An Old-School Soda Fountain Imagines a New Business ModelCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | In Carroll Gardens, a sibling-owned sundae spot gears up for a post-COVID world. Published: February 23, 2021
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I am writing this from a cabin in Gardiner, New York, where my husband and I are lucky enough to be spending a short working vacation away from our 450-square-foot apartment in Brooklyn. Indoor dining is allowed up here at 50 percent capacity, though we don’t plan on partaking. The state’s recent dining guidance seems so mercurial and arbitrary — I’m not sure who to trust anymore.
Sadly, the lack of transparency from the powers that be puts many business owners in an impossible corner: reopen with serious health and safety risks (for uncertain profit), or stay closed and take a considerable revenue hit. This week, I spoke with an owner who is adamantly against reopening for dine-in service, at least for now: Gia Giasullo of Carroll Gardens's Brooklyn Farmacy and Soda Fountain, the throwback sundae parlor she co-founded with her brother, Peter Freeman, in 2010. For them, the pandemic has been a wakeup call on two fronts, exposing the unsustainable nature of their business and the cracks in the restaurant industry at large. Keep reading for our conversation.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What inspired you and your brother to open Brooklyn Farmacy and Soda Fountain?
We really liked the idea of opening a spot that was interacting with the community. My background is not in restaurants: I was a graphic designer for over 25 years. I’d gone into my field liking tactiles and textures, but felt like my career went very swiftly into the computer. I was looking for a more three-dimensional experience. My brother worked in Hawaii for six years creating edible gardens for very wealthy people, and it was beautiful and idyllic, but he had come to a point where he was seeking more relevance in his life. Another founding premise was around the egg cream, because it was our household treat growing up. All you need to make an egg cream is a little bit of chocolate syrup, milk, and seltzer. It's actually one of the only culinary inventions of New York City. It's over 100 years old and has a great historic relevance to the Lower East Side immigrant community; at one point, there were egg cream carts everywhere. But when we came in, nobody knew what an egg cream was anymore. Tying back to us seeking relevance, it was also about bringing back the relevance of this culinary invention of New York City.
How was the initial reception?
We were slammed from the beginning. In the first year, we ended up on the front page of The New York Times dining section in a story about the revival of the soda fountain. After that, we were approached by an agent to write a cookbook. For 10 years, we’ve pretty much worked seven days a week. We live in the building, so we’re on call every day. We were able to purchase it in 2013. Six months after opening, the owners came to us and said, “We need to sell.” We were like, "Well, we can’t not buy it.” But no banks were lending, so it took us almost two years to get funding. The owners understood the position we were in, so they held on to the price and the building until we [got the money]. We were eventually funded by the SBA [Small Business Administration]. And we’ve become great partners with the SBA. I've spoken in Congress about small businesses through the SBA program. We're a success story for them.
I’m sure that relationship has helped you over the last 10 months ... Zooming back in time, can you tell me how the March shutdown impacted your operations?
We shut down officially on March 15th. By that weekend, we were already not seating [customers]. On Sunday, I sent everybody home and said, "Apply for unemployment immediately." I didn't know if I was going to be closed for a week, two weeks.
How many people did you have on staff?
We had 14 people on staff. Some were high school kids, but some were not. Some were food insecure. That first week was one of the most terrifying weeks of my life. By Tuesday, my type 1 diabetic daughter had a fever of 102 and could not taste or smell. Unbelievably, nobody else in my family got it. So, in that first week, I was managing the messaging of our business, I was managing a daughter with COVID, and I was also putting together all of our [leftover] food to distribute to the employees I knew were food insecure. Some of those people I never saw again ... They've moved since. [Starts to cry.] Sorry. It was one of the most heartbreaking weeks of my life. The work of my life is having those relationships [with staff], and the uncertainty in their eyes … They were so panicked. A lot of them were away from their families. They had come to New York to make it. And it was unbelievable, the absolute silence and the sound of sirens … We are located a few blocks from that nursing home that made the news [because] 50 people died. We didn't know what was happening.
So devastating. How long were you closed?
Two solid months. We could have opened sooner, but we purposely decided not to. One, my staff was on unemployment and I didn't feel comfortable asking them to take the risk to come back to make maybe $200 more than what they were already making staying home. The second thing was, the Farmacy is a happy place. It’s a spot where people make memories. I remember sitting there going, "I'm getting pressure [to reopen], but things are not okay. We don't have answers yet. I don't know how to keep my staff properly safe.” Also, I looked out my window [and saw that] nobody was on the streets. And so I was like, "Unless people are walking around, I'm not going to start selling ice cream."
What were those two months like?
Very weird. On the one hand we were frightened, but on the other hand, I slept so much. I didn't even realize how incredibly physically tired I was. It takes an enormous amount of work to do what we do. In 10 years, we were slightly profitable, but our major profit is the fact that SBA helped us buy a piece of real estate, which, by the way, is the reason we're open today.
When and how did you eventually reopen?
We opened the third week in May. We were very fortunate that because of the relationship we have with the SBA, we had a lot of paperwork in place. When that first round of PPP funding became available, we were well set up to hand over all our books and get funding right away. That was a huge relief. Because I live upstairs, I was able to pay my mortgage through the PPP. We were able to function with the support that we got because of the cyclical aspect of being owner-operated.
How did you evolve the business for COVID?
I only brought back one employee who has been with us for five years, and then I had my family. I taught my kids to work. We reopened as a very tight pod. Strictly pick-up and delivery. We had worked with delivery options before and it was a disaster … Ice cream doesn't deliver well. But suddenly we were like, "We need to look at this." So we played with a lot of scenarios and ended up focusing the menu on hard shells rather than hot things like fudge and caramel. We called the menu “Hard Shells for Hard Times.” We completely shut down the savory part of our [menu], and quite frankly, we're thrilled about that. In some ways, the pandemic has been a gift to us [in terms of] reevaluating what we want to do and what we do best. I don't think we're going to reopen with the same model as we had before.
The idea that small businesses get paid in personal satisfaction is a bullshit story.
What new model are you imagining?
We may open it up as more of a store. Before, you could come in with your grandchild and sit at a table, be served water and menus, order two cupfuls of ice cream and stay for 45 minutes, and the bill would be $14. On one hand, we love that. On the other hand, it makes no financial sense. The question mark for us is: How do we keep telling our story and not just be a place that serves you ice cream to go? How do we retain the specialness of it? We’re starting to understand more about our business and the improbability of ever turning a profit in the model that we had before, because we're part of a bigger system that doesn't allow for that. The idea that small businesses get paid in personal satisfaction is a bullshit story. We need to start telling the story about what it really takes to run a small business. I'm the bookkeeper. I'm the marketing person. I'm the scheduler. I'm the maker. I'm the worker. I'm the trainer. There's never a break. We need to really look at the structure of small businesses and [make sure that] if you're a small business, you are discounted on some level, because you don't have 100 employees to do the job. We all know that neighborhood charm isn’t built when another chain moves in. If we value [small businesses], let's put our money where our mouth is, so that maybe there are different rates that make this valuable on paper and not just as a mythology. That's what I'm fighting for.
I know you have a great relationship with the SBA, but how do you feel about the rest of the government’s response to this crisis?
Well, first of all, thank god for Cuomo in those early days, because [he] was the calming factor for all of us. I think it's a very complicated situation. The restaurant business employs a lot of people and redistributes money to the economy. But opening up 25 percent for Valentine's Day is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. Unless those workers are vaccinated, why would you do that to anybody? I have mixed feelings, because I actually think that once we get through this, there's going to be a boom and people are going to be out like crazy. But why would you reopen for Valentine's Day when the numbers are even worse than they were when we shut down last time? Consistency is important for us to believe the story. So if there's no consistency, it breeds mistrust about where we really are and what the priority is. I really do believe that paying people to stay at home is where we need to be right now, still. That said, I have two daughters in college right now, which is terrifying, but they did make the decision to go back after being home for a while, because their mental health required it, and I finally relinquished and said, “Okay.” But I hate the universities for even making it an option.
The future is uncertain, but we are cautiously optimistic that we are going to be able to spring back. This experience has taught us that it's okay for us to think about ourselves. We also have the generosity and good-naturedness of our community, both physically and on social media, who recognize the value of a small business in a community. We've received a lot of feedback [giving] permission to do what works for us.
How to help:
- Visit the Farmacy at 513 Henry St (Wed-Mon, 2-10 p.m.) for takeout
- Order delivery via Grubhub or DoorDash
- Order the cookbook
- Follow on IG
Until next time,