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KP Sykes On Turning The Armory Bar Into A Pandemic Pantry And Community Oasis

A lifelong resident of Park Slope and Fort Greene in Brooklyn, New York, KP Sykes and his partner transformed their four-year-old cocktail bar, the Armory, into a local food pantry.

I’ve been working nonstop, but it went into overdrive once this whole pandemic started. At first we didn’t really know much about what exactly COVID was, or its impact. Or maybe it was good old American ego, thinking “Oh it’s not gonna hit us that hard.” We were all bracing to shut down for a little bit, but definitely didn’t think it would go this long. Historically, January, February, and March are the slower months for bars. But that wasn’t the case for us. We were on track to have a banner year, but then COVID came along and said, “Yeah, we’ll see about that.”

On the micro, it was extremely disheartening, but on the macro, we had to think, “Is our staff going to be able to get unemployment?” Typically people that work in the bar industry, if you get unemployment, it’s not much. What can we do to help them if this goes on longer?

My partner Oscar Diaz del Castillo and I went to our restaurant distributor and stocked up on a bunch of items—dry goods, frozen meats. We wanted to help our staff. Fortunately we had had those good months prior and had a little surplus to be able to do that. We just crossed our fingers from there. Then week one happens, week two, week three, and so on and so forth. That was the start of us going from having a really, really good year to just surviving.

I was a hundred percent optimistic, and still am. I’m a New Yorker who lived through 9/11. I saw the towers fall. I had that New York mentality of “This is going to be all right. We’ll probably have to close for like a month. We’ll be behind on rent bills, but we’ll bounce back.” But to much of my surprise, the weeks kept going by. And I realized this was showing no signs of slowing down.

Two weeks into the pandemic, my mother was diagnosed with COVID. That’s when it really hit home. My mother is relatively healthy, but she’s asthmatic and has a compromised immune system when it comes to this disease. That’s when I realized this pandemic was going to be something that affected everyone in some way, shape, or form.

When my mom went into the hospital, the doctors were saying they were going to send her home after one day. I was ready to just call the hospital and lay into them. It’s my mom.

But something came over me, like a wave of calmness reminding me of my position. If I was dealing with a customer that I wasn’t too fond of at the moment, I would still have to remain professional. I called the hospital and said, “I want to thank you for everything you guys are doing, and everything you’re continuing to do. I can only imagine how difficult this is for you guys. I run a business, I’m facing difficulties—nowhere near the scale of what you’re doing, so I just want to say, thank you.” I told them, “I know that my mother is just one patient to you, but I only get one mom, you know?”

By the end of the conversation, I had the doctor’s personal cell number, he had mine, and he promised to keep me in the loop. The very next day, her oxygen levels dropped all the way down to 13 percent. If they had sent her home and she would have been quarantined, as an asthmatic person, it’s a very strong chance that she would not have pulled through. All my training and experience in the hospitality industry kind of lent itself towards relating to someone else who is in a separate industry, but still serving people.

Phase Two was easier. It was a sign of reassurance from the city to allow us to do something that never previously existed in New York—serving cocktails to-go. It took me maybe half a day to really iron out the details, because I’ve had some ideas ruminating in my mind, if the day came.

I used to make beer at home, so I had the equipment to seal caps on bottles. I figured that’s the easiest way to do this. We already have a great cocktail list, but we found the ones that are mostly shelf-stable—that contain less citrus so that they don’t go bad overnight. We took our Manhattan variations, old fashioned variations, martini variations—the more booze-forward drinks—and I just got a bunch of smaller High Life pony bottles, cleaned them out, and triple-sanitized them. And I’ll be honest, my partner and I had to pour a few of them out into pitchers and drink them ourselves because we didn’t want to waste them.

With my background in homebrewing, everything has to be completely sanitized or your beer will be wasted, and that’s three weeks of your life down the drain. So I had that plan in place, and we sailed on. We called it our “Stiff and Boozy Cocktail for Two” program. And it went off without a hitch.

We weren’t charging what we normally would, because when you go to a bar or restaurant, the price of service extends to the item you order. Whereas if you’re just taking things to-go—and everybody’s going through a tough time—we wanted to have a competitive but understanding rate since a lot of people didn’t want to leave their homes. We figured if you’re going to leave your home to come support us, we’re going to make it worth your while.

In New York City, public schools are typically open from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and that’s where a lot of kids get their food for the day. They go in for breakfast, they have lunch there, and then they head home. But when they started doing the free meal program at schools in the pandemic, not every kid in first grade is equipped to walk over to school alone and grab lunch. Not every parent got furloughed or was able to work from home. We wanted to fill that void.

Once they started shutting down New York City schools, we partnered with a local elementary school, P.S. 133. We stayed open from 3 to 8 p.m. and let the parents know they could come by and grab stuff then. Our doors were already open, and it was just the icing on the cake when we found out that we would actually be able to sell cocktails as well. Luckily, I stay prepared.

At first we were matching what the school would bring, but then once schools closed indefinitely, we knew we had to keep this thing going. It became so popular. We went to our restaurant distributor every week and picked up groceries, dry goods, pasta, rice, beans, canned vegetables, seasoning packets, Emergen-C, cereals for the kids in the morning, ramen. People would get enough food to feed a family of four for two days, and it was no questions asked. It became bigger than just a school—it became a neighborhood thing. A community thing.

If you’re 75 years old, chances are you aren’t really going to a bar on a Friday night, but you may come by on a Friday afternoon to get some food to hold you over for the weekend. It gave us a better sense of being present other than just, “Oh, to-go cocktails are great.” I’ve gotten a lot of great tips in the world, but just the thank-you’s I was getting from people, people saying “You’ve been my family,’’ have been better than any tip I’ve ever gotten.

There was a gentleman who—to this day, I still don’t know his name—called and said, “I heard you guys have food.” I told him to come on down, we’ll be here late, so if you’re just getting off work, come by, I’ll wait for you. He got here a little bit after 8 p.m. and just kind of stood apprehensively outside. I said, “Hey, what’s up? Did you call?” And he’s like, “Yeah.” He and my partner started speaking Spanish, he gave the guy a couple of bags of food, and he was just repeatedly saying “Thank you.”

When he left, my partner said ‘’The dude’s kind of embarrassed. He just got laid off from work, he’s never had to go for unemployment, he’s never been on welfare. He feels bad that he has to come and ask for food for his kids, but he’s happy that we’re doing it.”

I’m thinking after that it’s just a one-off, but he comes back again, still a little apprehensive. And I’m like, “Hey, what’s up? I remember you here. How many bags you need?” He was very, very thankful. Then about a week goes by, and everyone’s wearing masks now so it’s hard to really discern who’s who. But we have a huge front window, and I see a gentleman with a bucket and a squeegee outside.

This guy just starts cleaning the window. I’m thinking, who is this, we didn’t hire anyone. I had a few customers, and we had the door blocked off for entry, so I couldn’t get out immediately. This guy cleaned the windows and hung around, and I went out and asked, “Hey, is everything all right?” As I got close, I realized it’s the guy, and I said “Oh what’s up man, it’s you, I’m sorry, what can I get for you?”

He said “No, no, no. I’m okay. I got my unemployment, and I just want to say you fed my family so many times, and I know I’ve said thank you, but I wanted to show you. And just come by and clean the windows. I wish I could do more.” I’m not gonna lie, my eyes welled up a bit because you got to see the humanity in someone. That reinforced for me that what we were doing was the right thing. I was just glad we were fortunate enough to be in a position that we could lend a helping hand.

No matter how many times family members asked us to close our doors, or said we were putting ourselves at risk—because we have families that care about us—we’re like, well, the people who come here have families that depend on them, so we’re going to see it through. And that guy showed me that one action made it all worth it. All worth it a hundred percent. I’d do it over every time.

The Armory has a really big backyard, so we figure we’ll stick with that. As for curbside seating—we’re located on Fourth Avenue, which is a very, very busy thoroughfare that people speed down all the time. And let’s be honest, this is New York. I would not want to be sitting in the street, eating, smelling the summer scent that is New York. I couldn’t imagine many other people who would associate our establishment with that kind of experience.

Just recently down in Sunset Park, there was a restaurant where a driver plowed through the curbside seating. Luckily none of the injuries were serious, but again, these are the things that could potentially go wrong. We’re in the middle of a pandemic where problems were handled so poorly already, the last thing I ever want to do is make a rush judgment, and someone else gets hurt behind it.

Right now with Phase Four, they’re still saying no indoor dining, which I think is an excellent idea, as hurtful as it is for a lot of businesses that don’t have a backyard or a huge sidewalk. But we’re not ready for indoor dining just yet. There’s no protocol, no training, it’s just “wash your hands, wear a mask.” Am I going to police someone sitting at a table paying 40 bucks for a steak, and they don’t put their mask up when I come to the table? It’s such a tricky situation.

They should really keep the to-go cocktail program going because it will mitigate people crowding around. If you can’t hang out at the table because they’re full, you know, hey, you go back home. But I honestly don’t think they’ve got it figured it out as far as the state goes. Every day it is something new with this pandemic that you have to worry about, so my thing is just keep things where they are for now.

We’re about three blocks from Barclays Center, which was pretty much the hub for a lot of the initial protest around the George Floyd murder and Black Lives Matter. We considered closing down for the day or closing early, but my partner wanted to walk over to the protests. And he came back with this look on his face I’d never seen before.

He’s like, “It’s so surreal. The tension is palpable, but also you can see there are the cops that don’t want to be there because they believe in the Black Lives Matter cause. But their job is to protect and serve. Some people are having civil conversations between protesters and police officers, and others are just kind of being firestarters.”

And then he said, “You know what, I’m just gonna go give out waters.” And I was like, “Are you sure you want to be in a crowd?” He’s like, “It’s hot out. People are about to lose it. The one thing we have in common is we’re human, we have to eat and drink. We need water to survive.” And that’s what he wanted to do. And I said, “Well, I’ll be here. If anybody needs anything, we’ll serve them, we’ll help them out. And we’re not closing.”

As the protest started to spread and come down Fourth Avenue, blocking off streets and traffic, some of the people who had stopped by the bar before just kind of waved, threw up a peace sign. We felt comfortable. We felt safe. We didn’t close up. We didn’t have to board up any windows. I don’t know if it was a few acts of kindness that we did, but we were able to weather that storm and show our solidarity for people’s right of free assembly and to protest.

It was a very impactful thing to see because it’s the first time in my generation that a problem that has been so prevalent on such a large scale was able to draw so much attention and gain so many allies. It was good to be a part of it, even if it was a small part of just handing out water to people as they walked by. It’s something that’s gonna stay with me forever.

As a Black business owner, it’s been a pretty weird experience because I haven’t had much drama, but I have had a lot of tone deafness. People who’ve come in and tried to make a little clever quip about Black Lives Matter, or people telling me that I should be at the protest and doing something when they don’t realize I’m actually here giving back to mostly people of color and my community. So I’ve gotten it from both sides.

And then there are people who think I’m some kind of sellout because I’m running a cocktail bar in a mostly white, affluent neighborhood. Other people sometimes think of me as just Black and say, “Man, your boss has still got you working during a pandemic? That’s pretty messed up.” And it’s actually, no, I’ve told all of my staff to stay home, and I’m choosing to be on the front line, as the owner.

There were not a lot of programs going on for businesses of color. The whole Small Business Loan program—a lot of it went to larger corporations. We’re all applying for the same piece of the pie, but you have these corporations who will come in with a pizza cutter, and I’m just coming with a fork. But I’ve been fighting for my seat at the table my entire life. I didn’t complain about it. I just did what I had to do to keep my business afloat.

We never asked for a single dime from anyone, but people walking by would look at what we were doing and say, “Hey guys, is there any way I can help out?” And people would just hit us up on Instagram—”Do you guys have Venmo?” or “I want to make a cash donation.” People really stepped up and helped out. We probably got more in donations than we were initially offered from the PPP.

For me, that’s community. That’s people who are boots on the ground, that actually understand what is happening because it’s directly affecting them. They’re directly inspiring change by contributing to a good cause.

I learned that I am both just as strong as I think I am, and also not as strong as I think I am. I’ll do whatever it takes to achieve my goals, work 25 hours a day, bend over backwards—but coming close to losing my mom broke me. That’s something not in my control. You can plan for anything, but life will always have its own plan for you.

This also taught me that no one life is more important than any other. When a lot of this was happening, I was taking it personally. “Why is this happening to me? Why can I not get a loan? Why is my business suffering when we were just about to really do well? Why did my mom have to get sick?” And then for a moment I just stopped. I realized this is one of the few times in life where everyone’s pretty much in the same boat. We’re all extremely susceptible to this disease and everything that comes along with it, whether it’s illness, job loss, being impoverished, losing loved ones.

It really made me take a look in the mirror, take a look around, and not only appreciate what I have, but share what I have with others. That’s something that’s going to stay with me. I was never a selfish or greedy person, but I learned what it was to be truly selfless.