The bartenders at Forgtmenot used to make drinks. These days, they’re stocking toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

By Rachel Sherman
March 30, 2020
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Credit: Rachel Sherman

It took less than 24 hours for the Lower East Side bar Forgtmenot to go from slinging drinks to stocking shelves with toilet paper.

When New York City’s shutdown of non-essential businesses went into effect on March 16, owner Paul Sierros decided his bar was going to become essential. The tables bolted to the floor were uprooted and replaced with boxes of fresh oranges, cleaning supplies, and face masks. Now, shoppers can sip a Bloody Mary, margarita, or gin and tonic—all canned versions—while stocking up on household necessities. 

The idea got started when longtime employee Derek Tighe was at home one night with his wife, who was concerned about her job in the fashion industry amid the pandemic. She joked that if all else failed, she could get a job at Trader Joe’s. The next day, Tighe told Sierros they should become a grocery store.

Once Paul decided to make the switch, Forgtmenot—a name chosen by Sierros’ wife and co-owner Abby Sierros, who was inspired by the forget-me-not flower—transitioned quickly. He went across the street to Chinatown Lumber Company for plywood and built out shelves, installed scales, and repurposed refrigerators. Abby hand-painted two wooden signs, one saying “FMN General Store” and one advertising hand sanitizer. Within 22 hours the shop was open. 

“Oh, the neighborhood grocer,” Paul said in a sing-song voice on a recent day while greeting a couple sitting at the one and only table.

“To me, it's just go go go. Just make sure it happens, and then we think about it later,” Paul said. “I'm programmed to think, Let's just get the place open, get everyone what they want, be here for them.

Credit: Rachel Sherman

Paul gets most of his produce and supplies from his brother’s organic supermarket in Astoria, Queens. Other than in-demand pandemic items like toilet paper, masks, and hand sanitizer, which they limit to 3-4 per customer,  the best sellers have been pasta, to-go cocktails, salami, and yeast.

Paul, a Queens native born to Greek parents, keeps the shop running with a skeleton crew. In the wake of COVID-19, he’s had to lay off 74 employees across his five businesses. Now, he’s down to five employees total, including himself and Abby. There’s also Derek Tighe, Sierros’ right-hand man, Kiki Karamintzas, right-hand woman, and back-of-house one-man show Armando Cabrera.

“We’ve got one Greek, one Irish and one half-Greek, half-Irish,” Paul said of the front-of-house team. He said this cultural cocktail lends itself to a natural passion for community and a heart for hospitality.

He and his team are no longer bartenders. “Now we’re stock boys,” Paul said with a laugh, his eyebrow ring catching the light of the afternoon sun. He has flashbacks to the summers he spent working in his father’s hotels in Greece. 

Paul and Tighe don’t pay themselves anymore, and neither plans to take a day off for the next three months. Paul said he tries to pay $100-$150 a week to his former employees who aren’t able to collect unemployment benefits. 

Forgtmenot isn’t new to operating in a crisis. The bar opened in June 2012, four months before Hurricane Sandy devastated New York City. Though many restaurants in the Lower East Side shuttered, Forgtmenot stayed open, running on a generator.

“We were the only place with a full menu, right here. I had to go drive and pick up all my kitchen people,” Paul said. He washed dishes, cleaned the floors, and worked double shifts most days. “That was apocalyptic, but this is like an enemy you can’t fight, that you don’t see,” he said. “So, you just have to really be careful. I mean we spray everything down constantly. Never in my life I thought I would see this.”  

 Google Maps describes Forgtmenot as a “quirky American-Mediterranean taverna.” The vibe according to Paul? “It’s family. That’s it.” 

The bar—which once drew in hordes of people waiting for dinner reservations at nearby restaurants, soccer fanatics from all over the world drinking whiskey gingers at 9 a.m. during early-morning matches, and service-industry lifers gathering after their shifts until the 2 a.m. close—is now light on crowds, but still brings in familiar faces.

Zachary Gelnaw-Rubin, 35, has been a regular since he moved to the neighborhood five years ago. Though he’s quarantining in Harlem with his girlfriend, he made the trip downtown to support the new Forgtmenot. 

“The neighborhood is still our little neighborhood, and you know, Paul and Abby are still holding down Division Street and keeping the community together,” Gelnaw-Rubin said.

Though he was happy to hear the bar was still offering takeout and delivery, he said a to-go sandwich wouldn’t have been enough motivation to visit. He was lured out of the house by the chance to buy groceries and quality produce in a line-free store and say hello to the people he knows and loves.

“If you look around over here it's like all these people know each other, they all came together and they're hanging out,” Genlnaw-Rubin said. “We're trying to make do, together.