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Bracing For The Long New York Winter Coming For Restaurants

Jin Ahn is co-owner and general manager of Noreetuh, a Hawaiian restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village.

We shut down a couple days before the city mandate came out for the pandemic. Our partners had some disagreements, but we all came together and said, “Let’s shut it down. Maybe we’ll open up in two weeks. Maybe we’ll open up in a month. We don’t know when we’re going to open up.” Obviously, when the New York City and the state mandates came through, we said, “This is going to be a little longer than we thought.”

Between March and the beginning of June, we really just stayed home. We have three partners, and a couple of managers and crew members, but both Chung Chow, who is our executive chef, and myself have families. Chung has two children, a wife, and a father-in-law and mother-in-law living together in his apartment in Sunnyside, Queens. We talked a couple of times about what living with in-laws is like. I gave him some pointers there. I have three children and live with my wife and my in-laws as well up in Westchester, so I have a little more space.

It was a good time for us to break away from everything. It’s not like we had a cushy life. We always worked on weekends. We worked during nighttime. We worked six or seven days a week if we had to. That’s the sort of thing that restaurant people sign up for. You’re in the grind. It doesn’t matter if this path in life is making you rich or not. You just keep doing what you’re doing.

During this time—I think I can speak for Chow as well as for myself—we found some time to spend with our children and our family. We’ve gotten a greater appreciation for them and got to know them better as well. I think this time helped us have a different perspective in life.

So at that point, the restaurant wasn’t even a thought. Many people said, “Aren’t you going to do pickup and delivery?” I said, “Well, I don’t know how feasible it is to commit four, five, or six people to bring it out right now when my family is telling me that I can’t go anywhere.” Chow’s family was telling him he couldn’t go anywhere either. If it’s just the owners who go and pump out the food and send it out ghost-kitchen style, I’d understand. But even the owners’ families were against the idea. And was difficult for us to ask our fellow employees to come out every day, take the subway to work, and put themselves at risk.

What was going through our minds was, “Is one person’s life worth losing, even with a 1 percent or 3 percent death rate?” So we decided to all stay home. Some of our managers went back to their families. Some went up to Maine, some went to Indiana, some went to Korea and to other places where they felt a little bit safer.

That was during the peak in March, April, and up until May. We began to see things changing, shifting a little bit, flattening the curve. New York was becoming better, and there was talk about opening. And obviously, the finances were going through our minds. It’s not like, “Yeah, we’ll take a year off and we’ll be fine.” No, it doesn’t work that way. We had to think about our financial situation. We applied for our PPP loan in the first round, and we didn’t get it. The first round was a disaster for everybody. The second round we were able to get some, so that gave us some relief. At the same time as the second round of PPP came out, we were able to also obtain one of the Economic Injury Relief Loans, which gave us a little peace of mind that no matter how big of a hole we were digging ourselves into, at least we had some funding to go forward.

We’ve been doing this only five or five and a half years now. It’s not like we had a thriving business. We broke even sometimes, we made some money sometimes, we lost some money sometimes. It’s always been a little bit of a rollercoaster ride. But it definitely prepared us to face the financial challenges a little bit better. It didn’t have to be like, “We’re not profitable anymore. We have some serious thinking to do.” We said, “No, we’re going to take some hits. We’re going to take some losses. But let’s keep everybody safe, and let’s see what happens.”

COVID was not going anywhere. I could see maybe a month ahead, or maybe a month and a half ahead. I really couldn’t see what was going to happen six months down the road.

Around the beginning of July, we reconvened to bring certain people out of unemployment. We talked to them about opening. The subway wasn’t running overnight anymore, so closing early was on the agenda. We wanted to keep the menu very streamlined. Before the pandemic, we were a small restaurant run by three chefs. We were open seven days a week. We did a whole bunch of catering. It’s a miracle that we were able to do all that. But the chefs didn’t want to go back to that lifestyle, and neither did we. We didn’t want to work seven days a week. We didn’t want to work 16 hours and then, at the end of the day, make minimum salary.

We decided to reopen, considering the fact that we will run a loss, and do a takeout-friendly menu—items that are very popular. Chefs like to do a lot of things that they take pride in. You know, “This reminds me of my childhood,” or “I loved it growing up.” Then you put it in front of 10 people and there’s going to be two people who say, “Oh my God, this is exactly what I’m talking about,” and eight other people who go, “It’s okay.”

We got rid of a lot of that during this time period, because we wanted to have some mass appeal. But there’s nothing mainstream about a Hawaiian restaurant. So among the many changes we made were to our musubis, which are a popular Hawaiian snack with rice and seaweed with protein. In Hawaii you see them done with a lot of Spam. We not only do Spam, we do all the other proteins, like a fish tartare, and vegan and vegetarian items. We lowered our prices 30 to 45 percent, depending on menu item, because people are not dining in. We’re packing it to-go for them. We should lower the price, once again, bearing the loss. We just didn’t care about that.

I think most restaurant landlords understand what’s going on, but not all landlords are willing to sacrifice as much as we have sacrificed, as much as individuals have sacrificed. It’s really mind-boggling, because if they’re able to look at it in a long-term view, there’s no way they should let any business fail, especially if the business has been a pretty good tenant. If these tenants have not missed their rent payments for 5, 10, or 15 years, you have to do something.

Luckily, our landlords have made some concessions. I don’t think it’s enough for us to call it sustainable. But they were able to meet us halfway for three months—April, May, and June—and take 50 percent off our rent. During that time period, they took the rest of the 50 percent from our security deposit, to be replenished next year. But next year is right around the corner, which means we still have to put it back into the bank. At this rate, I don’t think any restaurant is going to survive unless they are able to think outside the box to come up with a solution that works for a restaurant business.

When we got the okay to do outdoor dining, we took our time, maybe about a week, so it could come together. The inspector came in and told us, “We’re not going to fine you, but you’ve got to fix this by tomorrow.” I said, “Okay.” Every day there were new things that came up, and we tackled them as they came. Outdoor dining opened, and we had tremendous support from our regular clientele. It was just so great to see that, although many of them don’t live in New York City anymore.

Noreetuh’s pre-winterized outdoor dining area. Photo: Courtesy Noreetuh.

Returning to indoor dining was a no-brainer—it was an immediate yes. Most of the safety protocols we already have in place anyway, so why not open it up? People are still feeling a little uncomfortable about indoor dining. But other than that, I think we’re okay with it. All the tables are a minimum of six feet apart, and all the doors are open so that there’s fresh air flowing through. We made an investment to change our HVAC last year, because there were a lot of faults with our original build-out. During the summertime we weren’t able to capitalize on it, but that made it easier for us to install MERV 13 filters.

We open up two tables outdoors for online reservation, and then I move it around manually depending on how the weather goes. Three tables are under the tent. We have about four more tables outside of the tent. If the weather seems to be a little funny, then we change things around. So we don’t take the reservation until the very last day, or just leave it for walk-in guests, because the East Village has been very much a walk-in-friendly neighborhood lately.

Like with outdoor dining overall, we weren’t sure about the setup. New York City wasn’t going one way or another. New York State wasn’t going one way or another. There was no definitive answer for a while. Finally, when Mayor Bill de Blasio said we’re going to make this a permanent thing, I said, “I think it’s finally worthwhile to at least give it some extra thought.”

We have begun to winterize the outdoor seating. I’m going to approach it with caution, because there are a lot of inspectors, whether it’s fire department or Department of Buildings or health inspectors, and they’re pretty heavy-handed with the fines. I’ve already purchased some Dyson heaters to keep inside the tent. We spent money to wire so that we have an outlet on the outside. I’ve also gotten a few of those propane-fueled heaters for the sidewalk. I’m really hoping that indoor dining picks up a little bit, but that comes down to the confidence of the diners, and many people are still very iffy about dining indoors. Even if it’s the last resort sometimes, they just say, “You know what? I don’t feel comfortable dining indoors at the moment.” And they give up on their reservation.

When COVID initially happened and everyone was panicking, I said that in our line of business I don’t think there’s anything that we can do except to try to lose as little money as possible and see what the government stimulus will be all about. Luckily, the government felt the same way and we were able to get a helping hand. But going forward, way too many restaurants are just going to fail. If you’re in this for short-term gain, or you’re in this as a hobby for 5 or 10 years, then guess what? You should leave. Shaking up this industry is not a bad thing, either. But any patrons who have been critical of these restaurants now—they don’t understand what goes on behind the scenes. It’s an extremely competitive market with a very tight margin. And people work like dogs.

But even so, I’m an eternal optimist. I think that there’s no greater city in the world than New York City. It’s also my hometown, so I am a little biased, but I’ve always seen New York as a place where, if you want to do anything great, you do it here. Why go elsewhere? If the opportunity is here as well as other places, you might as well tackle it head on.

We definitely could use help from the government. That’s why we’ve been paying taxes over the years. I’ve given up on any help from insurance companies, because they’re no good. I’ll just say it. They’re no good. But if the government or landlords could lessen the legal obligation to carry insurance coverage—we’re paying hundreds of thousands of dollars every year on insurance, and they can’t even cover a life-altering, once-in-a-lifetime experience like this, even to some degree?

I don’t really expect anything from the private sector, but from the public sector during these special times, there has to be something. I don’t expect them to bail us out 100 percent. We should be running our businesses responsibly, meaning that there should be some reserves to get us through some tough times. But this is beyond tough times.