I used to be an environmental engineer. I did that for 10 years. And then I switched to opening a venue. So I’m always trying to troubleshoot. Any problem that comes my way, it’s, ‘What is the critical path from here to there, and how do I get to that point?’ That’s how my brain operates. That’s the only way I was able to get through the application process for funding and grants and then trying to figure out, ‘Okay, how do we keep our brands alive?’
My business partner [Scott Koshnoodi], who is a chef, used to be an engineer. That’s actually how we met many decades ago. We were both working for the same engineering firm.
So we got some federal money from the Paycheck Protection Program, which wasn’t a lot. Many restaurant workers are not on the books for various reasons. Some of my folks who work at littlefield and Parklife are 1099 workers, so they couldn’t get counted towards the PPP. Plus that was only good for two and half months of payroll, which is nothing. Still, I was able to pay my staff during the summer, and then we were starting to make some money. So that worked out and they extended the deadline to use it up till the end of the year, which helps. But it’s not enough. It doesn’t cover rent. It doesn’t cover utilities and insurance.
During the spring and summer, I asked my insurance rep to help us file a claim for force majeure. We thought, okay, well, this is a pandemic. So many small businesses tried to claim business loss to get some money. But the insurance company said, ‘No.’ Because it’s not physical damage to your property; they don’t include a virus clause in your insurance.
One of the things that I and other business owners really wanted Cuomo to do was to step up and really help small businesses. I still have to pay sales tax every month and I know the state is hurting for money, but so are we. Is there a way we can convert the sales tax to grants that we give to ourselves? So instead of paying a couple of thousand dollars to the state every month—it doesn’t seem like a lot, but for us it’s a big deal—I can use that for other things that we need. Preparing for the winter, that was another challenge. We’ve already pivoted to buy all of this stuff to keep things safe for the summer, and now winter is going to be a whole new expense.
There’s no break on utilities. They put a moratorium where, if you don’t pay your ConEd bill, they’re not going to cut your power, but it’s still accruing. I still have to use electricity and pay for that, and same with gas. I worked out a payment plan but then what? I’m still paying a little each month, plus whatever I owe that month.
We don’t have mortgage and rent relief. All these landlords are asking their commercial tenants for rent, but we just don’t have that. I’m only operating one-eighth of my business during this pandemic. Littlefield normally supports Parklife in the cold months, while Parklife supports littlefield in the warm months. Now I don’t have that business model.
It’s challenging. It literally doesn’t matter how many applications I fill out. I feel like there is little help from the top down, real help. It’s great that we have some payroll relief but what about all the other fixed costs that don’t go away? So yeah, I’m in debt and I’m months behind in rent like everyone else. My landlord, at least, is a good guy. He lets us pay a little bit every couple of weeks so we’re not too far behind. But I got to a point where I can’t be stressed about money anymore. I know I’m in debt. This is what it is. I’m just trying to keep my brands alive. That’s really what we’ve been focusing on.
And now that we’re in winter, we’ve got to winterize Parklife. Cuomo has this wonderful thing that he tells the public, ‘Hey, we’re going to have outdoor dining forever.’ Oh, gosh, ok, so what does that mean? That means we need to have areas where we can shelter people because it’s going to be 20 degrees, but we have to have 50% airflow, right, so it is less COVID-y. You’re now allowed to have propane tanks on premise, but you need a permit and you have all these rules around it because you want to be safe.
All of these restrictions can be difficult to navigate and nobody has any concrete answers of what is allowed. And that’s just the small aspect of winterization. On the venue side, we’re still trying to figure out, ‘How do we work with this new law of incidental entertainment that is allowed?’
Incidental is our new word for the year. Cuomo banned outdoor ticketed events. We were in a lawsuit with other venues in New York state against the state liquor authority. They basically said, “Well, you can now advertise [events]”, because they previously banned it. “We won’t ban advertising, but you have to have it be incidental.” Basically that means that people are coming to your establishment not for the entertainment, but for the food and drinks. The entertainment should be bottom billing essentially. You host a dinner and show, but emphasize the dinner aspect, and you would pay for a reservation. You wouldn’t necessarily know who’s performing, but you have a pretty good idea of who is going to be there.
And that’s how some venues package that as incidental. And so we thought, well, we could do live music, but we really want to do comedy because it’s a lot easier logistically. We built a smaller stage at Parklife, and littlefield is already established as a comedy venue, but the SLA and Cuomo explicitly say the only incidental entertainment allowed currently is live and recorded music.
They completely banned comedy, exotic dancing, karaoke. But why those? I don’t understand. I guess exotic dancing because you may touch the dancers, but I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to touch them. And with comedy—we can just require the comedians to wear masks. Some of them did wear masks during their set before the ban. And everyone was seated. I mean, if you’re singing, you’re technically emitting spit so maybe karaoke isn’t as safe, but how is that different from live music?
It’s just so arbitrary. We’re allowed to have trivia, so that was good. We can at least hold our weekly trivia, which is not very different from comedy. There’s a local comedy club that does indoor comedy shows, and at one point called these comedy trivia. So everybody is doing what they can, keeping their brands alive and bearing some form of risk. But for me, I can’t do that. I can’t risk getting shut down at this point, and now we’re coming to winter and now that we have no more indoor dining—what the hell?
When Cuomo finally allowed indoor dining at 25% capacity, we opened our enclosed trellis at a capacity of 12 people, which is nothing considering we can normally service 50 people indoors in winter.
It doesn’t cover the costs for the night. But you know what? It’s more about giving the patrons the option to feel somewhat normal and sit inside and have a dining experience.
We pivoted the indoor dining to make it safe. My business partner, Scott, built these giant, vinyl and wood panels that divide the tables. But now all of that, all of that work that we did, it’s kind of futile because we’re not gonna have indoor dining for a while. It was a nice option, and now that’s not there. So everyone is exposed to the elements.
We’re in the process now of building a second solarium. The first one, that was about $3000 for parts and labor. And that’s considered outdoor dining because the design of that solarium allows for more than 50% airflow. We have a larger one that we are starting to build, that’s gonna be double the cost. And that’s just to seat another 20 people. We’re lucky we have the space to build within our premise, but it’s an additional cost that we were not anticipating. We have to put in heaters, because it’s gonna be uncomfortable to eat food without gloves, right? And the heating lamps that we’re gonna use in there will be electric because we’re not allowed to have propane inside of the solarium. Fortunately, we got the grant from the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, where they’re giving us some of the electric heaters, but we don’t know when they’re coming. Hopefully at the end of this month.
Our outdoor tables have those little cute table heat lamps…Those are actually rentals. I wasn’t able to buy any heaters, because when they announced that propane heaters are allowed, all of those lamps were sold out. We couldn’t find them anywhere. I mean, I had my head security guard drive out to Ohio to see if he could pick some up. It was insane. So I rent those. They cost about $1600 a month to rent. And each of those heaters takes a one-pound tank that costs $8 to fill. But they only last two hours. I’m changing them out every two hours. It’s a crazy expense. But it’s necessary. And I feel for my patrons, they come in, they’re cold, they see those heaters, they want them and they’re putting their hands up against it. They complain, ‘Why doesn’t it get any warmer?’ I’m like, I’m sorry. These are just one pound tanks. If it’s 20 degrees, literally nothing I can do or give you will keep you warm. You are exposed to 100% of the elements. And now what we’ve done to offset that and make them feel somewhat more comfortable is, we have even more hot drinks available, we give out hand warmers, we give out blankets—whatever we can do to keep them warm and keep them coming back.
We just have to keep being creative. And you know, today we have this blizzard that dumped all this snow on us. Unfortunately, all of our other restaurant neighbors who have their outdoor dining on the sidewalk had to dismantle and take everything down.
I guess I want patrons to understand that restaurants like mine are doing the best we can, and it might be more effort on their part, but we put in so much more effort to make it as seamless to them as possible. It’s not the ideal situation, but I really want people to have compassion for restaurant workers and people who are in the service industry, because it’s very difficult.
Tonight, December 17 at 8pm, comedian Christi Chiello is hosting a benefit comedy show with Chris Gethard, Jo Firestone and more, whose proceeds support littlefield. Tickets for A Christi-mas Spectacular start at a recommended $8 per person and are on sale here.