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How To Cope With The Pandemic’s Eradication Of Experiential Dining

A New Jersey restaurant and culinary center was about to expand on the success of cooking classes and intimate meals, but COVID forced them to rethink.

Neilly Robinson and David Viana are the founder-owner and chef-owner respectively of Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge, New Jersey. A combination cooking school, open-kitchen restaurant, and shop, pandemic restrictions caused Heirloom Kitchen to swap out out in-person classes for online, and chef’s table dinners for outdoor dining and delivery.

NEILLY ROBINSON: When the shutdown happened, we thought it was going to last two weeks, that turned into two months, that turned into six months. It’s been a constant reassessment of what we’re doing, and having to continuously adapt and change, because there’s no history, no patterns. Understanding the comfort level of the public and where people are at—it’s just so all over the place.

We’re a hybrid restaurant concept, so normally we spend Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday doing public cooking classes in our space. And then we did four dinner services a week. With COVID, we’re unable to do public cooking classes. That’s slicing a quarter of our revenue right off the bat—something that we don’t know if we’ll be offering for a very long time.

DAVID VIANA: When this all started, we were in the process of opening up another place in Philadelphia. We were a week away from signing a lease. We had brought in Ricardo Rodriguez, the head mixologist at the Broken Shaker in Miami, and another good friend of mine who’s running three places here in New Jersey. The four of us went to go to Philadelphia to check out the new space, and everything there was getting shut down. It was March 16th. So we get to Philly, and it’s a ghost town. We were like, “Oh, this is weird. Why don’t we just get some food?” We went into Whole Foods, and then we drove all the way back. I cooked this big dinner for the four of us. I remember laughing and calling it the “End of Innocence dinner party.” At that moment, the whole world was bright and shiny and new, and we had this project together, and we were so hopeful. This pandemic thing was a blip on the radar. In two weeks we would get back together and do this. And that was the last time I remember being carefree.

Neilly Robinson and David Viana checking out the new Heirloom Kitchen space in Philadelphia before the pandemic canceled the expansion. Photo: Courtesy Heirloom Kitchen.

NEILLY: What’s crazy, too, is that the space that we were signing a lease on had been in the works for almost two years. We had seen it August 2018, saw it again in August 2019, went into letter-of-intent negotiations in September 2019, went into the lease this January, and hired our real estate lawyer and were literally a week away from signing with a big developer in Philadelphia. Ultimately, I think that we were blessed that we never signed anything.

DAVID: We’re in this sleepy town of Old Bridge. The new place was going to be Heirloom Kitchen in a bigger market. We loved our concept. We still do. The hybrid of a cooking-school-slash-restaurant gives a lot of balance to our chefs. People love doing both. People who take the cooking classes come in for dinner, and vice versa. It’s great that our staff can stay home every couple days, with the business still open and generating revenue but without all the staff that goes with running a restaurant. We wanted to see what we could do in a market like Philly.

NEILLY: We’re also BYO with the Jersey liquor laws. In Philadelphia, we were going to have a license. We were bringing up our friend Ricardo from Miami who was going to move and do a really killer bar program for us.

The pre-pandemic interior of Heirloom Kitchen. Photo: Courtesy Heirloom Kitchen.

DAVID: So a two-week hiccup ended up with us being closed for a month and a half. The PPP got the ball rolling for us. We were on that first wave of applicants and got it right away. We spent it to the letter of the law and blew through it in eight weeks, which sucked once they changed the parameters. But it got us back into this space, it got us to pay our staff, it got the wheels turning again. We were hesitant to start something and then stop again. We were like, “You know what? We have nothing to lose. We have this money. Let’s start working, and we’ll figure it out from there.” It gave us the chutzpah to jump into it with both feet and both eyes closed. At that point, you’re just adapting. You’re trying to figure out what’s working, what people want, and trying to find your groove.

NEILLY: This morning we were talking about what’s going to happen in the fall. Is there going to be another shutdown? I was saying that I do feel like bars should be table service only. There should be no reason why strangers need to be socializing and interacting with one another in that kind of environment. I don’t think it’s a good idea. And Dave was saying, “I feel badly for people who own a bar. How are they supposed to run a business?” I was like, “I completely get that.” I mean, who can sympathize more than all of us?

Right now we’re doing four services or styles of offerings that we’ve never done before as a business. Anything that we had ever done up until this point, we’re not currently doing. For example, we’re in a strip mall off of a highway in central New Jersey. We never dreamed of doing outside dining. We never thought that that was something that would make sense. Why would anyone want to sit in a parking lot? But we’re doing outside dining. We’re doing to-go service, which is something we’ve never done before. We’re doing in-home barbecue experiences with David. And we’re doing corporate Zoom classes—virtual teaching. We never really did any of those things until now. We haven’t really had a choice.

Photo: Courtesy Heirloom Kitchen.

Our landlord is extremely understanding and pretty progressive as far as always investing in his tenants in general. He was helpful from day one, which is why we signed our lease to begin with where we’re located. Right now, he’s come up with a program similar to the government guidelines on reopening. When 25 percent inside capacity starts, we start paying 25 percent of our rent. When 50 percent happens, 50 percent, and so on. Once we can get back to full capacity, that will all be deferred over an 18-month period.

We have a very good rent for where we are, which is why my heart goes out when I read that Uncle Boon’s and all of these amazing places are starting to close. I’m assuming it’s just the beginning of so many great places that can’t withstand their rents. We’re working with a fair landlord who’s been extremely helpful getting the outside set up. We have a really nice, manicured shopping plaza, so even though we’re outside, it still feels good out there. As David says, we’ve always done it one plate at a time.

DAVID: We just tried to get creative. We had these quarantine videos where we were home cooking together that had some legs to them. And we were like, “Let’s try some Zoom classes.” And they were okay. Companies started jumping on that, and that was a nice source of revenue. In-home experiences are the newest thing we’re offering. It’s a way of making a special occasion in a private setting and getting back to the intimacy of hospitality. That’s the one thing that we lost when we got into the quarantine and doing the takeout stuff. You can’t box hospitality—you can’t box all the little details and touches of being catered to, and all the smiles and the comfort and the conversations that come about through dinner. That was hard for me because I got so passionate about what we do.

A painting by Heirloom Kitchen chef de cuisine Rob Santello hides an electrical box near the outdoor dining area. Photo: Courtesy Heirloom Kitchen.

NEILLY: We’re also in an open-kitchen setting. The chefs are facing you the whole time with the fire in front of you, and they’re able to really engage with the guests, talk about the duck rendering, and the Yankees or whatever.

DAVID: All the dining out we’ve done over the past three years, like Blue Hill at Stone Barns, I was blown away by the service, the experience of it, the magic-show elements of it. We geared our whole restaurant into experiences only, whether you were coming in for a hands-on cooking class or coming into this show-stage kitchen and being welcomed to sit at the counter and talk to the chefs while they make your food. All of it was experience-driven.

And we had collaboration dinners. We invited chefs from Philly, like Joe Sasto from Top Chef came into our kitchen. We were always trying to make memorable experiences, and that’s always been what we’ve been doing. COVID sucked that element out of our business. It was the hardest part, trying to figure out how we can continue to make our mark when we’ve gone for interpersonal experience—the direction the whole world’s gone away from now.

But having had the experience part of our model, the Zoom classes and social media videos came really naturally. I still miss the dialogue, the back and forth of actual teaching. But that’s made us more adept at doing interesting educational videos. That part of the business was able to grow a little bit. But as much as I love cooking, I love hospitality more. Recently at the restaurant, where we’re only doing outside dining, it started to rain mid-service, so a couple of tables wanted to come inside. We allowed it, and instantly I felt completely different about the service. In one moment I felt like it was my restaurant again. To close my eyes and feel how different it was having the people so close to the kitchen again, and seeing faces light up when they’re tasting their food. All those little moments I miss now more than ever.

NEILLY: I do the books, I do the social media, I run the business. When we got back into the kitchen, when we started doing to-go, what was driving me personally was how talented our team really is. It doesn’t matter if you’re going to plate everything in an aluminum to-go container. There’s nothing that can contain the flavors. Even simplifying these guys’ ideas—their execution is second to none. Every time I didn’t think I had it in me to do it, that’s what gave me excitement—smelling the food, tasting the food, taking videos of the food, shooting the food, sharing the food, getting the feedback. The engagement during the quarantine on social media, on Instagram, was crazy. People were on social media all day long.

DAVID: After all this hard work of trying to figure out how to do these things, you’d see the bottom line and think, “This isn’t survivable.” We’re thankful for the PPP. It had its flaws, but I think the PPP was designed at a time when nobody knew the pandemic was going to go on this long. It did get us through those really lean weeks where we would have had to shut down from lack of capital. We were able to keep pushing and keep trying, even with no real return financially.

And it slowly got better. It crept up a little bit more, and to this day we’re still climbing in the right direction. Between the outdoor dining and to-go service, and all the different things that we’re doing, we’re operating at about 50 percent of our previous year’s revenue. That’s something we can build on.

Photo: Courtesy Heirloom Kitchen.

NEILLY: I brought David in about four years ago. Three years before that, Heirloom was just a cooking school and retail boutique.

DAVID: We started on a handshake deal, no contract. It was people who basically had nothing to lose. She had a struggling business, and I had a career that I was unsuccessful in. At that point, after 15 years in the business, I was like, “It can’t be everybody else’s fault all the time. Maybe I was meant to do something else.” So it was a handshake, and we built something out of nothing.

NEILLY: I never set out to do a restaurant concept. These guys are creating magic in a residential kitchen, on a Sub-Zero, on a Wolf range with six burners and two wall ovens. So what they do is really, really impressive for the equipment they have. We also have very limited refrigeration. We’re not set up to do bulk.

If we had a different kitchen, this could be a very different story. If our business was able to do volume, we would be cranking it from the start. Our business literally runs on the boutiqueness of it all. We bring in just enough ingredients. We can only bring in just enough ducks that have to be broken down to fit into the fridge. So you pay for that. We always put that price on the experience.

Even with the outside dining, we have a four-course prix-fixe menu. We adapted our menu before quarantine. We launched a lobster paella for two on Wednesdays and Thursdays to build up those nights. Wednesday was a new service night for us after quarantine, and Thursdays were never that big. They’re now getting completely booked up. Our paella to-go has been sold out for a month, for every Wednesday and Thursday till the end of the month, with a waitlist. That spoke volumes to how people really want to eat and dine right now. They want something comforting, delicious, and plentiful, and they don’t want to come and eat at your restaurant.

When New Jersey announced that you could dine inside, we had so many guests call to change their outside dining experience to the inside. It spoke volumes to us about where people want to be. They want to be in the kitchen. We create an audience and a vibe in the restaurant that’s fun and lively. That’s where our guests want to be.