Last week, before news broke that Shake Shack had somehow qualified for a small business grant for its 6,000-employee, international chain of restaurants, I spoke to the owner of three NYC restaurants that hadn’t received any relief.
How are you feeling? I asked Sohui Kim, chef and co-owner of The Good Fork in Red Hook, Insa in Gowanus, and Gage & Tollner in Downtown Brooklyn, one of the most anticipated restaurant openings in the city. (It still is; the pandemic arrived just before it was set to welcome diners.)
“I am feeling fine physically,” she said. So was her husband Ben Schneider, who had recovered fully from what that she believes was Covid-19 though he wasn’t able to be tested. She presumes that she and her two children could have been asymptomatic carriers as well. “Until this government can get its act together to test people, who’s to know?” she laughed.
As for her mental state, I asked what was keeping her sane.
“I’m focused on saving the restaurants,” she said. “And like the rest of the industry, my husband and I are trying to chase down what it is [that] this CARES Act could actually do for us.”
Altogether nearly 100 employees from her three restaurants have been let go, part of the eight million-plus restaurant workers who have lost their jobs because of the crisis, per a survey by the National Restaurant Association. The group argues that the industry deserves its own government relief program, given that it has suffered more job and sales losses than any other industry in the country.
Kim and her husband applied for Economic Injury Disaster Loans, which promised $10,000 upfront in the form of a forgivable loan from the Small Business Administration, but it has already run dry. They also applied for the Paycheck Protection Program [PPP], the $350 billion relief fund for small businesses that also evaporated last week. These loans come from the banks you do business with, and while big banks like Chase, which Kim uses, were notoriously slow to approve them, some of the nation’s smallest banks worked overtime on behalf of their clients’ applications. Meanwhile, chains like Ruth’s Chris exploited a loophole in the program designed for those with 500 employees or less; they were able to access it because they had 500 or fewer at each location).
“The various things that [Congress and the president] were so excited about when they penned this three weeks ago, we’re just not seeing the result of it,” Kim said. “And so there’s a lot of small business owners in a panic, and we have to include ourselves in that.”
Restaurant size matters
In forecasting the future of dining out, Kim is fearful not just of the fact that the city might impose 50% capacity limits at restaurants, to keep everyone spread out. She is just as concerned that people will be afraid to go out at all, further compounding the problem of having fewer diners to cover the tight margins of the restaurant business.
“If you cut capacity, the only thing left standing will be large restaurant chains,” she predicted.
It’s the small restaurants that will have the hardest time staying open once we wake up from this health-imposed hibernation. Her first restaurant, The Good Fork, falls in this category. In its 14 years, the Red Hook institution has already survived one major blow. Hurricane Sandy ravaged the restaurant in 2012, and it was rebuilt from scratch in part with the help of a crowdfunding campaign that raised $50,000. But the devastation of Sandy was limited to flood zones. The coronavirus has infected the entire hospitality industry in New York and now practically every restaurant and hospitality group in NYC has its own Gofundme, just to support its furloughed staff.
“My prognosis for the Good Fork is the most grim,” said Kim. Its charming location is also its handicap. “It’s a 36-seat restaurant and Red Hook has a Coney Island effect in winter. It’s really a seasonal restaurant, but I’ve always been in denial about that.” Cutting capacity in an already intimate dining room could be catastrophic.
For Insa, her upscale Korean BBQ restaurant with private karaoke booths, she has higher hopes.
“Insa is lucky in that we have more square footage than most independent restaurants,” she said. Its size means that it can accommodate more diners and spread them out far apart from each other. If needed, it could withstand reduced capacity for a certain period.
Next comes Gage and Tollner, the 125-year-old landmarked restaurant that she and her husband own, together with St. John Frizell of Fort Defiance, a neighboring Red Hook cafe that’s currently operating as a CSA-style grocery. After a year and a half long, $2 million restoration and renovation, they were set to open in mid-March, the exact moment the city was shutting down. “We were able to see lights on in that space,” said Kim. “We did about 10 days of previews, celebrating our investors and community and four nights of sit-down dinners during the soft opening,” during which time they were “able to see the majesty of the place.”
At the time Kim thought that the health crisis might cause a month-long delay. Now she is waiting perhaps five to six months to see it open to the public in all its glory.
“Gage and Tollner falls into the category of Insa—the tables can be set far apart, there are two floors, so there is a possibility of operating even at 50% capacity,” she said. As of last week, Kim was considering opening Gage as a commissary for provisions and prepared meals.
For now, she is finding joy in hearing from people who are cooking from her two cookbooks, The Good Fork Cookbook, and Korean Home Cooking. Knowing that they are enjoying some of her dishes at home “lifts me up from my despair,” she said.
It also reminds her of a joke her friend made about what the coronavirus was doing to everyone in quarantine. “After the pandemic, 50% of us will be fabulous cooks, and the rest of us will be fall-down drunks,” she laughed. Her hope, of course, is for the former. “I got into this business as a lover of food and I love that they are doing this at home.”
Waiting for the next round
After news broke that the PPP program ran dry, and chains like Ruth’s Chris walked away with $20 million while Shake Shack decided to give back its money to other more deserving mom and pops, I followed up with Kim to get her reaction. There was some bittersweet news: She had received word that just one restaurant, Insa, was approved for a PPP loan.
“I think the spirit of the CARES Act is great,” Kim said by email on Monday, “but the actual roll-out of the loans has many people worried and exasperated. I consider myself lucky in that out of the three restaurants we applied for, one has received the loan already. So, statistically speaking, the odds aren’t good. Most of us are hopeful for the next round, but there’s just so many applications that there’s legitimate worry that the money will just run out again.”
In fact, even though Congress is poised to add $300 billion to replenish the program, banks predict it will take just two days to exhaust it.
“And then what? The devastation to the restaurant industry, especially the smaller independent restaurants across the country, is unfathomable looking to the immediate future… until there’s a cure, vaccine, or even large-scale testing, hope and optimism seem elusive.”
There are a few ways that the public can support Kim’s restaurants in the meantime: Gage and Tollner offers gift cards, Insa is doing takeout and there is a shared Gofundme for staff at Insa and The Good Fork, where Kim will soon resume family takeout meals. But she is ambivalent about asking for donations. “Everybody is suffering and I don’t feel right asking; people are dying and there’s other work to be done,” she said. When pressed, though, she suggests that people should simply support their local small businesses by whatever means they can.
• Purchase Gift Cards to Gage and Tollner here.
• Donate to the Insa and Good Fork staff Gofundme here.
• Order takeout from Insa here.
• Show your support of the NYS bill currently in the State Assembly to suspend rent payments for qualified residential and commercial tenants.
• Donate to the Restaurant Workers Community Foundation Emergency Relief Fund.