A Brooklyn Wine Bar Rises to the MomentCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | This Fort Greene wine bar is leading a community revolution. Published: March 31, 2020
Programming note: This article is part of a weekly column on small businesses in New York during COVID-19. To get #SmallBizSpotlight articles straight to your inbox, sign up here. You'll receive one email every Tuesday afternoon. Thanks for reading!
Before COVID-19 upended life as we know it, Rhodora was at the top of my Excel spreadsheet for restaurants and bars to visit (yes, I have a spreadsheet; sue me!). The first truly zero-waste restaurant in New York and possibly America, Rhodora offers a small menu of natural wines, sustainably farmed fish, and hyper-local snacks (including She Wolf Bakery bread—if you know, you know). Earlier this month, I had arranged to visit Rhodora and profile it for Quiddity. Then, the global pandemic happened. Though I obviously had to postpone my visit, I still got to interview Halley Chambers, deputy director of Oberon Group, the company behind Rhodora and other Brooklyn hotspots June and Rucola. Read on to learn why Rhodora’s mission is more relevant than ever right now.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How has your staff been affected by COVID-19?
As is true for every restaurant owner in New York, we had to close our doors after Monday's service [on March 16]. Because of the way the industry is structured, we had to lay off our entire staff across all of our restaurants. By laying everyone off, that allowed them to sign up for unemployment. The fact that that is a silver lining is devastating. This entire crisis points to the complete and abject failure of our government to provide for service workers and hourly wage employees in any meaningful way. There was no government directive, either at the federal or local level, and there was certainly no relief bill.
This entire crisis points to the complete and abject failure of our government to provide for service workers and hourly wage employees in any meaningful way.
What have you been doing to ameliorate the impact?
Restaurant owners are always talking about how if we had a bit more time or we were a bit more organized, getting a restaurant coalition together to lobby for small businesses would be an amazing endeavor. And now we have all the time in the world to organize. There's a strong coalition of other small business owners who are organizing for government action. We are aligning with restaurateurs, such as Camilla Marcus of West-bourne, to lobby our government to give small businesses a seat at the table in negotiating relief bills.
In addition to that, we set up a GoFundMe campaign. All of those donations will go directly to our team. The community support has been tremendous. Whether it's donations to the GoFundMe or people reaching out and offering to help in any way they can, it shows you how much community investment matters. It's not lost on us that we are just one very small bar in Brooklyn and without collaborating with similarly mission-driven individuals and organizations, our voice gets lost.
With dinner service on hold, what does business look like right now?
In the first few days of the crisis and the lockdown, we turned the floor, where people used to sit and have dinner and drinks, into a wine shop. So we brought all our wine stock up and laid it out as if you were walking into your corner store. We've been racking our brains to think about what else we could offer and how to stay engaged. We launched a weekly wine club, which you can join at a number of levels. So if you know nothing about natural wine, you can drink something fun and learn. And if you are obsessed with natural wine, you can drink some really weird, unique bottles.
The other thing which we're launching is online sustainability programming. When Rhodora was a full-service restaurant, we hosted monthly sustainability meetups. We'd invite luminaries in the space to come in and talk about how sustainability manifests in their business or personal lives. As much as we can, we're going to bring that online, hosting live video sessions with some of these same individuals.
Photography by Liz Clayman
How is the community responding to your new setup?
Everyone has been extremely supportive. New Yorkers love dining out, they love hospitality, they love restaurants. I don't think it's lost on anyone as we're cooped up in our houses, how much we miss the places we used to congregate. It's been powerful to see that feeling translated to community action.
Have you noticed any new buying or drinking trends?
We launched this wine club not really knowing what would happen, but so many people signed up. I don't know how to say this in a good way, but I do think small indulgences give some comfort when everything else is so uncertain. People are purchasing a bit more natural wine than they would in normal times and at a bit of a higher price point just because it feels like, well, we're trapped at home, here's a business we support, here is a topic we’re interested in learning about, what else are we going to do?
Also, people are still looking for ways to connect with each other. And so if you can order the same bottle of wine and get on a Zoom call and discuss your day—and what you're drinking—that's a powerful way for our community to continue to connect.
At a time like this, what is the role of a neighborhood wine bar?
We are still trying to decide that. What we've found in the past weeks is that people still need us. The pull between what's in the best interest for public health and what's in the best interest for serving our community is one that people in the hospitality industry are always between. I think that the launch of our online programming is going to be a powerful way to continue our engagement. And to remind people that there is a world outside of this current crisis that continues to need our attention and awareness.
Long-term, how do you see this current crisis impacting the low waste movement?
The organizing taking place [right now] is a microcosm of what we could be doing in our approach to climate change. On a larger scale, these tenets around sustainability—being conscious of our impact and how we interact not only with each other but with the earth—ties exactly into how to think critically about existing in this kind of crisis.
When we emerge from this, the landscape of restaurants and community spaces will never look the same. But I do see a future in which being forced to restart from the ground up will immediately lead to changed habits and could lead to more restaurants pushing sustainability at the forefront of their models. Building Rhodora showed my partner [Henry Rich, owner of Oberon Group] and me that a lot of the habits and old ways of doing business are just ingrained because that's the way they've been done for so long. Having to rethink that model and start again leaves so much more space for creativity and for implementing small changes that make a huge impact.
When we emerge from this, the landscape of restaurants and community spaces will never look the same.
Let’s end on a lighter note. What is your favorite natural wine right now?
I’m drinking this beautiful bottle called Naboso. I picked it because there is this Picasso-esque man on the label who looks a little grim, as do our times, but the wine drinks so beautifully. It's this crazy mix of white and red grapes, which is unusual. It drinks extremely dry, but really floral. And I think it's a good reminder that despite the facade of our grim times, there's something fun and delightful waiting after it.
How to help Rhodora:
Until next time,