By Maggie Berkvist
Back in early December, a number of us signed a petition to Senators Schumer and Maloney at saverestaurants.com/take-action/
However, it was pretty clear, even before the stimulus package was passed, that it was not going to begin to cover the financial needs of our area’s bars and restaurants. Which is why—since they are such a vital part of our neighborhood—we felt we needed to try to save them by coming up with some serious specific alternative support systems closer to home. And why Caroline Benveniste and I wrote to local restaurants asking them for their input on possible practical solutions by telling us:
How you’ve been managing to keep your restaurant open so far
The financial burden involved
How much longer you imagine you can keep going
What solutions you would suggest to help this neighborhood’s restaurants and bars stay afloat.There was one problem—the January issue was closing! And the only restaurateur who wrote to us in time was Laurence Edelman, Chef and Co-owner of Left Bank, on Greenwich Street, whose response we are happy to be able to include herewith:
Since 2011, our unspoken motto at Left Bank has been: “We never close.” That is, we never close because we’ve been compelled to close by some outside influence be it weather, financial burden, or God forbid—and something I could never have dreamed would be possible—political pressure. This energy drove us to build a business culture that could withstand extreme hardship, and in a sense, I feel like we’ve been training for 2020 and the pandemic, for the last ten years.
Everything we do is guided by the principle that we want to be here for a long time. What little money there is to be made in the restaurant business gets reinvested to bolster our chances for long term success. To that end, a few years ago we launched a new product line called Poulet Sans Tete, which is a rotisserie chicken concept designed primarily for delivery and take out. Having Poulet Sans Tete well established by March 2020, when the shut-downs were implemented city wide, enabled us to keep our restaurant open, let us keep a portion of our staff employed, and gave us a small revenue stream, enough to buy food, cover payroll and taxes, and pay a percentage of our monthly rent obligation. At a very scary time in the city, when public health had become something that we could no longer take for granted, when nearly every small business, and big business, and every restaurant in the city had closed, we were quietly doing the work that we set out to do; keeping our customers and neighbors and friends fed, and keeping our working family as secure as were were able.
None of this has been easy. I feel like we’ve been reinventing the wheel every week for the last nine months and we still don’t have a working wheel. The feeling of insecurity as the pandemic pushes on, has been waxing and waning in my mind. I have moments of pure confidence, when I can see nothing but opportunity on the horizon, but as we go, that horizon gets pushed further into the future. New hardships appear, new regulation, new shut downs; cold weather both literally and figuratively.
I would like to say that I do support our politician’s decisions to shut down indoor dining for the short term. But in accordance with our cooperation, and the willingness of our industry to starve for the good of the city, I feel we are entitled to some longer term security granted by the same government that is asking us to take the short term loss.
A vigorous and diverse bar and restaurant industry is critical to the quality of life in our city. Collectively we employ nearly a million people. Our industry is responsible for about 9% of employment state wide. In 2018 our industry generated $51.6 billion dollars in sales. These numbers represent a significant financial contribution to New York. Mass scale closures, if the industry isn’t watched out for, are imminent. And solutions at the federal and state level have been insufficient. In a sense, the PPP loans we received turned us into an unemployment office, and it was an eight week solution for a problem that has continued on for nearly a year now.
I don’t have the answer, but maybe I can help to clarify a major part of the problem. The nature of restaurants in new York City is that the store, and the building owner, are in a symbiotic relationship. Rent accounts for 10% or more of our expenses. When our sales are disrupted by city mandate, our landlords are equally impacted. They also have financial obligations to meet. I feel like a workable solution has to involve the landlord-tenant relationship, and will provide relief for both parties simultaneously.
Besides that, it’s critical for the city to allow restaurants to use our outdoor seating for years to come with no new financial burden. We’ve invested our last dollars on constructing outdoor seating that keeps in mind safety, and the beauty of our neighborhood. We did that because we were led to believe that our energy and our investment would be honored by the city.
We will keep going. With little relief in sight, we will keep going. With no end to the pandemic, we will keep going. We’re here for the neighborhood. We’re here for our staff. We’re here for ourselves and the feeling of accomplishment that comes from working in the face of adversity. The question, “how long do you think you can continue,” can only be answered when it’s all done. That was how long. And it will be on our terms.”
WESTVIEW NEWS INVITES READERS AND OTHER RESTAURANTEURS TO SEND US THEIR “SAVE OUR NEIGHBORHOOD” SUGGESTIONS. WE WILL PRINT CONTRIBUTIONS IN THE FEBRUARY ISSUE.