An owner comes to terms with what the pandemic took away, and learns to celebrate the memories while looking forward to the future.
By Natalie Freihon as told to Hugh Thomas
Natalie Freihon was managing partner and co-owner of longstanding Manhattan neighborhood restaurant Fat Radish. If not for the pandemic, the Fat Radish would be celebrating its 10th birthday. Instead, the restaurant has seen its last service. Freihon and her staff are seeing out the year with a pop-up at sibling restaurant Orchard Townhouse in the Fat Radish’s memory.
The most painful thing was knowing we weren’t going to break bread together in that same space again. That was really emotional for all of us and our guests. The community is such a strong one. We had so many neighbours that would come to the restaurant—it really was a family there. We knew everybody.
We closed in March, the day before we were required to. Business was really starting to suffer for all our restaurants since the first week of February, and we were having to lay people off knowing things weren’t going to get much better. Everyone thought we’d be closed in New York for eight weeks tops. We had weekly calls with our landlord, and he was very understanding and didn’t make us pay any rent up front. We went through that process of thinking we were going to reopen. Just sitting on our hands, waiting to hear advice from the government on how we were going to get through it.
Phil Winser, my business partner, went to the UK to be with his family just a few days before the travel ban. He’s still not able to re-enter the US because he’s a visa holder. Phil and I owned the Fat Radish fifty-fifty. We were approved for the Economic and Injury Disaster Loan for all our businesses, so I got very excited. Then the very next day we were denied. It took us three weeks of investigating with lawyers to even figure out why we were denied. It was one clause from 2018 on the 19th page of the SBA rules that said you had to be an American citizen or a green card holder in order to benefit from it.
That was absolutely devastating. Phil has contributed to payroll and employees and sales tax, and he’s been a contributing member to New York society for 12 years. And then to have a slap in the face like that was upsetting. I know other visa holders that own restaurants had to go through the same thing, and it seemed very unfair. Especially in a city like New York where most restaurants are owned by immigrant people.
As things went on and on, and we were closed for so long, when it got to July, negotiations with our landlord started to disintegrate a bit. We had presented many ideas of how we could reopen and write our lease into a more percentage-based model with some free rent until we could open indoors. They were not interested in that because they didn’t want to be a partner in the restaurant, even though we’d been there for so long and were great tenants. And I understand that. They don’t know much about the restaurant industry, and it can be a scary place. Especially right now.
We’d have to pay him something like $80,000, which was back rent, plus the new rent—which was going to be the same—in order to reopen. At that time in July, we had no idea when indoor dining would be back this year at all. The Fat Radish is a very narrow restaurant, so for outdoor dining we would have only been able to fit two tables outside, which obviously can’t maintain operating costs.
Twenty-five percent indoor dining occupancy is not going to help that much. New York restaurants tend to be quite small, and their operating costs are very high. The economics don’t work. My business interruption insurance is still going to cost $5,000 a month no matter what my sales are.
I don’t believe that on September 30th when indoor dining was permitted again, New Yorkers were suddenly like, “Oh, I cannot wait to eat inside.” The outdoor dining experience has been absolutely exceptional in New York—people are really enjoying it. I try to go to a restaurant every single week to see how other people are doing their outdoor dining, and see what the experience is like. The energy is fabulous. The guests are loving it, and I think it’s going to be a slow build to get inside.
I’m friends with a lot of restaurant owners, and we all predicted we wouldn’t be able to reopen inside successfully until 2021. With that being the case, I knew there’d be no way out of it. So those negotiations with our landlord fell apart. And that’s when we realized we wouldn’t be able to reopen.
It was incredibly difficult because we are very lucky in our restaurant group in that we don’t really have any staff turnover. At least 35 percent of staff at the Fat Radish have been with us at least eight years, which is an incredible amount of time in New York restauranting. It was really sad explaining to them that they’d no longer be in that space with their friends. The camaraderie was just amazing with that team.
But everyone took it incredibly well. We gave everyone the opportunity to come work at the Orchard Townhouse and to continue to celebrate the Fat Radish. Many people felt it was the right time for them to focus on a creative endeavor they had on the side that being with the Fat Radish had allowed them to explore, so many of them chose to explore that full time. We did get a few key staff come to the Townhouse, so we get to see their faces every day.
We closed the doors not really with a heavy heart, but with some excitement with how we were going to represent the Fat Radish. We got together and decided it would be wonderful to celebrate it through to the end of the year with a pop-up at the Orchard Townhouse—highlighting that relationship, and where the Orchard Townhouse came from. We named the Townhouse in honor of the Fat Radish on Orchard Street. That’s where our start came from, and we want to honor that forever.
The concept at the Fat Radish was elevated home cooking, and so every week at the pop-up, we do a special from the archives over the last 10 years. Some of our fan favorites, some things from the cookbook, some things people haven’t had in a few years they’d be excited to try again. We’re doing the celery pot pie, which is one of our best-selling items. We’re really excited to bring it to a new neighborhood and clientele that might not have experienced it.
Closing the Fat Radish doesn’t mean we’re going to close it forever. It just means we’re going to grow with the times and continue to evolve and move around. While it was very, very sad, we have so many memories of that place.
One of the good things that has come out of this experience is that people are really supporting their own neighborhoods, and that’s been wonderful to see. Not a lot of people in Manhattan are taking cabs to restaurants outside of the neighborhood where they live. It goes to show that when you are opening a new restaurant, you should really consider a strong neighborhood where you can survive with just your local community. That really is what sustains you in the end.