‘Our Souls Are Going to Yearn For Something’

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As the coronavirus pandemic continues, Bloomberg Opinion will be running a series of features by our columnists that consider the long-term consequences of the crisis. This column is part of a package on how the pandemic is altering the business of eating and drinking. For more, see Bobby Ghosh on destination dining, Amanda Little’s interview with the CEO of Beyond Meat, Adam Minter on how sanitized street food will hurt the world’s poor and James Gibney’s  interview with Daniel Okrent and Wayne Curtis on the future of bars and cocktails. 

Jean Adamson is the chef and co-owner of Vinegar Hill House, a 60-seat capacity restaurant in Brooklyn, New York. On March 15, Adamson closed the restaurant and laid off 41 full-time and part-time employees. She has since received a loan through the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program and aims to re-open in the fall, though with only a portion of her former staff. Adamson spoke to Bloomberg’s Romesh Ratnesar about her plans to reinvent her restaurant to survive the pandemic. An edited transcript of their conversation: 

Romesh Ratnesar: New York City officially re-opened for businesses this week, but you’re keeping the restaurant closed. Why? 

Jean Adamson: Our plan had been to not open until September. Every single year, our two worst months are July and August. We received a PPP loan, but it won’t benefit me to use the PPP money during a time that is already slow for us. We’d have to hire back so many people that I don’t have enough work for, and put them in precarious situations I don’t feel comfortable with. I’d be able to pay them for eight weeks, but I would only be doing, hopefully, a 25% business. At the end of eight weeks I’d be back in the position of laying everybody off again.

But there have been some changes in the paycheck program that make the money easier to use. They extended the forgiveness period from eight weeks to 24 weeks and you only have to bring back 60% of your employees by a certain date. The restrictions aren’t as heavy. So all those things said, I’m actually going to start to ramp up in August.

RR: So you’ll re-open for business in August? 

JA: We’re going to use August to get things ready to open for customers in September. During that time I’ll be able to bring some people back and start paying them with the PPP money. I mean, we need to clean everything. We need to have the air-conditioning people come in and put a filter on our air conditioners. We’re going to have to reconfigure the restaurant.

We’ll open up in phases. I think in Phase One, we’ll just do takeout, where people can order food to go and also pick up cocktails and wine. And then in Phase Two we’ll open for prix fixe dinners, where we can prep for a single night knowing exactly how many people are coming in, how many guests we’re going to have, which parts of the restaurant we’ll use and how far apart they need to be seated. 

RR: Some higher-end restaurants have continued to provide takeout through the shutdown. Has anyone managed to make money that way?

JA: Everyone I talk to says that they’re doing takeout just to support the people who work for them. They want to make sure the people that work for them have a job. You have to understand that restaurant people, especially owners and chefs, are creative people. We can all do easy takeout food with our hands tied behind our backs. But it’s not inspiring, from a creative perspective. I don’t know anybody who’s doing it because it’s a good business model.

RR: Even with New York opening up again, people may not return to restaurants in the same numbers. And people who’ve left the city may not come back. Does that concern you?

JA: It’s a concern for a year. And I think that after a year, people will come back. I just got off the phone with the guy I buy vegetables from and he was like, “Yeah, it’s going to be a crappy year.” But it could also be a good reset. Maybe rents go down and that brings creative people back, you know what I mean? Creative people have been fleeing New York City for the last two decades because they can’t afford to live here. And you also have people who don’t make a lot of money who have to live way outside the city and commute two hours to get to their jobs. So maybe the city will become a little more affordable and people can live closer to where they work. I think there’s going to be some good and some bad. It’s still a business. I just signed another 10-year lease on the restaurant, so I’m not willing to give up.

RR: How do you think people’s tastes and appetites will change? How might that influence your menu and the food you serve?

JA: People know Vinegar Hill House for five dishes: a pork chop, a roast chicken, a chicken liver mousse, a Guinness chocolate cake and sourdough pancakes. We serve very simple food, done technically really well. Food, for me, is about memory. You know when food tastes bad. But when you eat something in a restaurant that tastes exceptionally good, that kind of sparks your memory and makes you want to go back. And that’s the goal.  

People are going to go out less, but when they do go out, it needs to feel really special. So we’re thinking that all the takeout would come out of our basement kitchen, so that if you’ve got a hankering for some of the comfort foods we have, you could stock up on, say, romesco sauce or chicken liver mousse or half a Guinness chocolate cake. And then the upstairs would be even nicer than what we’ve done in the past, more of an event menu, where we’d really focus on creating an engaging, memorable experience.

RR: How will you keep your staff and customers safe and socially distant? Are you going to require everyone to wear masks?

JA: Yes, masks are a must and are the respectful thing to do for yourself and for others. We will have fewer people working and they’ll work in staggered shifts. On a daily service, we’ll have half the number of people we had working before. We used to have a prep person working at night but maybe that person will now only work after the chefs leave. For the front of the house, we’ll have people assigned to one area, and they won’t go anywhere else or mingle with anyone. We’ll have hand sanitizer everywhere. If you come into the restaurant, you’ll have to wear a mask, your server will wear a mask, and they’ll just take care of you. 

It’s going to be a lot of sanitizing, bleaching and limiting the number people in the space and how much they interact. I’m not going to have a bar anymore — I’m going to turn it into a place where people can buy wine or, say, bottled cocktails to go. Right now we have 16 main tables in the dining room. Maybe we go down to six, but they’re all slightly bigger parties: a six-top, an eight-top, a four-top, you know what I mean? You still want people to feel good. And our restaurant can still look pretty good at half capacity.

RR: If you’re serving fewer people, you’ll have to raise your prices, right?

JA: Maybe. No one’s going to make the kind of money they used to make. For a while, people are still going to be reluctant to go out. But I think on the opposite side of that there could be a kind of comeback that’s kind of romantic. Things are going to change. Some places will survive; I think a lot won’t. But I think eventually our souls are going to kind of yearn for something that makes us feel comfortable — and once we feel safe, we’re going to try to tap into that.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Romesh Ratnesar writes editorials on education, economic opportunity and work for Bloomberg Opinion. He was deputy editor of Bloomberg Businessweek and an editor and foreign correspondent for Time. He has served in the State Department, and is author of “Tear Down This Wall.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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