A Fort Greene Café Takes On Phase 2COVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | Baba Cool is taking over two parking spaces to serve dine-in (er, dine-“out”) customers. Published: June 30, 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!
At this time any other year, I feel a joyful anticipation for all the capital-s Summer things ahead: lunch picnics that linger into dinner, patio happy hours, spending more time with the people I love thanks to longer days and warmer nights. It’s hard to tell what this summer will look like, especially since so much is still up in the air. Will the new surge of COVID-19 cases abate? Will Congress settle on a police reform bill? Will the economy continue to sputter? I’m managing by letting the anxiety unfurl inside me, sitting with it (OK, actually fetal positioning with it), and then, when I’m ready, doing something with it. The “doing” part can be as private as journaling or as public as protesting. It can be hugging my partner or emailing my government officials. It depends on the day, my mood — and maybe even the movement of Mercury.
One thing that’s making me smile is the slow reopening of restaurants in New York. Sure, the vibes are cut by plexiglass partitions and tape measuring 6-feet distances, but I’ll take it at this point. This week, I spoke with Gabriella Mann of Baba Cool, an all day café in Fort Greene that’s gearing up for our latest phase. Below, our conversation on what it took to stay open in the height of the pandemic, lugging million-pound planters out of the street, and why she needs to buy a car.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Is your whole staff working?
I went from a staff of 12 to two, because the team no longer felt comfortable coming to work. It was all their choice. I think it was a mix of things: customers were on edge, a little wipe of the nose would turn into [people saying], “I think your employee has COVID.” And most other restaurants were pre-emptively shutting down, so my staff were somewhat questioning, “Why isn’t Baba Cool doing the same?” I'm super grateful for the two guys who have stuck through the whole time, because we wouldn't have been able to stay open otherwise. They have mentioned how happy they are that I decided to stay open as well.
Was it difficult to fill the vacant positions?
No, there were actually a lot of people [who applied]. My staff is really good right now in a different way from before.
From the get-go, you've spotlighted local vendors like Grandaisy Bakery and Café Integral. Has your supply chain been impacted by the quarantine?
Things that used to be immediately available now have a wait time. One Saturday morning, our purveyor was out of eggs, which is almost impossible to function without when our most popular item is a breakfast sandwich. When you're used to getting things on demand, having to put in advance notice for things takes a lot of patience.
But things are slowly getting back to normal. I’m working on getting a car because it would allow me to be more mobile and not reliant on public transportation, big companies, and people. You have to be able to do stuff yourself, which is something that’s been the case running a business solo since the beginning.
In the early days of quarantine, you added a daily “babka cool” pastry with new flavors every week… What was the inspiration for that?
My grandparents are Ashkenazi Jews, so I grew up with babka. In the beginning of quarantine, I was doing them all myself, waking up really early, pumping them out. It was keeping me sane, giving me a sense of purpose. But then people caught on and it gave them something new to look forward to. In the early days, what people wanted to eat was a warm, comforting slice of babka… or the whole thing. It's fun. Labor-intensive, but fun.
How did you get involved feeding hospital workers with Brooklyn For Life [a partnership among local restaurants organized by the actor Jeffrey Wright]?
I ran into the owner of Brooklyn Moon, Michael, when I was walking up Fulton. He asked me how I was doing and I was like, “I'm as good as I can be. We're not closing.” Two days later, he reached out and asked, “Do you want to start feeding hospitals?” He had started doing Brooklyn for Life with Jeffrey Wright, another local restaurant called Graziella’s, and someone from Brooklyn Hospital. They couldn't keep up.
The first [meal] was crazy. I was scrambling to find brioche buns all over Brooklyn, because our bakery was no longer producing brioche on a daily basis due to labor cuts. We barely had enough for the café, let alone the 100 people they had requested us to feed. Before I knew it, we were putting out 200 breakfast orders every day and it just became part of our grind. We just committed to doing some meals for World Central Kitchen, which is a bigger organization that ended up absorbing Brooklyn for Life. World Central Kitchen has a lot more of a regular fundraising process, whereas Brooklyn for Life was more grassroots.
Have you applied for any stimulus packages?
We got the PPP in the first round. I also got a James Beard Foundation grant, which I was so surprised by. Someone sent me all these grants for female entrepreneurs and that was one that seemed relevant. I don't even know what I wrote on that Google Form [application] because I was exhausted from 18-hour days in the first month of COVID. From that plus the hospital sales, we ended up stabilizing. I never regretted staying open as I was happy to provide a sense of normalcy for the community, my staff, and myself.
How are you approaching Phase 2 of reopening?
We are taking up two parking spots that are directly in front of the café. One of the parking spots had a bike rack as well as two massive planters that weigh like a million pounds, and the city doesn't have the resources to move their own property right now. The people in charge were like, “You can move this, but you're going to have to do it yourself.” So I found someone to unbolt the bike rack on Saturday night. Then Me and Doc, who's a local guy-slash-friend who does work for the café, were like, “How the hell are we going to move these pots?” Then this guy with a pickup truck passed by, and he was able to pull them for $25 each. It's so funny, the whole DIY process based on the city trying to make it happen for small businesses quickly. Slowly but surely we'll have six tables out there, which is awesome [Editorial note: Outdoor dining at Baba Cool is now fully set up]. It'll be cool if we can keep those permanent seats every season.
So you didn't have to get permits for those parking spots?
The city is wild right now. I just had to submit something on or before Monday [June 22] that said the dimensions we’re taking up and submit my liquor license and insurance. And instantly [the city responded] like, "Your submission has been temporarily approved." I don't think there was much of an approval process.
How do you feel about the new setup?
I was feeling a little overwhelmed last week, but I'm excited to get back to what I got into this business for, and that's bringing people together and putting smiles on people's faces. If anything, [the lockdown] made us stronger. A lot of places are struggling to reopen and follow procedures, but because we've been open the whole time, it's not as scary. Our muscle memory hasn't gone to shit. It’s made us confident that we can weather the storm.
How to support Baba Cool:
Until next time,