Since the early days of 2020, COVID-19 has been a constant presence in our lives. Everyone has been touched by this calamity, and for those of us in the restaurant industry, it has been a perfect storm that has challenged us to our core. When your business is buffeted on all sides, taking on water, how do you survive and move forward? Everyone’s story has its own twists and turns, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but how our business has persevered may provide some hope and inspiration.
In March 2020, we were serving hundreds of guests each week at Tribeca Grill and Bâtard. March is not a particularly busy time for restaurants in the northeast, as winter lingers with cold and blustery weather. But we were open and looking forward to spring when business traditionally improves. And then the Coronavirus changed everything. Suddenly, we had to close on a dime. We rushed to empty our cupboards and donate food to organizations dedicated to feeding people. At first, we thought that we would be shut down for a few days or perhaps a few weeks. For businesses that operate on a delicate mechanism of narrow profit margins, the idea that we could survive if we stayed closed for longer than that was unthinkable.
At Tribeca Grill, we were about to celebrate our 30th anniversary. Instead of being able to provide comfort to our guests, we were closed and unemployed. The news was relentlessly negative. There were mixed messages about when the pandemic might end, but hospitals were overwhelmed, and people were dying alone and away from their loved ones. Despite taking personal precautions, I caught the virus and had a fever of 102 degrees for 10 days. It was an awful time.
Months passed, and in August 2020 we reopened for outdoor dining at diminished capacity, with a myriad of rules and regulations implemented for safety. If not for the assistance of the federal government through the Paycheck Protection Program, as well as state and local help, it never would have happened. Unfortunately, it was not sustainable, and we closed again in October 2020. In January 2021, NYC & Company, the marketing organization for the city, implemented a NYC Restaurant Week that focused on takeout and delivery. That helped keep many restaurants afloat. In April 2021, we were finally able to reopen, although in a reduced capacity. Where we previously served six or seven days a week, we now were open solely for dinner, five days per week at Tribeca Grill and Bâtard. At our sister restaurants, Nobu 57 and Nobu Downtown, their infrastructure allowed them to operate at schedules closer to what they had previously.
How have we weathered the storm, and what gives us hope for the future as we begin to return to “normal”? A restaurant is a family and a team, and we worked to maintain contact with our colleagues. As the months passed, it was unfortunate that many of the people that we had worked shoulder to shoulder with would have to move on to other pursuits. Many had relocated from the area, and others had engaged with other lines of work. When we reopened, we had a core of returning employees, but there were many new chefs, managers, and servers, and it was a smaller crew. In some ways it was like starting new restaurants. But every restaurant has its own culture and in our group we are driven to high standards of excellence. Virtually every industry is complaining today about finding good people from what is perceived to be a diminished labor pool. Our belief is that with proper training, our staffs can raise the level of the guest experience. But the most important thing is to find and hire people with character, personal integrity, and the “hospitality gene.” That is not easy to do, but it is the approach that has allowed us to succeed for a great many years, and it is what we will continue to do as we move forward.
Certainly, things are different now. Menus will still be enticing and engaging, but they may also be simpler and more accessible, while offering fewer items. It will take a while for many restaurants to hit their stride, and for their guests to feel fully comfortable dining out again. But restaurants provide an essential service of bringing our communities together. Human beings are social animals, and restaurants are where we enjoy a vacation away from the pressures of the world, where we enjoy inspired food and drink with our family, friends, and colleagues.
It is heartening to see Tribeca Grill, Bâtard, and the Nobu restaurants welcoming guests again. We hope that you’ll join us soon with a smile and a hearty appetite. I was reminded about why we work so hard to serve our guests when I read these wonderful recent comments on Open Table about Tribeca Grill: “Great food and service, missed going there during Covid.” And, “Superb food, amazing service, wonderful atmosphere.” Amen.