Inside One Brooklyn Restaurant’s Determined Battle to Survive the Pandemic

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Inside One Brooklyn Restaurant’s Desperate Fight to Survive the Pandemic

On the second Saturday in March, the owners of Gertie, a Jewish-American lunch break in Brooklyn, completed one final step in the overhaul of their year-old restaurant. They hired a new sous-chef, an offspring who had landed hours earlier on a one-way flight from Detroit.

However, the restaurant broke up for dinner.

After the coronavirus had spread silently for weeks, it infected hundreds of people in New York and threw an eerie void over the city and the restaurant that wanted to unveil a new menu. Instead, at the end of dinner that Sunday, the owners pulled almost all of the 25 employees aside and told them they would be fired.

Seven months later, Gertie still stands, if barely, as a battered symbol of an industry devastated by a major recession. Gertie is a shell of his previous self-service tables that were pushed aside in the darkened dining room, the espresso machine was switched off, a suitcase that was once filled with baked goods gathered dust – while the handful of remaining employees have to reinvent themselves almost every week.

The Williamsburg restaurant now consists of several companies working together to keep it afloat: a morning soup kitchen that prepares meals for the hungry; an outdoor restaurant three nights a week; and on Thursdays, a vote is held asking a telephone bank on the terrace and postcard guests to send them to undecided voters.

A year ago, Gertie was making about $ 30,000 a week and packing dozens of guests into its bright, cavernous dining room at once. During the worst days of the pandemic, $ 50 was made selling coffee and pastries some mornings, which wasn't enough to pay the barista and baker. Sales slowly rose to about $ 1,000 per day in late summer.

Owners worry what the colder weather will bring.

"I feel like we've opened six restaurants in the last seven months," said Flip Biddelman, 33, after rolling up the canvas awnings outside and stretching them across the sidewalk. "It was just pretty exhausting, emotionally and physically."

"How long can this go on?" he added.

The pandemic spared almost no business in New York. Some have thrived, like liquor stores. But no industry is as crowded as restaurants and bars, a multi-billion dollar elixir of life that gives the city liveliness and diversity, employs hundreds of thousands of people, including many immigrants, and attracts millions of tourists every year.

From Michelin-starred upscale restaurants to hole-in-the-wall restaurants, the industry has annual sales of around $ 46 billion and pays employees around $ 10 billion in wages, according to the state. Dollar.

Today it is a great achievement for a restaurant to just stay open. There's no definitive count of how many restaurants have gone out of business, but the number is believed to be in the thousands.

At the height of the pandemic last spring, more than 200,000 restaurant workers were unemployed, according to the state auditor. Some have been reinstated, but only a few work the same number of hours. The restaurants are open for indoor dining, but with a 25 percent capacity limit.

According to some estimates, the ongoing devastation could ultimately topple as many as half of the city's 24,000 restaurants.

The economics of running a restaurant in New York have never been cheap, but the pandemic showed how precarious the business was. Restaurants, even far from Manhattan's upscale boroughs, can pay more than $ 100,000 annually in rent and tens of thousands for other bills, including insurance policies, that did not help during the pandemic.

Many restaurants have accused their landlords of not lowering their rent. But landlords say they also suffer and are unable to pay their own bills because tenants cannot pay full rent.

Since the pandemic, Gertie's landlord has cut its base rent by 50 percent to $ 5,000 per month and offered to extend the discount, which included a separate increase in rental payments based on Gertie's revenue share, for an additional 16 months. Nate Adler, who started Gertie with Mr. Biddelman, accepted the offer despite fear that the business would not improve significantly over months.

"These restaurants were built to accommodate people, comfort people and feed people in really beautiful surroundings that have put a lot of thought, time and money into," said the 31-year-old Adler. “Every restaurant has become the shell of a restaurant, as if nothing could be seen inside. Nothing is used the way it is intended to be used or how it was originally intended, and that's just a pill that is difficult to swallow. "

Gertie is limping without most of his employees. Around 9 of the 25 workers have returned, some of whom are also receiving unemployment benefits because they work so few hours. Some former employees declined to return for health reasons, while others moved to another state and started a new job.

Opened on the corner of Marcy Avenue and Grand Street, a quiet intersection, in February 2019, Gertie offers updated Jewish-American delicacies. Mr. Adler modeled Gertie, named after his maternal grandmother, after popular Los Angeles restaurants that offer counter service and a mix of bakery, deli, and all-day hangouts.

Mr. Adler and Mr. Biddelman have extensive experience in some of the city's most prestigious restaurant groups. Mr. Adler worked for Union Square Hospitality Group, Danny Meyer's food service empire that Mr. Biddelman had worked for. They also worked together at another restaurant that Mr. Adler, Huertas, founded in Manhattan.

However, Gertie didn't start off as the owners had hoped. Breakfast, lunch, and weekend brunch were good, selling items like smoked white fish salad, Reuben sandwiches with sauerkraut, and smoked salmon with cream cheese on bialys.

But dinner, which was supposed to be the main course with starters like lamb with horseradish sauce, whole fish with tartar sauce, and whole rotisserie duck, never attracted a strong crowd.

The owners played with the concept. They turned the basement into an event space. They booked groups with D.J.s and brought in guest chefs for pop-up events. Then in February they hired a new head chef, Mike Cain, 35, who had worked in a Mediterranean restaurant on the Brooklyn waterfront.

But the virus turned their planning upside down. On the first weekend in March, more than 300 people ate brunch at the Gertie on both days. The next weekend only a few dozen people showed up each day.

"I could see people sweating around me when people didn't come in," said Eleanor Bellamy, 27, a former server.

On March 15, a Sunday, the city ordered all bars and restaurants to be closed except for delivery and collection. Gertie did not have a delivery or take-out operation. After her shift that evening, Ms. Bellamy opened an email from the restaurant announcing that most of the staff had been laid off.

Like many people, Ms. Bellamy initially believed the disorder would be temporary and decided to go to Durham, NC, her hometown. She packed light – some pants and shirts in a small bag.

In August, Ms. Bellamy returned to town to gather all of her belongings for a permanent move to North Carolina, where she got a job with a fabric and wallpaper company.

"I stayed here longer and longer and it almost felt like I had started a brand new life," said Ms. Bellamy. "It was the right choice for me."

Jovanni Luna's phone lit up from the same email Mrs Bellamy had received. Just six days earlier, Mr. Luna, a bartender at Gertie, had been fired from a part-time server position at another restaurant.

"It's not always the best job in the hospitality industry, but it always felt very safe in New York," said 31-year-old Luna, who was reinstated at Gertie but is receiving unemployment benefits for working so little on shifts.

That night, Mr. Cain found solace at the Sparrow Tavern, a favorite bar near his home in Astoria, Queens, with fellow chefs facing the same dire future.

"It was kind of nice to see each other and make some jokes," said Mr. Cain.

The following week, Mr. Cain, Mr. Adler, and Mr. Biddelman drafted a new plan. Gertie began offering take-out and delivery, and the two partners looked for nonprofit ways to use the restaurant to help out frontline staff.

Delivery and takeaway proved to be a dead end. There were only a handful of orders, and it was hard to know how much food to keep in stock without spoiling.

"We had to double the charitable stuff, or we had to say," Fuck it, we're out, "said Mr. Adler with a four-letter slogan.

Mr. Adler and his partner, Mr. Biddelman, joined forces with the LEE Initiative, a foundation in Louisville, Kentucky that turned into a restaurant relief effort in the early days of the pandemic. With the help of the foundation, Gertie's kitchen came to life and hired four workers as the staff handed out hundreds of meals in boxes every day.

The meal program ended after a few weeks. The staff were exhausted and concerned about the risk of contracting the virus. The restaurant was closed for at least two weeks.

"Our life was essentially: wake up worry about Covid and go to work and feed all these people who are worried about Covid too, come home, have dinner and repeat" said Adler.

In May, the restaurant partnered with City Harvest, a nonprofit that distributes food to the hungry, and the Rethink Food group on another dining program. Rethink Food funds Gertie for groceries, $ 5 per meal, and City Harvest picks up meals four days a week.

In July, the outdoor restaurant expanded for al fresco dining and spent thousands of dollars building a deck for tables and chairs. But sales never really increased – around $ 2,300 a day at its peak, though a couple of weekend days brought in up to $ 5,000.

Although restaurants were allowed to bring guests back into the house with a capacity of 25 percent at the end of September, Gertie did not reopen the house because it was feared that both guests and employees could get sick.

At the moment Gertie is trying to get along with his various initiatives.

One morning two cooks huddled in a tiny kitchen in the basement of the restaurant to prepare meals for the menu. Mounds of roasted new potatoes were piled high in a plastic container while dozens of roasted pork loins were piled nearby, waiting to be sliced ​​for individual meals.

That afternoon, staff began preparing for another outdoor event, Thursday evening's weekly political meeting, to help boost business and promote Democratic candidates.

The crew tried the dishes on the evening menu: lemongrass chicken over spring onion rice and a chicken banh mi prepared by Di An Di, a Vietnamese restaurant. Gertie brings in guest chefs on Thursdays to help them out and add some excitement for the nighttime event.

"It opens your eyes when you've spent so much time building a room and you want to see through it and always leave a place better than you found it," said Biddelman. "I don't know if it's possible in this situation."

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