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The Pandemic Restaurant Shutdown Shell Game

Eric Lemonides is co-owner of Almond restaurant, with locations in the Hamptons, New York City, and Palm Beach.

We opened Palm Beach the week of March 10th, when things in New York were starting to fall apart really quickly. We decided we were going to close the New York Almond for lunch, which was a freaking hard decision. We didn’t even know what it meant at the time, in real terms, but we knew that it was going to be the beginning of having to lay people off. So it was super emotional, like, “Holy shit, I’ve never done this in my life.” I’ve owned businesses for 30 years, and I’ve fired people because they were horrible, but I’ve never actually said, “Hey, I don’t have the work for you.”

We named Almond after the then-girlfriend of my business partner, Jason Weiner. They weren’t married yet, they didn’t have a kid yet, and we thought it would be a good idea to name the place after his girlfriend. It’s a good thing that all worked out. So the week of shutdown, my partner Jason and my partner in life, Lee Felty—who is also a partner in the restaurant, we’re a little family—all flew back to New York to take care of all the unfortunate things that had to go on there, and I stayed in Palm Beach.

Early that week, it was like, “Oh, the world is fine.” Everywhere else was crazy, but it seemed at the time like we were going to dodge a bullet. There was that moment of like, “It’s warm weather, and it doesn’t do well in warm weather, and it’s a flu.” Within a week New York was closed. So those guys stayed there for that week and dealt with closing New York, telling everybody, “Hey guys, we’re going to reopen when we can, and we’ll all have jobs again and we’ll figure it all out.” Lee came back down to Palm Beach on Saturday, March 14th.

I was at work and kind of knew things were starting to get a little weird all around. And lo and behold, I got a sore throat while I was working that night. I was like, “You know what, guys? In the normal world, I would stay at work and not think about it.” At that point, people in Palm Beach were like, “What the fuck is coronavirus? We don’t care. We don’t even know. What do you mean you have a sore throat?” I was like, “Listen, I’m going home.” Lee and I both went home, and by that Tuesday, we both had full-blown COVID.

It was double weird because we were in Florida, but our whole world is in New York. Our families are in New York, our friends are in New York, any doctor that we’ve ever known in our lives is in New York. In Florida, we were like, “We don’t know anything.”

We’ll never know where we got it from. From Christmas to that day, I probably went back and forth to New York six or seven times. It could have been anywhere. It could have been on a plane. I had also just opened a restaurant. I hugged and kissed a thousand fucking people the week before. The moment when all of a sudden on the TV they were saying, “Don’t shake people’s hands,” I was like, “I just kissed a thousand people yesterday!”

It was a tough, hard, horrible thing. I don’t wish it on anybody. We both had the same version of COVID, which I guess makes sense. Neither of us had a cough, but neither of us could breathe. We were getting these fevers. Lee spiked higher than I did. He was at 102.7 at his highest. I was 101.5, 101, 101.2. But the main thing was not being able to breathe, which was really weird.

We were just on this side of going to the hospital. It was at the very beginning when all they said on CNN was, “Do not go to a fucking hospital or you will die.” So we were like, “Oh, I’m OK.” I’ve got a pretty cool doctor that I’ve known for half my life. It was that same week that The New York Times did the article on the only thing you need with COVID is a pulse oximeter. There was not a pulse oximeter to be bought anywhere, so my doctor actually FedExed me down a Fitbit that had one on it. We were doing our blood oxygen levels, and he was checking us pretty much every morning, like, “Okay, where are you right now? All right. You’re still good.” The coolest thing was that he had me download a stethoscope onto my phone that he could hear in New York. It was pretty amazing. But I didn’t test negative until the end of April.

Back in the restaurant world, we went to this place of “What now?” In Palm Beach, we tried really freaking hard for about three weeks. We had this attitude that we were from New York City. We know about guerilla marketing. We know about shoving menus in people’s mailboxes. We know about getting a doorman to let us in so we can put our little paper menus under every door. We’re going to be rich! It’s going to be great!

But what we started figuring out was when people are ordering takeout, they’re going to places they know. Nobody was like, “Let’s order Korean short ribs from that Chinese place from Manhattan.” We tried our best for a while, and we realized that it was not sustainable. Then we laid off everybody in Palm Beach.

We made the same decision in Manhattan. The rationale was that in Manhattan, everyone also has their go-to places for takeout. When you’re sitting at home and you’re sick, there’s five or six restaurants that you’re calling. We didn’t think we could compete with those. So we shut that down too.

Bridgehampton was the outlier. We’re a little bit of an institution here. And there was no takeout world before this. It’s not like New York or any other city. All of the restaurants in the Hamptons were scrambling to figure out how to do this shit the best and the fastest. At first, we were like, “Okay, here’s our menu. Let people call us up and they can order whatever they want.” Then we realized that to do that, we still needed three or four people in the kitchen. And we didn’t want to ask anyone to come to work. So in April, we turned it into a preorder situation where we sent out an email every week. Thursday was ramen. Friday was pork chop night. Tuesday was taco night. You could preorder on our website for that night.

And it worked amazingly. What was nice was that it became zero waste, because by Tuesday afternoon you knew exactly how many of everything you’re making for the week. We didn’t have to have a bunch of people in the kitchen at the same time. My partner Jason was in the kitchen cooking. Gladys Vega, L&W Market chef de cuisine, was downstairs in the prep kitchen, prepping by herself. The two of them never even saw each other. They had their own little system. Gladys would walk stuff upstairs and put it down on the table. Jason would go get it from the table, and he would cook it. Then we did a two-hour window for everybody to pick up. We had all the bags on the bar labeled with names on them. People would come to the window, we would give them their bag, they would pay, and they were out. That saved our business.

Then we got the call that Florida was going to reopen. That was the end of May, and at the time Palm Beach was still packed. Everybody was hunkered down, but no one left Palm Beach. All of those people who had houses or apartments in Palm Beach, but lived in DC or Pittsburgh or Toronto or Boston or New York—all those people were like, “Dude, you think I’m going back to the fucking urban jungle? I’m staying here.” So at the time, it seemed like it made the most sense to get Palm Beach back open. Lee and I both flew down and pulled the staff back together.

We’ve got an amazing outdoor situation in Palm Beach. We have one of the only built-to-be-outdoor dining rooms. It’s completely covered. We had Plexiglas partitions built for everybody who was going to sit inside.

We opened and it was instantly like, “Oh God, this is amazing!” Palm Beach was pumping. New York was closed, and Bridgehampton was closed but doing takeout. Then Andrew Cuomo came out and said, “Okay, Long Island restaurants can open.” And we were like, “Whoa, what the fuck?” We were not ready for this. We were actually in the middle of renovating the restaurant. It was like musical chairs and the music stopped.

I flew back up to New York, and we got Bridgehampton open. Our restaurant in Bridgehampton is on a corner. On one side it’s on Montauk Highway, which has a little sidewalk and a little bit of an apron past that. On the other side is Ocean Road, which is this really beautiful, bucolic, quiet street. Next to us on the Ocean Road side, it’s this big lumpy grass area from the restaurant to the street.

My brother is a pretty resourceful dude. He got a backhoe and we had a 20-yard dumpster delivered and put it on the street. My brother and I, literally under the cover of darkness, scraped 20 yards of dirt off of that grass. Then we put the backhoe in my driveway for the day. The next night, we had 10 yards of sand delivered, and we built this amazing bluestone patio, which has now turned into our new dining room.

You had to get permission from the fire marshal to do any of the funky things that people were doing. We’ve been in business here for 19 years. We have a pretty good rapport with the fire marshal. I was like, “Hey, I got a question. Can I use that bluestone patio that’s on the side of the building for dining?” He looked at me like, you’re fucking kidding. And he just said, “Yeah, use the bluestone patio that’s always been there.” We ended up having a much larger dining room than we’ve ever had.

At this point, we had Palm Beach working on all cylinders, and Bridgehampton starting to work. And then July 4th happened, and Florida hit that COVID spike. You saw the car carriers pulling every fucking fancy car out of Florida and going back to whatever urban center they came from. It was really weird. It was like someone turned on the lights in a freaking Lower East Side apartment in the 1980s. All the cockroaches scrambled.

Now we’re in Palm Beach sucking wind, and all of a sudden New York was the freaking poster child of how to handle COVID. Nobody was getting sick any more, and it was great. Now you can eat outside. Palm Beach was the exact opposite. We had a really hard conversation with ourselves and shut down Palm Beach for the second time. I think we closed on July 10th. We tried really hard to do the same model of to-go that we were doing in Bridgehampton. It wasn’t even close to flying. We would do 5 orders a night, 10 a night. One really good night we did 20. You can’t pay the bills with 20 people spending 30 bucks a pop.

Out in the Hamptons, I am now living the life of an 80-year-old. I wake up every morning and I’m like, “What’s the weather?” I never worried about weather my entire life, and now we literally live and die by it. I’ve got a bunch of friends who own restaurants out here, and we all joke with each other. It’s like, “Is it supposed to rain? Fuck! Oh, it’s going to be sunny? We’re rich!”

Propane heaters have never, ever been allowed in any of the outdoor dining that is publicly owned in the Hamptons. People who have dining on their own property, they can do whatever they want. I started hedging my bets. We started hoarding heaters in August, and then kept buying them as they started becoming impossible to get and it was getting colder. My boyfriend drove seven hours round trip to get two heaters. Then we realized that as soon as it got cold, every table wants its own heater. We now have 18 heaters.

To run one heater is about 20 bucks a night. It’s turned into a new version of rent. If you have a table of four that sits down and has a $180 dinner, the first 20 bucks of it just came off the top.

As this new COVID spike starts happening, it’s December. Hamptons restaurants are not busy in December, January, and February anyway. So that’s kind of the lucky part of this for us. If it’s slow during the week in December, it was going to be that way anyway. We’re built for that. We know how to handle that. I don’t honestly see it slowing down in Palm Beach. In New York, we decided not to even try to reopen until March 1st.

We reopened Palm Beach in November, for the third time. We might have the Guinness record for the most openings in one year. One of the things we’ve learned is that whatever the official guidelines are, it seems like what restaurants are really doing is catering to their clientele. There are places in West Palm Beach where you drive by and they are three deep at the bar. It’s as if nothing ever happened. They’re not wearing masks. They’re drunk and they’re just dancing and having a great time in their own little planet.

That restaurant is catering to that demographic. They’re doing that because it’s working for them. Now, I personally pass a lot of moral judgment on them, but that doesn’t mean anything. We’re 100 percent catering to our own demographic. Even our outdoor tables, they’re all six feet away from each other. The tables inside—which don’t need to be distanced at all, according to the rules—are six feet away from each other, and they have Plexiglas dividers between them. Our front doors are open every night. Whether it’s raining or not raining, they’re open.

A lot of our clientele came down from New York and have a different sensibility of what COVID is. They’re scared of it, and respect it, but they’re coming out. There is a sense of people feeling a little bit comfortable at our place, where they’re not at other places. I went to dinner at a place that opened recently down here, and people were chair to chair, seat to seat. They’re brand new, so they’re doing a ton of business, and people are going in. But I’ve been hearing from some of their customers, “We’ll never go back. I have no idea what they’re thinking.”

In New York, we’ve been put in position to police our customers’ behavior. Our customers know it, and they’re fine with it. I have been training my staff to treat not wearing a mask the same way you would treat a friend whose zipper was down. “You’re not an asshole, you’re not a horrible person, but dude, your zipper. … Oh, right. Thank you. I’m so embarrassed.” That’s how masks are here in New York.

You can’t do that in Florida. Someone gets up from their table to go to the bathroom in Florida without the mask, and you say, “Hey, your mask,” they’re like, “Dude, it’s a personal choice.” That’s the kind of thing that’s weird, the dichotomy between the two places. That kind of stuff is really freaking rough.

Photo: Lindsay Morris.