By Chris Mohney
All Zagat Stories are written by our editorial team. This story is presented by our partner Chase Sapphire®.
Through the difficulties of the past year, restaurants have been there for their communities. They’ve pivoted to takeout, provided meals to essential workers, and so much more. The Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contest is awarding $50,000 business grants from Chase Sapphire to 20 small-business restaurants across America to provide COVID-19 pandemic recovery assistance. Zagat Stories is featuring interviews with all of our Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contests grant recipients.
ALEXIS PERCIVAL: That actual week in March 2020 before we decided to close the restaurant in the lockdown, we were about to break even after being open only for five months. We were young, so we were still finding our identity and figuring out where we wanted to go, but we were doing well. And then very, very quickly, everything changed.
We have a close-knit team, so there was certainly a feeling of obligation to take care of everyone. That was really the first priority.
MOSHE SCHULMAN: We actually closed a day or two earlier than when the city created the shutdown. It was shocking to our employees, but we saw the writing on the wall. It was our opinion that it was going to happen soon, and we figured the unemployment line was going to be quite long, so we thought it was best to close a day or two early and get people on the unemployment line. We offer health insurance and benefits to our employees. That was one of the things that was important to us—to figure out how to continue doing that even throughout the pandemic.
PERCIVAL: When we reopened, it was like we opened seven different restaurants in six months. We’d be like, “Let’s try this,” and we’d implement it. The customers were changing so rapidly as well.
SCHULMAN: We had the challenge of constantly trying to reinvent ourselves, but also create loyalty. In September, after Labor Day of 2020, we started the Work from Kindred service, which was pretty big in terms of bringing in some extra sales and trying to get new people in the door. For 25 bucks a day, we allowed people to come in and work from our patio. Free coffee, internet, all that fun stuff. We still do it today, and with our upgraded patio it’s even better. There are outlets at every table.
Then we started doing our wine festivals as well. For the first one that fall, it was pouring rain and 150 people showed up for five seatings. It was one of the most grueling days of our lives.
PERCIVAL: Oh god. So long.
SCHULMAN: We also moved into an après-ski pop-up during the colder months, and people really enjoyed that. That was a new restaurant as well. Everything’s new, everything’s different.
PERCIVAL: Work from Kindred continues to this day—so much so that it influenced how we built our outdoor structure. We completely destroyed everything that was built the previous year and rebuilt from scratch. And the same with the wine festival. We were doing a lot of creative thinking with our other partners about what people needed. How can we fill that gap of people being tired of working from home, of people not being able to attend festivals? How can we do those things? We never would have explored those arenas if we hadn’t been under duress.
The learning curve was steep, but we came out on top, and everyone sort of played to their strengths to creatively think about things. Our employee retention and the moral and ethical way that we ran the company made me feel good. The thing that I’ve been thinking about, especially going into another winter where we’re still very much in a pandemic, is diversification of the business. I got so sick of hearing the word “pivot,” but who knows? I’m not as rigid as I used to be.
SCHULMAN: I was impressed with the community and New Yorkers in general. They had more flexibility than I initially thought. I’m actually pretty confident that this fall people will still be totally excited to sit in a really nice heated outdoor patio. We still sold a lot of tickets for our fall wine festival on Halloween. We’re still doing Work for Kindred.
The thing I’m most proud of in terms of getting through this stretch was staying open, and surviving, and being able to be creative and adapt effectively. And figuring out the financial side of things and the health benefits—making sure everyone had health insurance, and just being transparent. That certainly showed trust and confidence in our team.
PERCIVAL: The health insurance thing was a big deal because we were paying the full health insurance out for employees who only did partial payments into it during those months.
SCHULMAN: We didn’t ask for any of the arrears once we got back.
PERCIVAL: We knew everyone had enough to worry about. That was not something that we wanted them to be afraid of.
For me, the word that comes to mind about this experience is “endurance.” We got beat down six ways from Sunday, and we just kept going. I don’t mean just us and our partners. The staff flexed under the worst possible conditions. You can’t forget the fact that this was emotionally traumatic for everyone. They showed up. They did what we asked of them. Our bartenders became servers. Our kitchen was willing to totally change the menu, or cook for festivals, or anything that we asked, even though they were exhausted. We didn’t know what was going to happen next, and they trusted that we were trying to do what was best to keep us open so that we all had jobs at the end of it.
The first week we reopened this past spring—the second reopening—I could hear people shout from down the sidewalk. We were all vaccinated by this point, and they’d be like, “Can I hug you? Is it OK to hug you?” It was really emotional. The first time we did indoor dining again, and I walked through the dining room, I got really emotional. I surprised myself by how it made me feel, like, “Oh, right. This is why we went through all this—to try to get back here again.”