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Littleneck’s Aaron Lefkove On Shutting Down And Scaling Back

The pandemic interruption forces an interval to take stock and consider what comes next.

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Aaron Lefkove is the co-founder of Littleneck in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. He and his partner also opened offshoots Littleneck Outpost in Greenpoint and Littleneck Grand in East Williamsburg. The two partners sold Littleneck and Littleneck Grand to their employees just before the pandemic, keeping Littleneck Outpost, which itself closed soon after lockdown.

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I took a long bike ride down to the beach today, which I need for mental clarity. I got down there and it was fucking freezing. I turned around and biked home. I live in Greenpoint. It was 35 miles round-trip to sit on the beach for an hour and look at the water. It’s a new thing to have all this free time now. It’s a new thing that I think a lot of people are adapting to.

Before the pandemic, my partner Andy Curtin and I quietly sold Littleneck in Gowanus to a couple that had worked for us for a number of years and had been trying to open a place. I have my hands in some other projects—not restaurant projects—and Andy has his hands in some other things too. We were coming up on nine years, which in restaurant terms, it’s a millennium. They were really passionate about the place and had intimated they would be interested in taking it over. Andy and I talked about it, and we decided that maybe they would be good stewards to take it to the next nine years.

We were really happy. I think they were in a fortunate place, too. When this all started breaking, they had closed for a few weeks to do renovations and get their permitting and everything straight. So they were actually closed at the time when the whole crisis broke out. When the smoke clears—however long it is—they’ll be able to come back swinging.

We had another cafe in East Williamsburg, Littleneck Grand, that we sold to the guy that was our chef in Gowanus. He’s doing a whole new concept. He was also shut down for renovations at the time this all broke.

We just wanted to pare back a little bit. We still have our Littleneck Outpost cafe in Greenpoint. We intended to keep that one going as long as possible. Reality threw a curveball. We still love the place. We love all the places. But it was time to change some things for Andy and I.

With Outpost, we were able to keep it going day by day. I was losing staff by the day. I was there every day, asking my people who were working in the kitchen and the people that were working at the counter, like, what do you think about tomorrow? I think for a while the neighborhood was very grateful to have us open. But at a certain point, it’s kind of irresponsible. Staff are coming from all over the place, from other boroughs. And they’re taking public transportation.

I have mixed feelings about places that are staying open right now. The staff can be as careful as they want, but if somebody sneezes on you on the subway, there’s nothing you can do about that. I really just left it up to the staff. When the final couple of people were like, I don’t know if I feel comfortable doing this—I was like, alright.

Right now the plan is that I do want to bring every single person back. Anybody who knows anything about this business knows that your people are your greatest asset. Trying to get good people is incredibly tough, even in a healthy economy. So I told everybody that they still have a job. There’s just no job to come to right now. Everybody’s been very understanding. There’s no real playbook for what’s going on.

We tried doing just delivery and takeout for about two weeks. It was good for the employees, and it was good for the neighborhood. But once the employees started dropping out, there was no way to keep it going. I would say my sales were down 70, 80 percent across the board. It was not sustainable for the restaurant, though it was good that we were able to do it for awhile.

When we closed, I said to the staff, “Any of this food that you want, just take it home.” There’s a very progressive church in Greenpoint, a block away from Littleneck Outpost. They would do a food pantry on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and I ended up giving a lot to them. I kept going further and further out in circles. I was reaching out to my friends who were artists or musicians, living hand-to-mouth, paycheck to paycheck, saying, “Hey, come raid our refrigerators and take whatever you need.” Beyond that, the sandwiches and the pastries, whatever was left, we would leave a box out in front of the restaurant with a sign—”If you’re hungry, take it. If you know somebody that’s hungry, take it.” Beyond that, whatever was left, biking home from Littleneck Outpost or just walking through Key Foods parking lot where there’s people cashing in empties, I would give people sandwiches that looked like they needed sandwiches.

We shut down for good in the middle of March. I think there’s a silver lining to it. Our businesses have always been very hands-on, without many layers of management. Andy and I have always been hands-on operators. I think in a lot of places, it has probably opened up a dialog between management and staff that maybe wasn’t there before. I think that long-term, that’s going to be a positive thing if those channels stay open. That can only benefit the hospitality industry.

As for the government relief programs—honestly, paycheck protection and those things aren’t designed for businesses like ours. They’re not designed for restaurants. They’re not necessarily designed for a crisis that has no end in sight. We don’t know when this is going to end. We can’t bring 90 percent of the workforce back and put them back on payroll just so we can have a forgivable bank loan. If there’s a program that looks right for us, we’ll look into it. Right now, we’re hunkered down. I don’t know what we’re going to do when the day comes that they say we can open. We can open up a credit card, put a bunch of stuff on credit, hope to get the ball rolling that way. But the stimulus is falling short for small businesses like ours, which is a shame, because businesses of our size account for 49 percent of the workforce in America.

I’m trying to stay in the house a lot, but if I bike around the neighborhood and see somebody on the street, I’ll try and give an update about the restaurant. Everybody knows that we’re all in the same boat. None of us have ever lived through this. If you’ve gotten to the point of opening a place, you’re stubborn, and you’re a fighter—especially in New York, where it’s the most cutthroat place to do it. You have to fight tooth and nail just to get the doors open. I’m confident that a lot of people will reopen, because we all collectively have that fire in us, and that fight in us. But you know, it’s a big TBD if the customers will be able to come back when it passes. If unemployment is raging, will people still have the disposable income to go to restaurants?

As far as the staff goes, I’m still in contact with most of the people. You know, we look at each others’ Instagrams, text people, and see how they’re doing. Everybody’s hunkered down and trying to wait it out.

In the midst of all this, my girlfriend Jennifer Green published an independent magazine about natural wine called Glou Glou. Every issue is location-based, so the first issue was California. There were a few Mexico issues. We are working on a New York issue. This is clearly a labor of love, although Glou Glou does have a following. It’s clearly something we do because we love it. We have a New York issue basically in the can. It was written and ready to go to the printer. Obviously all that is shelved, because we can’t be shipping magazines.

We decided to partner with the Service Workers Coalition, which is a mutual aid fund that was set up by some of Andy Tarlow employees—some of the long-term Diner and Marlow & Sons employees. We partnered with them, and we’re releasing the content for the New York issue digitally, which is a new thing for Glou Glou as well. It’s behind a paywall, and we’re just asking for a suggested donation, whatever you can afford. Everything that we raise goes to the Service Workers Coalition. We’ve raised close to $7,000 for them. They’re just straight-up reimbursing restaurant workers for food and essential supplies. If everybody can do a little something that can benefit the whole, we can take care of each other through this.