How I'm Keeping My Restaurant's Dream Alive in Nightmare Times
The restaurant business has never been more challenging. For our F&W Pro Guide to Reopening Restaurants, we've been collecting wisdom and best practices from leaders in the hospitality industry to help you navigate this unprecedented time.
One of the things that I have always loved about New York summers is the air of excitement, renewed energy, romanticism, and hope. As it turns out, emerging from three-months-plus of quarantine in New York has brought about those same feelings in me, but even stronger. As I walked through the West Village during the first week of outdoor dining, I took note of the changes that had taken hold. It was as if the businesses that had been dormant during the shutdown were sleeping bears awakening from a long winter’s nap. I might have a different perspective than others because instead of closing the Beatrice Inn, my team and I stayed at our restaurant on West 12th Street. We wanted to do our part in serving the community, maintaining employment for as many as possible, and feeding the city that we love so much. As someone who breathes, bleeds, and devours New York, there was never any other option.
In March, we pivoted our business from fine dining to serving take-out and delivery, focusing on comfort food reflective of my childhood. We made meals for first responders and delivered food to shelters for survivors of domestic violence and their children, and now I find myself pivoting the business once again. Over the past week and a half, I have reworked my menu, looking toward the bistros of Paris that I love ardently. Everything is simpler, more pure, the pricing is more accessible, less aspirational. The Beatrice Inn is now a place where you can—and many do—eat here every night of the week. As a girl who loves vintage crystal glasses, antique silver serveware, and larger than life menus, it was hard for me to move to a contactless bar code that you scan on your phone to reveal our new menu that you scroll down like an Instagram feed. It’s odd for me to see our polished silver pre-wrapped in linens, instead of being placed delicately on the tables in unison by our waiters. But it’s necessary in order to keep our guests and our employees safe.
The Beatrice has always been about the experience. There is magic within its walls that stays with you. I have always been an optimist, and in every situation, I like to make the best of things. As I walked through the Village, I saw barriers for sidewalk seating being made of yellow caution tape, police barricades, and the like, and I thought, “Let me sink some money into this. If we are going to do outdoor dining, let's do it properly, and transform West 12th Street into Paris, because who knows when I’ll be in France again.”
We got to work. I bartered with the boys in the Flower District on both trade and cash, and had them transform the cobblestone with lush hydrangeas and fragrant herbs. I reworked the menu with my favorite things to eat when I am in France, like roasted squab and savory bouillabaisse blanc, and crisp, chilled oysters, and I ironed our linen table clothes so sharply you could cut your finger on it. I wanted to create a luscious, flower-filled oasis to welcome our guests back to. I wanted to do what we have always done, which is transport our guests into my mind, give them a glimpse of my soul, and provide them with a beautiful experience, even if it was one that is abbreviated because I have to turn the table for the next seating. I could still hope to provide a bit of the magic that we have always created.
I am a chef and restaurateur by trade and training, and although I am relatively good with people, I have never worked front of house as a profession. It wasn’t until last week when I had no choice but to start managing the floor, that I realized the stark disconnect between the life support that our industry is still clinging to, and etiquette of some of the diners that populate our tables. Entering into Phase 2 of reopening in New York City seems to have brought about a sense of normalcy amongst the citizens of our city, a sense that everything might just be all right. An idea seems to be floating around that we, as a society, might just be able to go "back to normal.” But the reality that many restaurants are facing is that from this point on, for us, there will never be a point in which we can go back to the way things were.
Right now, restaurants are in danger of losing everything. Now, more than ever, we need our diners to stand by us, and know that if they want our city’s restaurant scene to be able to continue to feed, comfort, entertain, and ultimately survive, the rules and etiquette of dining have been irrevocably changed.
Last week I had to have an uncomfortable conversation with a neighborhood regular who I could not accommodate— along with her three friends—at one of my 10 tables, if they were to order and share one appetizer among the four of them. As a business, if we even hope to remain open, I have to require that each guest order a minimum of two courses each—a new policy she protested passionately. This story is not abnormal for many of us in the business. Due to minimal space and rising costs, many of us have no choice but to offer abbreviated experiences, minimum spends, and firm cancellation policies. Because the truth is that despite the glimmer of normalcy that we try to provide, and the hope that seemingly fills the air for our guests when they sit at our tables, restaurants and small business owners are still in the fight of our lives with no foreseeable end in sight.
These types of conversations with guests go against every fiber of my being as a hospitality professional. I was born into this industry, my aunt was Seattle restaurateur and political legend Ruby Chow, who embodied the very meaning of hospitality and all the good and grit that comes with it. I had the choice to leave this industry, but stayed in it because at the core of everything, I want us to provide others with a wonderful experience. But the bleak outcome of a global pandemic and newly imposed dining restrictions, is that where I once was able to accommodate 125 people at once in the storied dining rooms that are The Beatrice Inn, I can now only accommodate 25 people on a 45-foot stretch of cobblestone. I am still legally responsible for the whole of a monthly rent in an iconic Manhattan building, as if I were seating 250 people a night like I once was. The basic economics simply do not make it feasible for us to go back to how things used to be, and diners will need to understand that should they wish to have their favorite restaurants survive so they may continue to return to them.
I understand the emotional need of our guests to have a sense of the way things once were, to be able to revel at a beautiful table in a beautiful setting for hours over conversation and a beautiful bottle of wine. I yearn to provide that experience too. Crafting that beautiful experience is the business I chose. It is how I was raised. It is what I live for. But I recognize that in order for our industry to continue to provide that service, setting, and experience for you, a new dining etiquette will have to be invoked. Our businesses are living in a world where many of us have to navigate unreasonable landlords who are also beholden to their big business lenders. There are purveyors who require immediate payment as they are struggling themselves, and if we do not make a certain amount of money per table, per seating, we may as well hand our landlords the keys back to the spaces we occupy right now.
Diners are our lifelines, so where do we draw the line between the inherent desire to be hospitality professionals who make our guests happy, and the minimum requirement of what we need monetarily to survive as a business?
For me, the answer lies in coming together as a community, while respecting the dire circumstances that businesses and business owners are in. That requires us all to play by the new rules of this new world. Perhaps this means a return to the old-school idea of neighborhood, family, selflessness, and understanding that we are all trying to navigate this disaster together. The “New York tough” attitude that we have collectively embodied for the past four months must not go by the wayside. The reason I chose to stay open through the entire quarantine, to put my health at risk, was because I felt an overwhelming desire and responsibility, to be there for my family that works at the Beatrice, for my community, and for New York City. What I learned during that time, was that I actually fell even more madly in love with New York, and with New Yorkers, than I ever have before.
During those first dark weeks, when the store shelves were bare, and we were operating with three cooks—me, one front of house person and no dishwasher—I thought that it was the end for us. I saw my hard work, my dreams, my successes all slipping through my fingers as quickly as sand. But then I began to write. I wrote emails to our guests every day, sharing stories of the food we were cooking, the people who were cooking it, and why cooking those dishes gave me comfort and hope that New York would rise again, stronger than ever. New Yorkers rallied. New Yorkers wrote us notes, emails, called us to tell us to stay strong and to keep fighting. It was the New Yorkers we fed who gave us the resolve to show up day in and day out. We remained open to provide a sense of normalcy and security to our guests and neighbors during an insecure time, but what what surprised me more than anything was discovering that I needed desperately to continue cooking for others in order to feel a sense of security and normalcy myself. Cooking for others was my coping mechanism for dealing with the overwhelming sense of loss and grief that we feel collectively as a city, as a country, and as a world.
A friend once told me that true New Yorkers are born every day, all over the world, but they just don’t know it yet. For over 20 years, this city has fed me, inspired me, and made me tougher than I ever thought imaginable. For almost a century, the Beatrice Inn has been a safe harbor for residents of this city. She has stood through prohibition, through wars, through 9/11, through natural disasters, and I wouldn’t have the right to call myself a New Yorker if I hadn't allowed her to continue to be a safe haven for our community through COVID-19.
The restaurant industry is a very delicately balanced one, but in this city especially it breeds the toughest, and most generous people I know. My family has always said that everyone, at some point in their life should work in the service industry, if only to understand and acquire a level of respect for those who dedicate their lives to it. Restaurants provide more than just food and wine, and a cocktail if you're keen. Really wonderful restaurants have the ability to provide you with defining memories and revelations. They have the power to heal your soul, and to nourish your spirit, they ignite imagination and passion, and they give both those who dine at them, and those who work within their walls, the strength and resolve to keep fighting—especially in times such as these. And they can keep being all of those things, so long as we remain about the community, about New Yorkers, the city’s betterment and its survival. I have always said it takes a village to raise a restaurant, and it will take a village to keep what we love about New York City alive and make it to the next summer.