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Helping Restaurant Staff Deal With Meals And Landlords

Jennifer Vitagliano is owner of the Michelin-starred Musket Room restaurant in Manhattan’s Nolita neighborhood.

We already had a tumultuous year leading up to COVID. We lost our chef and went through the trials of finding a successor, slowly evolving the menu format, all the while keeping it a bit of a secret from our guests and the general public. We weathered all that together, ultimately rebuilding a strong team and earning the trust of our staff. We actually meant to relaunch the restaurant in June 2020. So that’s why it was even more important that I managed the staff’s concerns and uncertainties when the pandemic hit.

And yet it was particularly challenging for me to feel like, despite my best efforts, there was nothing I could do to fix this. Hours before the mandated shutdown, we made the decision and let the team know that we were closing the dining room in order to keep the majority of the team safe and off mass transit. We had just four managers, including myself, that were able to drive and carpool to work, and they were comfortable enough to stay on board.

We created a takeout concept nearly overnight, and then weeks later, we wound up closing the restaurant for an undetermined time. There was a moment there looking at a full walk-in box full of food, and deciding we weren’t going to sell it on a prix fixe menu, or any menu. It was going to our employees who suddenly had no income and no way to feed their families.

For the first few weeks, we were able to personally deliver provisions to all of our employees, with a focus on those who have families. They spanned across the five boroughs and New Jersey. I did it personally, along with our general manager, sous chef, and executive chef. That weekly interaction—seeing our faces and experiencing generosity at the onset of this really difficult and isolating time—strengthened those relationships. We’d known our team really well going into this, but realizing the responsibility that a lot of them have, knowing how long their commute is, waving to their kids from the car—that was all really, really intense for me, and made it feel like this can’t be the end of the Musket Room.

I had just got a new car, and I felt like an idiot driving around in it. One day, I started out at the Musket Room, and I went to New Jersey to drop off something first. Then I went up to Harlem and did a few visits. There was a single guy who hadn’t seen anyone in a few weeks, and just coming downstairs and seeing me, he was so excited. We were both crying. He was like, “It’s so good to see you, even just half of your face.” He’s vegan, and we gave him a bunch of stuff appropriate to his diet. He just couldn’t believe it.

And then there were two other families in the Bay Ridge area. I had gone to see my auntie in Staten Island right before that. I’d dropped some stuff off with her, frozen pies and other stuff we’d done. She’s older and lives alone, so I was already really emotional. Going to see the guys in Brooklyn after that—they were literally sitting on the stoop with their kids, and their kids were excited to see me and wave to me.

All this time, I’d been at home alone myself. My family had gone out to New Jersey to be safe. The gravity of the predicament started to settle in then, just realizing that I wasn’t going to see my family for another few weeks. I never stopped working, just to stay in the restaurant and work for the team. But I still had this feeling of not being able to do enough.

I’m generally a pretty confident businesswoman with a lot of resources, and I was having a hard time negotiating my rent at home, and also our commercial lease. I reached out to our landlord on March 19—I was really proactive—and I’m still negotiating to this day. So when it comes to their own housing situations, I wanted make sure that our employees knew their rights, and their options, and how to best communicate with their landlords.

With the advice of my real estate attorney, I drafted letters for them to send to their landlords, as well as letters of support from myself. They found a little comfort in knowing that they couldn’t be evicted or have their utilities turned off for a period of time. They were provided several payment schedule options to suggest to their landlords. They understood the importance of having a written copy of any such agreement.

Having this support on their side gave them the confidence to approach their landlords, where otherwise maybe they would have shied away from that. I’ve had a few people tell me they were going to move back to Florida or North Carolina or Georgia or wherever their family is from. Instead, they were able to stay and work something out with their landlords and roommates.

Obviously, this has gone on a lot longer than anyone could have predicted. No one wants to spend money right now to hire a lawyer to figure all this out. That’s why one of the first things I thought of was that I have to make sure people know they can’t be evicted, and they know what their options are.

As for the Musket Room, we know where our power is in terms of being long-term tenants. We’ve been here for eight years now. We’ve been good tenants. We don’t have any violations, or any neighborhood complaints. The only good thing, the only attractive thing I could provide my landlord, is that we’re a tenured restaurant, and we’ve got a good reputation, and that we’re willing to commit to staying in this location despite all the attractive rents that are popping up around town.

I have an investor in my business who’s a commercial real estate broker. He actually helped us negotiate our space years ago. He sends me listings every day of landlords and developers that actually want to partner with restaurants and see the value in helping them out right now, understanding that this is a finite process. If my landlord weren’t supportive right now, we would definitely look for other opportunities.

We were in a good spot coming off a strong fourth quarter of 2019. And then also January and February tend to be good months for us. The beginning of March was pretty good as well. March, as a whole, turned out to be a loser overall, obviously. But we were well funded, and the first thing I did was put out a capital call to my investors to make sure that we could take care of our staff, even as a very small independent restaurant. So even with PPP money still in the pipeline, we decide to pay out all the PTO owed to staff. It was just kind of a gut, emotional decision—let’s just pay this out, and raise the money, and figure it out.

I feel like we’re running really efficiently right now. In an abundance of caution, we are running in three teams to maintain social distancing and redundancy, should there be a positive COVID test in a team or their spouses or anything like that. Every time someone comes back to work, it’s like a homecoming. It just feels good. Everyone’s getting along super well, and we’re really grateful to be able to work.

In anticipation of indoor dining coming back, we’ve upgraded our HVAC systems to the fullest capacity possible. We have MERV 16 or 17 filters. Additionally, in the places that don’t have central air, we have really good air purifiers in the bathrooms. We brought fresh air into the kitchen, which we have not had before. We have access to rapid group COVID testing. Every other week, we’re doing saliva testing in the restaurant, and we send it out to a biotech lab in Brooklyn. We get results in 24 hours.

We’ve been able to grow our revenue to about 30 percent of expected revenue, which is not great. But we’re growing every week. We just reintroduced our prix fixe menu recently, and it doubled our check average overnight. I felt a little silly not doing that sooner. Takeout has really taken off. We hadn’t done takeout in the eight years of operating, but we decided not to dwell on what was traditionally expected at the Musket Room, and cook what we thought would be comforting and nourishing to people right now. It’s fresh market vegetables and salads, very simply prepared. I go to the market and get the ingredients myself like the chefs do.

We have well-priced wines. We had a ton of wine going into this, and our inventory reflects that. But the prices are a little more modest than our normal markup would be. We’re doing a lot of custom cocktails, getting to know our guests in our limited interaction and coming up with stuff on the fly for them, which is always really appreciated. It’s a little extra hospitality.

We’ve gotten to know so many people. Just having prix fixe as an option rather than a requirement has allowed so many more people to find out about us and even just wander in. We have a lot of new friends now.