A Neighborhood Restaurant PerseveresCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | The owners of Popina, an Italian-Southern eatery on the Columbia Waterfront, weather COVID with multiple pivots and a giant backyard.Published: October 12, 2021
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. Thanks for reading!
A good friend started performing drag over the summer, and a perfect storm of scheduling conflicts kept me from seeing them for their first few shows. I felt terrible about it, but when I finally got to see them live and apologized profusely, they said, “Don’t apologize! When I’ll really need you is in the middle period: after the initial hype from our friends dies down, and before I’ve hit my stride.”
Their point resonates beyond drag stages. Last summer, many of us flocked to newly reopened small businesses in a delirium of gratitude and relief. But right now, in this lengthy liminal space between total lockdown and a post-pandemic world, it’s easy to fall out of touch with the IRL communities that surround us. And small businesses, at least the last few ones I’ve spoken with, are beginning to feel that waning support; as put by James O’Brien of Popina, a 4-year-old restaurant on the Columbia Street Waterfront in Brooklyn, “We’re certainly not killing it.” This week, James — who co-owns Popina with Chef Chris McDade — speaks frankly about the ongoing challenges of running a business in this extended crisis, underscoring the fact that yes, many things are better, but lots of things are still hard. Keep reading for our conversation.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get into the restaurant industry?
I started bartending in college. It was fun, and for a college kid, the money was great. After college, I moved to the city [New York] and started going to the Institute of Culinary Education for a management program. I started reading about restaurants and that's when I [discovered] Gramercy Tavern. I had lunch there for my birthday, and had an incredible experience sitting at the bar watching [the bartenders] work. I did more research on the restaurant and found out that this guy Danny Meyer owns it. I got a job at Tabla [the now-closed Indian restaurant by Danny Meyer], the only place that would hire a person without New York City restaurant experience. Probably the only reason I got a job at Tabla was because the writing was on the wall that it was about to close, so it didn't have the seasoned staff that Gramercy Tavern or all the other restaurants in Danny's group had. I worked at Tabla as a barback for a year … When it closed, I started working at Maialino, where I worked my way up the ranks from back server to server to bartender to sommelier to manager. I was dead-set on working in hospitality and fully immersed [myself] in wine classes, tastings, and learning more about management. I met my eventual business partner, Chris, at Maialino. I want to say it was 2016 when we had the idea to open up a restaurant. We had coffee and talked about the place that we wanted to open. At the heart of the conversation was [the idea of] a neighborhood restaurant. And that's what we are today: people come from all over, but we're a neighborhood restaurant at heart.
When did you start feeling the impact of the pandemic?
Me and Chris were at the Charleston Wine and Food Festival a week before the shutdown. No one on the airplane had a face mask. I also worked at this wine event, which had thousands of international travelers all in one room ... And then a week later, I was closing my restaurant. It all happened very, very fast. At first, we thought the shutdown was going to be a month or two; we had no idea that it was going to take as long as it did. The idea that we're still dealing with it is kind of mind-bending.
What did you do in the immediate aftermath of the shutdown?
We did takeout for a week, maybe two weeks … We were selling out of product, but Chris didn't want to order more [food] because we had no idea what was going to come next. We didn't know anything about the virus. We were like, Are we endangering our people? At that point, [the fear] was about surfaces. We were wearing gloves and masks, but we still had to touch all these things, and we had no idea how to feel about it. It got to a point where we decided to lie low for a bit. We had a hard conversation with the staff right off the rip ... We wanted them to be first in line for unemployment benefits. And then we looked out for them. We had staff members come by and get food, toilet paper, anything. We were like a pantry to our staff. We did multiple staff funds that contributed a little extra on top of whatever they were making on unemployment. We are still in contact with all of our staff, and some of them still work here.
Tell me about the wine and provisions market you opened in late April 2020.
Popina has a pretty good wine following, so opening up a wine shop when the SLA [State Liquor Authority] loosened restrictions seemed like a no-brainer. [In terms of the food,] we threw stuff against the wall and saw if it stuck. At first, everyone was trying to become an expert baker, so we were doing yeast and bread flour and all the stuff for baking projects. Then we did house-made pasta by the pound. We did pasta kits. We did sous vide pork chops. We did weird Italian cuts like guanciale. Not everything was a success. It was interesting to see the product mix of what was selling, what was not selling. I don't know if there was a rhyme or reason. We brought in these beautiful dried steaks, and one week they sold out; the rest of the time, no one bought them. It was weird. Ultimately, we learned that what was working was what we were already known for: pasta and wine. So we expanded the wine shop — it went from this little section of all the wines that we had before [closing] to the point where I was actually buying wine. Every week, we usually sold out of pasta kits. The kits had to be at a certain price point where people would feel good about preparing them; for us, the challenge lay in how expensive it was to make them. I don't think it was a big success financially for us, but it was a big success in terms of staying connected to the community. We were making more money on the wine; the food was a way to get in people's houses and people's hearts.
Popina pasta kits / Photography via Popina
When did you reopen for dine-in service?
I can't tell you the date exactly, but whenever they allowed us to do outside dining [editorial note: NYC reopened for outdoor dining on June 22, 2020]. We have a huge backyard, so we went for it.
What about indoor dining?
We still don't have it. The only time we do indoor dining is when there’s a rainstorm and we move some of our reservations inside. It’s not that we can’t do it — it's just so small. We used to pack 36 people inside, and that was shoulder to shoulder. We have 60 seats outside.
Do you plan to move indoors anytime soon?
Until the weather changes, we don't need to do indoor dining. Obviously, on rainy days, we get screwed, especially because we don’t do the market anymore, and we don't do a ton of delivery business. We want to get back to indoors, but one of the hardships of our current reality is that all the construction workers who haven’t been working for a year are now backed up for months and months because everyone's finally turned on. So, finding people to do work inside for us is difficult. We're hoping to have inside [dining] ready in the next month or so.
How is business right now?
It's okay. People come by on beautiful sunny days, see that our backyard is packed, and they're like, You guys are crushing it, but they don't realize that every time it rains, we make zero dollars. We're certainly not killing it, but we're able to staff people and feed our community.
Did you get any COVID-19 grants or loans?
The Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce helped us out and gave us some PPE equipment and also reimbursed us for a couple of heaters. We got the first and second PPP loans as well as the EIDL loan. This is where I give a big shout-out to our bookkeeping team and our accounting team who helped us navigate all of the paperwork. Not trying to throw any shade on our government, but everything surrounding everything was so hard because the rules kept changing. Also our lawyers, Helbraun Levey, sent out weekly, sometimes daily, emails on the changing landscape of COVID, which was really helpful for small business owners like us who don't have a director of operations to translate and package everything. It was just me and Chris making real-time decisions. Our accountants, our bookkeepers, our lawyers, and our friends in the industry helped us navigate it. We ended up surviving. That's big.
What have you learned about yourself as a business owner over the past year and a half?
If your mission is to prioritize your staff and your guests, that will benefit you in the long run. We always made decisions with them at the forefront, and sometimes that was a little nerve-racking because that meant spending more. But your mission, no matter how tough the conditions are, should not change. Also, I learned to lean on others. The New York restaurant market is very competitive, but I saw a ton of collaboration ... People were always there to help each other, and that was amazing. The last lesson I learned is that sometimes you need to take a step back. After working tirelessly every day without having time for myself, I burned out. I went to Hawaii for the whole month of January . At that point, the business was doing amazing, but I wasn't doing amazing. I have to take care of myself in order to take care of other people.
How to help:
Until next time,