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Extra Virgin’s Michele Gaton On Restaurant Rule Shifts And Police Diplomacy

Michele Gaton is owner of Extra Virgin in New York’s West Village.

Back in March, when restaurants were told they had to shut indoor seating, we didn’t close. My partner and I—chef Joey Fortunato—we were determined that we couldn’t die. It was about fear. What is happening? What’s going on? We have to pay the rent. We have to feed our families. We’re not going to stop.

But we let everyone go. Those guys coming in for their last check was just heartbreaking. It’s been interesting to see the human spirit and how people react to adversity. We had a manager who was like, “I’m not going anywhere. You can’t pay me now. Maybe you can pay me later, but we’re not going to close. I’m from Croatia. I’ve been through wars. This is our war. We will survive.” I was like, “Oh my God, I love you.”

We had two guys that have been with Joey for like 25 years—we’ve been open for 16—that were the same, basically volunteering to work. Any tips you make, great. Customers were really supportive. It was really just those people that got us through.

We set up a to-go stand outside. We probably added six new delivery platforms. We expanded our delivery zone to Times Square and the Financial District so that we could reach more people.

Even though at first we were mostly delivery, the community liked walking by, seeing people at the restaurant, and being able to buy food. Then there’s alcohol to-go, which we do only with food. So now people come by for a 32-ounce margarita to take home.

After that, we had to change everything. We started opening for breakfast, and we made a breakfast menu. Now we have an all-day menu. We tried to hit every point on what people want to eat or drink. Delivery was great, and take-out was a mental health exercise just to have people be able to be face-to-face with someone ordering something.

Then we started having a lot of problems with 311 calls, because as the weather got nice, people were out. “Oh my God, we can go and get drinks and have some chips and guacamole and just be around people.” The 6th Police Precinct was inundated with calls. We’ve gotten to know all the guys at the precinct really well. From the beginning we were like, “What do we need to do? Whatever we need to do, we’ll do it.”

Now it’s like, “What’s the new rule today?” We continue to adapt and change to try to be compliant. It was really difficult when the governor was saying you’re responsible for your customers 100 feet away from the restaurant. People would say to us, “We’re not on your property. You can’t tell us what to do.” And they’re right. That was not a good time, but it has relaxed. The police department works with us. We feed them a great meal every Tuesday.

We’re really trying to work with the community. I’ve reached out to the community board, and I haven’t heard back from them. I’ve written to the mayor, and I haven’t heard back from him. And then, of course, we have a petition going to close off part of West 4th Street to cars, so we can have more outdoor dining.

I think the uncertainty of what the future holds is different in this crisis. Hurricane Sandy was rough. That just rocked us. We’re still feeling Sandy, just in terms of all of the revenue that we lost. But it was understandable. It was nature. But this pandemic, nobody knew. Everything kept changing. Where’s it coming from? Who is affected? Who’s not affected? The big difference was just not knowing what to do, and also hearing from our leaders that they didn’t really know what was going on.

We were all really sick in February. That same manager from Croatia and myself were so sick. And back then we were saying, “You gave me a cold.” “No, you gave me a cold.” I remember calling my partner. I was vomiting. I couldn’t breathe.

I’m sure that what I had was the coronavirus. I have the antibodies now. At the time I went to the doctor, and they told me I had asthmatic bronchitis. I’ve never had asthma or bronchitis before. My lungs were inflamed. I was using my son’s nebulizer.

We’ve had some plastic partitions made in the event that we are able to open inside. We’re still not sure what we’ll need to do if that happens. For outside dining, we bought planters, we bought umbrellas, we bought flowers. Then the fire department came over saying, “This is wrong.” We were like, “We want to stay open, so we’ll change it.” But how about giving us the rules and we’ll follow them? That’s been so frustrating. But of course, it’s completely out of your control. What can you do? Get shut down?

Early on, when we were open, the police would come in and they were like, “Listen, you’re in the top ten of our 311 complaint calls.” I was like, “What are people complaining about?” They were complaining about customers not social distancing. They were complaining about people not wearing masks. They were complaining about people in the street. People order food, and then they have to wait somewhere. At first we put signs on the neighbors’ stoops saying, “Do not sit here.” Then ithe neighbors were taking videos of our restaurant and people waiting for food. So we’d tell customers, “Go sit on their stoop and wait. Just get out of here.”

It was a combative situation with the police officers in the beginning, and then I talked them through it. I would ask, “Hey, can you go on your loudspeaker and tell these people to move?” We had to battle with people saying, “I’m waiting for my food. Can I get a drink?” I’m like, “No, you’re not getting a drink without food. We’re not going to lose our liquor license.”

But the rules keep changing. There was a battle with this one police lieutenant screaming at me about how he was going to shut us down. He was saying, “I’m going to give everybody summonses.” I’m like, “Why?” Then he’d say, “Now I’m going to give you a summons.” We had tables outside to socially distance from people. We had mocktails on a stand so people could see what the drinks looked like. The lieutenant sees that and says, “You have a bar.” I’m like, “It’s not a bar. It’s a table showing you what we’re selling.” And he’s like, “You’ve got to take that down.” So we took all that down, and I asked, “But how do we keep people from going into our restaurant?” He said, “You can put out chairs, but the chairs have to be on their side. They can’t be standing up.” He just came in, and he’s large and in charge.

But then the blues, they came back later to check on us. They were like, “Sorry about that.” We’ve created a relationship with those guys. We’re working together. I talk to them and I’m like, “Hey, you guys, I know your job has gotten weird. You have this new job of yelling at us, but you don’t even want to yell at us.” They are like, “We have to come.” Yeah, I know you have to come.

I have to talk these guys down. I have to just remain calm and ask a million questions and tell them what we’re doing. They come at me so strong—”Who’s this girl? Who is she? She’s the manager?” No, I’m the owner. And then they soften. “Okay, she’s not a violent thug.”

I was talking to these cops who came by—Charles and Steve, let’s say. They were telling me what we needed to do. They were fine. They were checking on us and saying, “Hey, we got a complaint. Just move that planter to the left.” Okay, sure.

Then these other cops came by right afterward, and I said, “I was just talking to Officers Charles and Steve.” And they’re like, “Who’s that?” I said, “I thought you guys were all at the 6th Precinct together.” They started yelling at me, “I don’t know who that is. You need to get these people off the street.” Then Charles and Steve rolled by, and I said, “There’s Officers Charles and Steve.” The other cops were like, “Oh, you mean Black Charles.”

What do you say to a police officer? “Oh, Black Charles.” I’m like, yo, you need to put that back in your mouth. It’s been really weird. I have to stand my ground. I’m like, “I am the owner, and you’ll speak to me and tell me what you need.”

The petition to close off the street is doing really well. It’s really strong. It’s over 3,000 signatures. But I feel like we’re running out of time. I’m very concerned about the weather. I’m very concerned about when it’s cold and people are like, “Okay, we don’t want to sit outside. It’s freezing.”

We’ve had some different floorplans that we’re working on to try to maximize our seating. I feel like that’s all we can do. It’s a landmarked location, so even adding something to the frontage is probably not going to be allowed. So we’re just trying to figure out how to maximize our seating, given that it’s the West Village. You’re always cramped and next to each other.

Of course we have all the masks. We have gallons of sanitizer. But I would love a list of the things that you have to do so that we’re not running into these daily changes of mood. “Take the table away. Your planters have to be adjacent.” I heard that if you have partitions that are at least five feet high, you can have people seated closer than six feet. Who knows? If we keep all of the outside seating, and inside it’s only 50 percent, that’s going to be rough. It’s not like your landlord is going to say we can pay 50 percent rent. We’ve been with our landlord for 16 years. She’s willing to work with us. But at the same time, she’s feeling like, “Hey, that’s my business. This is what I do. I get paid by you.”