A Legacy Dive Bar Turns to PizzaCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | After over two decades of cheap drinks and peanuts, Botanica is seriously upping its fare game. Published: August 25, 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!
There are very few bars left in Manhattan that one could call “divey,” and Botanica — an East Houston Street fixture — is one of them. Over the 25-plus years that it’s been kicking, the bar has made virtually no changes to its M.O.: good drinks at a cheap price, live music every night, and a friendly troupe of tight-knit bartenders. Owner Mark Connell, who has been there for over two decades (he started as a barback in 1996), describes his business approach this way: “What is the least I can charge for this and still make money?” This week, I spoke with Connell about his recent — and significant — pivot to pizza. Keep reading for our conversation.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What did you do once bars were shut down in March?
Myself and the bartender just locked up and left. And then I was at home. I've got two kids, and they weren't in school, and my wife is a teacher, so we were trying to navigate home life. That first week, there was no talk about PPP loans, EIDLs [Economic Injury Disaster Loans], or any sort of government assistance. We thought, "We'll ride this wave, and then we'll be open in a couple of weeks." After September 11th, we were shut down for a couple of weeks. Hurricane Sandy shut us down for a couple of weeks as well, when the power station went out in the East Village. I was just drawing on experiences from before.
Tell me about your staff. What did you tell them?
There's about 10 of us, and most have been with me for more than 10 years. They look after me, I look after them, and it really is like a family. That was the hardest part about [closing]... I was in constant communication with the staff, assuring them that everything was going to be okay and we will be back one day. I advised them to get on [unemployment] straight away. One guy, Darwin, who has been with me for 15 years — he's my right-hand man — got sick the last week that we were open. But no one else got sick.
You recently teamed up with Adam Baumgart — of New York dining hot spots like Prune, Roman’s, and Diner — on a pizza venture. Why invest in a 1,000-pound pizza oven when plenty of other bars are just selling PB&J sandwiches to satisfy the food-with-alcohol requirement?
Adam and I have worked together before, and we’ve always wanted to do something together. Over the past couple of years, we've talked about pizza, and we've eaten a lot of pizza together. When this happened, I called Adam out of the blue and said, "Hey, this would be a perfect time to do some pizza." And he said, "Yeah, definitely. We can get a second-hand pizza oven for a couple of thousand dollars, and we could do this on the cheap." Well, really cheap became really expensive pretty quickly. Everything that I've ever done, I've done to the absolute best of my ability. I didn't want to do something shitty just for the sake of it, just to appease this law. I thought, If we're going to spend $5,000, we may as well spend $20,000.
How are you financing it?
Last year I won this grant from New York City for $90,000 called Love Your Local, [where] they identified 40 businesses that they really wanted to be around for the next 10 or 20 years. I had already spent some of it, but I had some left. I also got a $75,000 interest-free loan from the city back in April. And luckily, my landlord has given me 50 percent off rent.
What are your long-term pizza plans?
We've realized that this [pandemic] isn't going away any time soon. We can't sell drinks to-go in October: no one's going to be interested in walking the streets of New York City with frozen margaritas. But pizza delivery will always be around. So the idea is to build up our clientele base over the next couple of months. It will at least give us some income over the course of the winter, and maybe we can keep a few of our staff on. And when people are allowed to come back inside Botanica, we will move the pizza oven somewhere else, into a small spot near here where we could have five or 10 tables and do a lot of to-go stuff.
Fennel sausage pizza fresh from the oven / Photography via Botanica
I'm just going to say, the pizza looks so good.
Adam is extremely talented, and we've both put on about 40 pounds over the past couple of months, trying pizzas from other places, and trying his pizza as well. Every time I come in, I say, "I am not going to eat pizza tonight. I'm just going to have salad," and then he starts baking it, and I can smell the pizza coming through, so I think, One more. This is the last time. The way he makes it is so light, you can eat a whole pizza, and it doesn't bog you down like other pizzas. That's my excuse, anyway, for eating pizza every night.
What's the response been so far?
It's been a slow build. We didn’t go in for a lot of PR or anything like that, it's just always the way that I've done business. Everybody who has it loves it. But it's harder, because we don't have a lot of seats. And we're turning people away [to meet social distancing mandates].
A couple weeks ago, you had DJ Mr. Fine Wine spin some records for people sitting outside. How did that go?
It was one of my favorite nights since we reopened. It was so beautiful, and also kind of weird, because people are used to being inside when he's DJ-ing, but we had him behind the window, and they could only see him from the outside. We couldn't let people dance, and they still had to sit down and order food, but it worked out very well. And we'd love to do it again… But we need to toe a fine line between promoting it and having too many people. Because we don't want to be one of those places where people are [improperly] congregating.
Your Instagram post about that night didn’t even note the day it was happening… Was that a conscious decision to keep crowds at bay?
No, I wish I was that smart. I just forgot to write that it was that night.
Do you handle all the social media?
Over the past year, it has all been me. I gave all the bartenders access to it, but one bartender in particular had to run things by me, because he could be a little raw. And we've made some mistakes on there. I think in particular, the one where I called out Danny Meyer...
That one is hilarious!
Yeah, that was definitely me, but the bad thing is that I eat at Daily Provisions [owned by Danny Meyer] all the time, and I'm good friends with everyone who works there. The manager comes down [to Botanica] and does karaoke. And they were like, "Come on, that was a little tough."
Have your relationships with bars and restaurants in the neighborhood evolved over the last few months?
There is absolutely a stronger connection. We've never really been competitive with other bars, maybe because we're not in a saturated neighborhood. Like if Von [a bar nearby on Bleecker Street] runs out of gas for their soda machine, they'll come over here and vice-versa. And then there are the ones which we've never had a connection with before that I've been really heartened by, like Emilio’s Ballato three doors down from us. Emilio scares the bejesus out of me, and he always has, since I was a 24-year-old kid here. He's the loveliest person, and he's been so supportive and helpful. His son came over to help us erect our barriers and put our tents up. And when he saw what flour we were using, we gave him some flour so he could start making bread himself.
There's a lot of sadness around. For the people who are left, we've got to help each other to keep this shit going, because who knows who's going to be next.
Why do you think those bonds are strengthening?
We're losing a lot of friends here: I just read that Bleecker Street Bar is closing down for good at the end of the month, and John Fraser, a good friend of mine, closed down NIX. There's a lot of sadness around. For the people who are left, we've got to help each other to keep this shit going, because who knows who's going to be next. So anything that I can do to help anyone, I'm more than willing to do it. I've called so many people over the past few months to borrow something or just to find out what's going on, because there is a serious lack of information from the government. We tend to find out what we've done wrong, rather than what we can do to make things right.
Do you live every day with the fear that you could get shut down?
Absolutely. I think that's the saddest thing about this, because I genuinely believe that at least 95 percent of places are trying to do the right thing. And what I'm hearing from my peers is that three strikes are happening on one visit, so they find one thing, and then they go looking for the other two things, so they can shut you down, there and then. It's a constant fear. Generally here at Botanica, because we've been around for so long, I'm lucky that I can leave my staff and go home and have dinner with my kids. But right now, it's important that I'm here, all the time.
Are you able to make ends meet right now?
July wasn't terrible, but “not terrible” was like 40 or 50 percent down [from normal]… I'm not sure what the answer is when it starts to get cold. I'm not sure if there is an answer right now. I don't mean to call the government incompetent so many times, but surely someone there knows what we can do, when it starts to get a little colder out. But they're just not giving us all the answers right now.
You mentioned you got a $75,000 loan back in April; what has your experience applying for relief been like?
That was the only competitive [element] of this whole thing… I didn't tell anyone about that loan until my application was in, because I knew that it would run dry very quickly. And then, the PPP was just ridiculous. We don’t need to rehash all of the problems with the PPP...
Did you get a PPP loan?
We got it in the second round of funding. We spent half the PPP on bogus crap, because we had to use it within eight weeks for full forgiveness [editorial note: in June, the PPP forgiveness period was extended to 24 weeks]. Once we got the PPP, we reopened to-go, and I was putting people on payroll to try and use all this money. I hired a guy to build a walk-in box [for the pizza oven]; I put an electrician on payroll. But my payroll was something like $5,000 to $7,000 a week, and I was taking in $1,000. I shouldn't have even been open. This was back in May, when it was still cold out, and we were selling drinks to-go with bags of chips.
Now that the forgiveness period has been extended, what are you doing with the money?
We're back using the remainder of the PPP, which is good, because all the bartenders are back now. Using the PPP, they're all making more money than they would have on unemployment, because that $600 supplemental unemployment has gone. So we're all one happy family again, sitting around eating pizza all night.
How to help:
- Visit Botanica (outdoor seating is open from 4:00PM-11:00PM, Mon-Sun)
- Order for delivery
- Follow on Instagram
Until next time,