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Inside One Brooklyn Restaurant’s Desperate Fight to Survive the Pandemic

Inside One Brooklyn Restaurant’s Desperate Fight to Survive the Pandemic


Inside One Brooklyn Restaurant’s Desperate Fight to Survive the Pandemic

On the second Saturday in March, the owners of Gertie, a Jewish-American luncheonette in Brooklyn, finalized a last step in the makeover of their year-old restaurant. They hired a new sous chef, an up-and-comer who had landed hours before on a one-way flight from Detroit.By dinnertime, though, the restaurant was unraveling.After spreading silently for weeks, the coronavirus had infected hundreds of people in New York and cast an eerie emptiness over the city and inside the restaurant, which had planned to debut a new menu. Instead, by the end of dinner service that Sunday, the owners pulled aside nearly all 25 employees and told them they were being let go.Seven months later, Gertie is still standing, if barely, a battered symbol of an industry wrecked by a sweeping recession. Gertie is a shell of its former self — tables have been pushed aside in the darkened dining room, the espresso machine turned off, a case once filled with baked goods gathers dust — as the handful of remaining employees scrambles to reinvent itself on a nearly weekly basis.The restaurant, located in Williamsburg, is now several ventures collectively trying to keep it afloat: a soup kitchen in the mornings, preparing meals for the hungry; an outdoor restaurant three nights a week; and a get-out-the-vote operation on Thursdays, with a phone bank on the patio and postcards diners are asked to send to undecided voters.A year ago, Gertie made about $30,000 a week, packing dozens of diners at a time inside its bright, cavernous dining room. During the worst days of the pandemic, it made $50 selling coffee and pastries on some mornings, not enough to pay the barista and baker. Sales slowly climbed through late summer to about $1,000 per day.The owners worry what the colder weather will bring.“I feel like we have opened six restaurants just in the past seven months,” Flip Biddelman, 33, the general manager and co-owner, said after unfurling canvas awnings outside and stretching them over the sidewalk. “It’s just been quite taxing, emotionally and physically.”“How long can this go on?” he added.The pandemic has spared almost no business in New York. Some have thrived, like liquor stores. But no industry has been clobbered like restaurants and bars, a multibillion-dollar lifeblood that gives the city vibrancy and diversity, employs hundreds of thousands of people, including many immigrants, and attracts millions of tourists every year.From Michelin-starred fine dining to hole-in-the-wall restaurants, the industry brings in about $46 billion annually in sales and pays out about $10 billion in wages to employees, according to the state.Today, it is a major feat for a restaurant simply to stay open. There is no definitive count of how many restaurants have gone out of business, but the number is thought to be in the thousands.At the height of the pandemic last spring, more than 200,000 restaurant workers were out of work, according to the state comptroller. Some have been rehired, but few are working the same number of hours. Restaurants are open for indoor dining, but at a 25 percent capacity limit.By some estimates, the continuing devastation could eventually topple up to half of the city’s 24,000 restaurants. The economics of operating a restaurant in New York were never favorable, but the pandemic exposed just how precarious the business was. Restaurants, even those far from Manhattan’s upscale precincts, can pay more than $100,000 a year in rent and tens of thousands on other bills, including insurance policies that have provided no assistance during the pandemic.Many restaurants have blamed their landlords for not reducing their rent. But landlords say they are suffering, too, unable to pay their own bills because tenants cannot pay full rent.Since the pandemic, Gertie’s landlord has cut its base rent by 50 percent, down to $5,000 a month, and offered to extend the discount, which included a separate increase in rent payments based on Gertie’s percentage of sales, for another 16 months. Nate Adler, who started Gertie with Mr. Biddelman, accepted the offer despite concerns that business will not substantially improve for months.“These restaurants were built to house people, to comfort people, to feed people in a really beautiful environment that had tons of thought, time and money put into it,” Mr. Adler, 31, said. “Every restaurant has become a shell of a restaurant, like nothing is noticeable inside. Nothing is being used the way that it’s supposed to be used or the way that it was initially intended, and that’s just a hard pill to swallow.”Gertie is limping along without most of its employees. About 9 of its 25 workers have returned, some of whom are also collecting unemployment benefits because they work so few hours. Several former employees declined to return, citing health concerns, while others moved to another state and started a new job.Gertie opened in February 2019 on the corner of Marcy Avenue and Grand Street, a quiet intersection, offering updated Jewish-American deli food. Mr. Adler modeled Gertie, which was named for his maternal grandmother, after popular Los Angeles restaurants that offer counter service and a mix of bakery, deli and all-day hangout.Mr. Adler and Mr. Biddelman have extensive backgrounds in some of the city’s most respected restaurant groups. Mr. Adler worked for Union Square Hospitality Group, the food service empire owned by Danny Meyer, where Mr. Biddelman had also worked. They also worked together at another restaurant started by Mr. Adler, Huertas, in Manhattan.Gertie, however, did not take off in the way that the owners had hoped. Breakfast, lunch and weekend brunch did well, selling dishes like smoked whitefish salad, Reuben sandwiches with sauerkraut and smoked salmon with cream cheese on bialys.But dinner service, which was supposed to be the star meal with entrees like lamb with horseradish sauce, whole fish with tartar sauce and whole rotisserie duck, never attracted a robust crowd.The owners fiddled with the concept. They turned the basement into an event space. They booked groups with D.J.s and brought in visiting chefs for pop-up events. Then in February, they hired a new executive chef, Mike Cain, 35, who had worked at a Mediterranean restaurant on the Brooklyn waterfront.But the virus upended their planning. On the first weekend in March, more than 300 people ate at Gertie for brunch both days. The next weekend, only a few dozen people showed up each day.“I could see people around me sweating when people weren’t coming in,” said Eleanor Bellamy, 27, a former server.On March 15, a Sunday, the city ordered all bars and restaurants to close except for delivery and pickup. Gertie had no delivery or takeout operation. After her shift that night, Ms. Bellamy opened an email from the restaurant announcing that most of the staff had been let go.Like many people, Ms. Bellamy initially believed the disruption would be temporary and decided to go to Durham, N.C., her hometown. She packed light — some pants and shirts in a small bag.In August, Ms. Bellamy returned to the city — to gather all her belongings for a permanent move to North Carolina, where she got a job at a fabric and wallpaper company.“I stayed here longer and longer and it almost felt like I had started a brand-new life,” Ms. Bellamy said. “It was the right choice for me.”Jovanni Luna’s phone lit up with the same email Ms. Bellamy got. Just six days before, Mr. Luna, a bartender at Gertie, had been laid off from a part-time server position at another restaurant.“In the hospitality industry, it’s not always the best job, but it’s something that always felt very secure in New York,” said Mr. Luna, 31, who has been rehired at Gertie, but is collecting unemployment benefits because he’s working so few shifts.That night, Mr. Cain found comfort at the Sparrow Tavern, a favorite bar near his home in Astoria, Queens, with fellow chefs facing the same dire future.“It was kind of nice to be able to see each other and crack jokes a little bit,” Mr. Cain said.The following week, Mr. Cain, Mr. Adler and Mr. Biddelman mapped out a new plan. Gertie started offering takeout and delivery, and the two partners looked for nonprofit opportunities to use the restaurant to help frontline workers.Delivery and takeout proved a dead end. There were just a handful of orders, and it was hard to know how much food to keep in stock without spoiling.“We needed to double-down on the nonprofit stuff, or we needed to say, ‘Screw it, we’re out,’” said Mr. Adler, using a four-letter expletive.Mr. Adler and his partner, Mr. Biddelman, connected with the LEE Initiative, a foundation in Louisville, Ky., that became a restaurant-relief effort in the early days of the pandemic. With the foundation’s help, Gertie’s kitchen came to life, hiring back four workers, as the staff handed out hundreds of boxed meals a day.The meal program ended after only a few weeks. The staff was exhausted and worried that they were at risk of catching the virus. The restaurant shut down for at least two weeks.“Our lives were essentially: Wake up, worry about getting Covid and go to work and feed all these people who are also worried about getting Covid, come home, eat dinner and repeat,” Mr. Adler said.Then in May the restaurant partnered with City Harvest, a nonprofit that distributes food to the hungry, and the group Rethink Food in another meals program. Rethink Food provides funding to Gertie for food, $5 per meal, and City Harvest picks up the meals four days a week.In July, the restaurant expanded outside for outdoor dining and spent thousands of dollars constructing a deck for tables and chairs. But sales never really took off — about $2,300 per day at its height, though a couple of weekend days have brought in up to $5,000.Though restaurants were allowed to bring diners back indoors in late September at 25 percent capacity, Gertie has not reopened indoors because of concerns that both diners and staff could get sick.For now, Gertie is trying to get by with its various initiatives.One recent morning, two cooks crammed into a tiny kitchen in the restaurant’s basement preparing meals for the food program. Mounds of roasted new potatoes were piled high in a plastic bin, while dozens of roasted pork loins were stacked nearby, waiting to be sliced for individual meals.That afternoon, the staff began preparing for another outdoor event, the weekly political get-together on Thursday nights as a way to drum up business and promote Democratic candidates.The crew tasted the dishes on the night’s menu: lemongrass chicken over scallion rice and a chicken banh-mi prepared by Di An Di, a Vietnamese restaurant. Gertie brings in guest chefs on Thursdays to help them and to build excitement for the night’s event.“It’s eye-opening when you’ve spent this much time building a space and you want to see it through and you always want to leave a place better than you found it,” Mr. Biddelman said. “I don’t know if it’s possible in this situation.”

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