer our emails and calls because they’re waiting for this temporary stop of evictions. As soon as it resumes, they’ll kick us out.

These are big landlords with a lot of inventory in the city. I don’t understand how it doesn’t bother them to leave a space empty for so many years. They’re still demanding sky-high rents, which doesn’t make sense to me either. We’ve been looking at a lot of open spaces, and those landlords are going above and beyond to accommodate new tenants. The ones who have tenants are hardly helping. We have a lot of colleagues who are going through the same situation. It’s heartbreaking in a way. Forget about business and one side. It’s about humanity helping each other out during tough times and getting through it together.

My landlord on 20th Street has been accommodating. He was playing hardball at first, and I genuinely wanted to give the keys back if that was the case. But he kind of gave in. My landlord on 17th Street is still playing hardball with me. I’m ready to give the keys back. There’s so much inventory out there. There’s so much empty space. Retail is gone. Offices are gone. Residents are leaving. There’s a U-Haul truck on every block in New York City. Just drive around, walk around, and you’ll see U-Haul trucks and people moving out. You’ll see lights that are not turned on in so many residential buildings. So even once this is over, it’s going to be a while before the consumers comes back.

We have learned how to be more efficient with a smaller staff and accommodate a smaller menu and specialize in what we do. We’ve got to change our model to fit the market today.

I love the idea of collaborating with different people and different brands. You learn a lot from them. This is something that a lot of us should be doing, because it allows us to work off of each other’s market and gain a market share. Sometimes it doesn’t happen initially, but you see it a couple of weeks after the event when social media blasts go up, and they start looking at you, and they start following you, and they start coming over to the spaces based on that. Like Singha Beer, which provided us with all these umbrellas and beer buckets and free inventory. It’s going to help them with their branding and their product, too. Collaborations and partnerships with the right people—it’s something that we’ll continue to do.

For example, we did a few pop-ups these last few months. We teamed up with some of the best bars of Singapore for a virtual cocktail tour because people can’t travel. With the Queens Night Market guys and the Bonsai Kakigōri guys, the idea was, look, we were fortunate enough to retain our brick-and-mortar store. We know a lot of people who gave up early. So our focus and our goal was to feature people who’ve lost their brick-and-mortar, or who’ve lost their means of getting an income. We didn’t take anything from them. Whatever sales they made was all theirs. It was just an outlet for them to serve their product. It benefits us, because their customers will order food and they’ll become our customers, too.

When we initially opened up this restaurant, we wanted it to be a high-end Asian restaurant—expensive in terms of Asian food standards. We’re trying to go away from that model and just have the signature crab dish, and then be a little bit more affordable and focused more on experiential and interactive dining. We’re trying to change the experience a little bit. We’re trying to work on things that will surprise people. It will allow us to give them an experience that they won’t forget.

People have been locked down in their homes. Even now, a lot of the clientele who are coming out, it’s the first time they’ve come out to dine post-COVID. They’re looking for an experience. They’re looking for safety. They’re looking for things that we’re hoping to provide them—something unique and different.