August 18, 2022

How to start a restaurant during a pandemic

Clad in blue jeans and a monogrammed dress shirt, John Winterman exuded the calm of a seasoned maître d’ as he stood in a whirl of chaos.

Saws were buzzing and hammers thumping all around him as workers installed kitchen equipment, spackled walls and tackled myriad other tasks to convert a shabby bank office in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighbourhood into a convivial brasserie. Beneath the construction racket was the beat of salsa from a builder’s portable radio.

“Pre-Covid, we’d be able to sit right at the bar,” Winterman explained, as we stepped gingerly through sawdust and unfinished tile to imagine what the site would eventually become. He indicated the seats at the front of the house where, he hoped, patrons would linger over a newspaper and a coffee or a drink. Then came the “power table” and all the corners where he envisaged couples nestled in banquettes. “You can never have too many corners,” Winterman advised.

All that, of course, depends on when — if ever — he and his partners will be able to open their brasserie. They have named it Francie after the lead character in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a beloved 20th-century American novel about a determined young woman in the unforgiving terrain of prewar (and pre-hipster) Williamsburg.

Francie should be the realisation of a dream for Winterman and his partners, chef Chris Cipollone and investor Mark Norbom. In a world without coronavirus, they would have fired up their stoves in May and would by now be clicking into high gear after a summer of working out the kinks. Instead, the Francie team, like other restaurateurs, has found itself making endless tweaks — large and small — as they try to adapt to the uncertain and ever-changing circumstances. What has resulted is a zigzagging, uncertain course I was able to chart over months of periodic discussions with the team.

Francie is located in a historic building in trendy Williamsburg. At one point, the team planned to use its roof as an outdoor dining area © DeSean McClinton-Holland

They received at least some clarity this month when Andrew Cuomo, the New York governor, announced that the city’s restaurants could begin to offer indoor dining on September 30. But they will do so only at 25 per cent capacity, and with a raft of other restrictions that suggest dining out — one of New Yorkers’ favourite pastimes — will be anything but a carefree experience.

“Things happen that you don’t expect. You have to do your best to analyse those and be willing to change your plans — and not do it for emotional reasons. Do it for practical reasons,” said Norbom, whose previous experience of navigating General Electric Japan through the Fukushima nuclear disaster may come in handy. “In this case, practical reasons will be: what ensures the longer-term success of the restaurant and what is financially viable?”

The situation also calls for a dose of the wry humour that tends to prevail in restaurant kitchens. “We kind of joke: this may be a museum of how restaurants used to be,” Winterman quipped as he showed me Francie’s private dining room.

Nobody seems to know just how many New York City restaurants have succumbed to coronavirus. Estimates range from hundreds to more than a thousand, from neighbourhood joints to Thomas Keller’s fine dining TAK Room at Hudson Yards. Francie’s plight is a reminder that, in addition to all the known losses, the pandemic is depriving us of pleasures still struggling to be born. Some never will be.

Winterman, a youthful 50, is upbeat by nature. Still, he occasionally steels himself by glancing at historic images of the Hotel Bristol’s grand dining room in Vienna, which has survived world wars, the end of empire, Wallis Simpson and much else. If they can do it, he reckons, why not Francie?

He grew up in southern Indiana, which was the furthest thing from a foodie mecca. “There was a lot of canned food and frozen food and processed food,” he recalled. With the zeal of a convert, he can remember his first taste of wasabi and the revelation that pork did not have to be overcooked. He found the restaurant business suited his lifestyle, confessing: “I never wanted to be anywhere at 9am.”

After apprenticing at Charlie Trotter in Chicago and Gary Danko in San Francisco, he came to New York in 2005, where he spent nine years working front of house at Daniel, chef Daniel Boulud’s formidable Michelin-starred institution on the Upper East Side.

Along the way, he learnt the importance of a strong maître d’ to complement the chef. “It has to be this one-two punch,” Winterman explained. “It’s not just the food.” He also learnt: never piss off a customer, even when they deserve it.

He and chef Markus Glocker went on to open the popular Bâtard in 2014, under the wing of restaurateur Drew Nieporent. Francie was conceived with Cipollone, a New York chef who had gone off to California and was itching to come home. For both men, it was to be the first restaurant that was properly theirs.

They had already chosen a site in trendy Williamsburg when a realtor introduced them to Norbom, who had flirted with the chef’s life years ago before opting for business school. They sealed their partnership over a dinner of morel mushroom ravioli and pork loin that Cipollone prepared at Winterman’s Brooklyn home in May 2019. “He knew I liked morels,” Norbom recalled wistfully. “I used to pick them as a child.” They targeted a May 2020 opening.

Then Covid-19 arrived. By mid-March, the city was locking down as cases spiralled out of control. Construction on Francie ground to a halt.

“I’m not 100 per cent certain we would have been ready,” Winterman confessed, two days after the opening date had passed. They counted themselves lucky: unlike established restaurants, Francie did not have to dump thousands of dollars of perishable inventory or place workers on furlough.

They also benefited from the kindness of their vendors. The contractor building Cipollone’s kitchen agreed to spread out payments. (“Man, you guys are brave to be opening a restaurant right now,” he remarked.) Their landlord, Joshua Caspi, pushed back the start date of their lease.

“Everybody’s being cool about it,” Winterman said. “What else can they do?”

Like other bamboozled restaurateurs, the Francie team tried to glean whatever information they could find about air filters and the other mysteries of operating under coronavirus. They turned, among other sources, to webinars produced by the James Beard Foundation and an 18-page Covid-19 manual created by a restaurant in Hong Kong, which was further along in the pandemic.

The restaurant’s private dining room under construction in August © DeSean McClinton-Holland

Their best guess was that they would be able to open on July 7. This was based on a plan by Cuomo to lift restrictions gradually on various segments of New York’s economy as the Covid-19 caseload declined. As part of that plan, indoor dining would be restored at restaurants — but at 50 per cent capacity and with other safeguards to prevent the spread of the virus.

With the help of their architect, they imagined a scaled-down Francie to comply with those restrictions. The 12-seat bar would probably start at just four, Winterman guessed. To prevent loitering, the drinks rails would have a “no standing” sign.

It soon became clear that the changes would have to go beyond the cosmetic. Francie’s partners had originally estimated they would need to turn over each table 1.2 times a night, on average, to make the roughly $10,000 they needed to cover their costs. At 50 per cent capacity, they would have to turn them twice a night.

That would mean crisp service, with reservations that started — and finished — at set times. “The restaurants that are able to condense the dining time will have an advantage,” Winterman predicted. That, in turn, has implications for the menu: “If you’re going to give people limited time, you have to make sure the food flies out of the kitchen.” Francie said goodbye to caviar and the cheese cart — items that might add half an hour to dinner.

Then there was staff. Francie was intended to have an eventual crew of 50. But, with fewer tables, it would have to start at a fraction of that. Already, the partners had been forced to rescind offers they had extended to a sous chef and general manager. Other recruits were told to sit tight.

“Those are all positions that will come back once we get past this,” Winterman predicted in May. But at least one of the managers Francie had planned to hire has since left New York for good.

July came — and went. Still, no Francie. “We’re pushing it back a little bit again,” Winterman told me when I caught up with him. It would now be early August.

He was still his chipper self but I sensed disappointment. Thanks to the lockdown, case numbers were negligible in New York City and the phased reopening was progressing, as promised. The exception was restaurants. After scenes of reckless crowding at some bars, Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio decided that indoor dining was too risky and would remain off limits in New York City. They did not say when that might change.

The Francie team benefited from the kindness of their vendors. The contractor building Cipollone’s kitchen agreed to spread out payments © DeSean McClinton-Holland

“It’s like going in to get a CAT scan and they say, ‘We’re not sure when you’ll get the result,’” Winterman despaired.

With indoor dining off the menu, many restaurants were retooling to serve take‑out and taking advantage of loosened rules for outdoor dining. Just down the block from Francie, the famed Peter Luger Steak House had put out a row of pavement tables, separated by Plexiglas partitions with its crested logo. On a recent afternoon, a young couple was sharing a porterhouse steak and red wine while a baby lolled in a pushchair. A Luger waiter stood in a doorway, looking suitably glum. Luger, defiantly cash-only for more than a hundred years, is now card-only.

“We don’t have a giant sidewalk so we’re going to treat the rooftop as our sidewalk, which creates its own wrinkles,” Winterman explained. The roof had not figured in the early plans for the restaurant. Now it would be a focal point.

They imagined a scheme in which diners would arrive at the appointed hour, collect their food in take-out boxes at the front of the restaurant and then ride the lift up to the roof. Ideally, guests would use an app to pre‑order their meal. The whole idea of stopping at the bar for a drink before dinner had been abandoned. (So too had the drink rail, saving a few thousand dollars.)

“It’s just a puzzle to make it work,” Cipollone said as he toured Francie’s barren rooftop one afternoon with a florist. Across Broadway, a subway train on an elevated track rumbled past. From a 90-seat restaurant, Covid-19 had already reduced Francie to 40 seats. The virus was now turning it into a 36-seat rooftop and takeaway operation.

It was not ideal, the partners allowed. They would have to serve food on plastic dinnerware. There were no kitchen facilities on the roof and therefore the service would have to be limited. The lift was slender and a health concern. They would have to buy new furniture. But it was at least a way to begin generating revenue — something other restaurants had given up on.

“There are some horror stories,” Winterman said. “There are some [restaurants] I’m surprised are not reopening. And there are some I’m watching every day and hoping they can make it.”

Meanwhile, a summer heatwave was adding to the city’s woes and making outdoor dining less appealing. The rooftop plan would be scrapped. The partners couldn’t see a way to do it without haemorrhaging cash. “If we open this rooftop and we lose $10,000 a month, we’re not going to make it through,” Winterman explained.

Norbom offered a more basic reasoning. “You don’t want to launch what is your dream restaurant on disposable dishes and take-out,” he told me in August. The new strategy was: “How can we forestall all this until indoor dining is allowed? When that will be, I don’t know.”

Cuomo’s announcement about indoor eating reopening on September 30 surprised many (not least De Blasio). It came after hundreds of city restaurants joined a class-action lawsuit against him, claiming “irreparable” harm.

Danny Meyer, founder of the Union Square Hospitality Group, and one of the city’s best-known restaurateurs, hailed it as the beginning of “brighter days” and a lifeline for eateries struggling to cling on. But the Francie founders are under no illusions.

Restaurants tend to operate on carpaccio-thin margins in the best of times. Paying the rent based on 50 per cent occupancy will be impossible for many — even more so at 25 per cent.

There is also the risk of another wave of virus infections, which could force the city back into lockdown. “I don’t want to think about it,” Winterman said, when asked how he would respond. He was focusing on the tasks in front of him, sustained by his faith in his adopted home. “New York always bounces back. Every time,” he said. “And I have no doubt it will again.”

The city government has been so overtaxed by the pandemic that the health and safety inspections required for a new restaurant have been delayed. So Francie is now targeting a late October or early November opening with a scant 31 seats.

In the meantime, the partners are trying to conserve as much cash as they can. The wine list has been pared back to reduce inventory. The marble behind the bar will be quartz tile. Their landlord agreed to tack two more months of rent on to the end of their lease. And so on.

One area where they cannot cut costs is hygiene. Francie is arming itself with custom-made masks for the staff and ultraviolet, virus-zapping lights in its air conditioning system, as well as a fleet of air purifiers. The idea is not just to clean the premises, but to be seen purifying it and so reassure diners.

“In retrospect, if hindsight is a little more perfect, we might have chosen a different timing to launch this,” Norbom chuckled when asked if he had ever considered walking away. He had not, he assured me. You don’t abandon a dream. Besides, most of the costs were already sunk.

Then he added: “If we’re in the same place a year from now, I may be giving you a different answer.”

Joshua Chaffin is the FT’s New York correspondent

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