Can a Restaurant Be Pandemic-Proof?COVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | This new Crown Heights eatery embraces COVID-era constraints. Published: January 12, 2021
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It’s been a while. The first days of 2021 have already given us emotional whiplash. While I’m not usually one to make resolutions, this particular new year has me grasping for all the tools in the proverbial toolbox. For the sake of accountability (which supposedly helps us stick to our goals?), here’s my resolution: EMBRACE DISCOMFORT. Last year was particularly uncomfy, and instead of resenting that, I’m trying to make peace with it — and whatever else is coming down the pike. Wish me luck!
This week’s #SmallBizSpotlight is Ursula, a new takeout-only joint in Crown Heights that is wholeheartedly embracing the challenges of COVID-era dining. Launched last September by Eric See — a pastry chef, restaurateur, and Albuquerque transplant — the eatery serves up New Mexican comfort food that “saturates your soul” and plays well with to-go containers and stoop hangouts. Keep reading for our conversation.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get into the restaurant industry?
I have been in the restaurant industry from the ripe age of 11. Most of it was front of the house, but when I was younger I worked in the kitchen at fast food places.
What brought you to New York from Albuquerque?
I moved to New York 10 years ago to intern for [pastry chef] Karen DeMasco, who is very esteemed and well-regarded. I was supposed to leave after the internship… I was in a culinary program [back home]... but I didn’t. I've been here ever since.
What kept you here?
I was having a good time working here, and I wanted to continue challenging myself. New York City is the culinary mecca of America; I didn't think that I could learn as much or be as intensely challenged anywhere else. And I had begun creating a network here that was invaluable. It didn't make sense to me to go spend another $40,000 for the second semester and lose touch with all of those connections that I had started to make. I found that in New York, your network is paramount to your pedigree.
You named Ursula after your grandmother. How does the menu pay homage to her?
It’s not so much specifically regarding my culinary influence from her as my entire family and my upbringing in the Southwest. Every menu item has a sensory memory for me or is a rendition of something that, say, my uncle or my aunt made for the family. My grandma used to make posole, so we’re doing that. My mom used to make breakfast burritos, which is kind of where it [the menu] all started.
What about the restaurant more broadly?
My grandma's had a really tough life. She basically raised 10 kids on her own. She had a couple marriages, but for the most part, she raised her kids all alone. And she used to be a sheriff in the corrections department. She is just a bad-ass and very resilient. 2020 took a lot from us, and so that story of strength and resilience resonated with the idea of reopening something.
You say “reopening” because you only recently closed your cafe, The Awkward Scone. Was that related to the pandemic?
Yes, directly and indirectly. I had a business partner who I brought into the fold and the pandemic exposed some cracks in our partnership and forced some realizations about what we wanted out of our business. Having to operate without a staff, doing delivery only, losing all of our catering business [Editorial note: They operated a catering company, Leopard & Pear, out of the cafe] … We lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And with the future being so uncertain, it was not something my partner was interested in trying to survive.
There’s a lot of talk about how the pandemic is making or breaking romantic relationships, but of course it would put pressure on business ones, too.
We had different goals and values from the beginning and were trying to figure out how to make those work up until then, but the pandemic really put those at the forefront. It was probably not going to work out in the long-term anyway, but the pandemic catalyzed it after losing 90 percent of our business.
You folded that business in June; was it a relief?
It was all of the emotions. The Awkward Scone was my baby that I had been building for six years. It was the culmination of a lot of hard work and time and investment, financially and emotionally. It never got the opening or the attention that I wanted it to. To see it being torn down in front of me was rough, but there was definitely some relief in freeing myself of the partnership and being able to focus on what actually motivates me and makes me happy in the industry. It allowed me to reset my goals and what's important to me, which is being more focused on community than commerce. It was an awakening. And post March 16th, there was a lot of pressure and stress. I was working harder those two months after the pandemic started than I had the previous six months. So it was nice to put some sutures over the wound for a while.
You opened Ursula in September. What happened in the interim?
While we were finishing up The Awkward Scone, we transitioned to just being open on the weekends. During the week, I started working in the kitchen with some chef friends of mine to provide food and groceries to the food insecure and marginalized communities. I developed this community of chefs and restaurateurs in Brooklyn who were all in the same boat: we were at risk of losing our businesses, we didn't have money or staff, and yet all of us were trying to support our communities and give the time and resources that we could. And seeing that within my food community, it was very buoying. It made me reconnect with that part of food that I was missing, the community aspect and the storytelling aspect.
I also took three weeks and drove across the country to New Mexico with my dog. We stayed in campgrounds away from the cities. I spent some time with my family back home in New Mexico, and they were going through the same kind of restrictions [as New York]. Even if I moved to New Mexico, I wouldn't have a job. It'd be cheaper to live, but I wouldn't have the same creative outlet there. When I came back to New York, the pandemic unemployment insurance was running out, so I was like, "Well, I need a job, so I'm going to try and create my own." And with the help of my friends here in the restaurant industry, in six weeks, I turned Ursula from an idea into an open establishment. We put in a lot of work and I have most of my staff back from The Awkward Scone with the exception of two who don’t live in Brooklyn.
How was the process of opening Ursula different from when you opened The Awkward Scone?
Well for one, The Awkward Scone had a big kitchen and dining room and a bunch of wall space that we used as a community art center. I don't have any of that here at Ursula. The food, the menu, the space were all built to survive whatever restrictions may come our way in the next year. It's takeaway only, there’s no seating inside.
How does the to-go element impact what you offer?
New Mexican food is not fussy. It's about a lot of sauce or a lot of cheese or a lot of beans, and it's not the most beautiful food to look at. It's usually really heavy… It saturates your soul. If you need to put it in a to-go box, it's not going to ruin 12 hours of prep work and all these little garnishes that you put on top. So the food lends itself to being taken away.
Will you rethink the space to accommodate indoor dining whenever it comes back, or are you committed to the takeaway model for the long haul?
This space is too small to reconfigure, so no, not this one. But spin-offs or expansions are not out of the question. I haven't decided because this pandemic has also brought to light a lot of the fractures in the system, like the fact that restaurant workers are overworked and underpaid and enslaved to American consumerism in a way that doesn't value them or allow them to take care of themselves. At Ursula, because of the space and the kind of menu we're doing, we're closed on Mondays and Tuesdays and we only do burritos till 12:00 because the burrito rush is really stressful and taxing on the kitchen staff's bodies. We only turn on the delivery apps when we're able to so that it's not stressing our staff out. The pandemic has allowed us to reevaluate what's important to us, and a lot of that is self-care mentally and physically and not saying yes to everything just because it means more money. The bigger goal now is to find a balance between a sustainable business financially and to have our own space, our own time to take care of ourselves.
I have been in this industry for so long, I know what it does to you. You can be passionate about food, but if you're not being respected, it's hard to be motivated or want to continue to contribute.
It's lovely how often you say “we” and “us” when you're referring to business decisions that are ultimately your call.
Well, my decisions affect them, and their mental health and productivity affect me. So I have to keep them in mind. But also, I have been in this industry for so long, I know what it does to you. You can be passionate about food, but if you're not being respected, it's hard to be motivated or want to continue to contribute.
How are you doing from a financial perspective so far?
Part of the reason I took this space is that [I knew] I was going to be able to afford the rent, and because of that, I wanted to make a very concerted effort to pay the staff more. So my labor costs are really high because they're all getting above minimum wage. I’m trying to make sure they have livable wages. One of the struggles has been keeping up with this whole outdoor dining situation: I had to put a lot of money into getting tables and heaters and the propane tanks are $40–50 dollars per tank per day just to create nominal heat outside.
How do you feel about the government’s crisis response for small business owners?
I feel like it's not well enough known, but there is a tax credit to allow your staff to stay home for COVID-related isolation or care of a loved one to try and prevent the spread. So if somebody here needs to isolate, I still have to pay them out of pocket but then I get a tax credit on my employer taxes. So that has been helpful in [alleviating] stress [for the staff] about not being honest about exposure out of fear of losing a shift or losing money.
We've never had to go through this, so it's hard to say what exactly I'd like to see [done differently]. The indoor-outdoor dining thing has been hard to navigate. I haven't figured it out myself. They definitely need more grants, more support for the restaurant industry in general. I've seen a lot of friends close their restaurants, a lot of the caterers that I know have been completely decimated. But until there's a solid rollout of the vaccine, I don't foresee any of that being resolved. And I don't know if that means stepping in to help with landlord negotiations or freezing commercial leases or payments that are being made on behalf of restaurants.
Looking ahead, how confident do you feel about navigating any new COVID-related hurdles that may arise?
I worry about it. I have a staff of nine right now, and there's a certain amount of revenue that we need to bring in to be able to support them. It's possible with delivery to maintain that revenue stream, but then we're losing at least 20 percent to the delivery services. My staff doesn't see any of those gratuities, but they're doing twice as much work to get it out the door. So I’ve tried to refrain from turning on delivery unless it’s absolutely necessary. Last week was pretty quiet, and I don't know if it was because of the holidays or the weather or if the opening excitement is over. Forecasting anything in the middle of the pandemic is impossible. So I try to focus on only a couple of weeks ahead and make sure that there's enough money in the account to make payroll and then make changes for the next week based on that.
Are you working in the kitchen?
Oh yeah, I'm here every day. I still cook. I still bake. There's a few [menu items] that I'm still figuring out all the little details about, so I can't hand them off yet. I’ve been making lamb empanadas, but I haven’t fully written out that recipe, so only I make those. We’re going to start doing croissants, but I'm the only one that knows how to make them right now so I get to train people on that.
What menu item is closest to your heart?
I think the sopaipillas. They're very popular back home. My very first official restaurant job was at a New Mexican restaurant and I used to make sopaipillas there, so there's a lot of nostalgia attached to it. They're really delicious. People are often here for the burritos, but I think that they're missing out on the sopaipillas. They are special to the [New Mexico] region. People like to align us with Mexican food or compare us to other Mexican restaurants, and I think that's pretty inaccurate. You can't get a sopaipilla at a Mexican restaurant. There's a new TexMex restaurant that is doing sweet sopaipillas, but not stuffed sopaipillas.
How to help:
- Follow Ursula on Instagram
- For New Yorkers: visit the restaurant at 724 Sterling Place
- See the menu and check for updates here
Until next time,