How a Brooklyn Eatery Nearly Doubled Its StaffCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | For Mekelburg’s, the pandemic necessitated a whole new business model. Published: May 26, 2020
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You’ve likely seen the headline that one-quarter of American restaurants will not reopen. It’s a heartbreaking stat on many levels: social, cultural, economic, gastronomic. What I’m most concerned about is the decimation of independently owned gems: not just those with blown-out NYT features, but places like the unsung taco shop down my block that is like a warm hug after a long weekday.
The restaurants that survive need to innovate, fast. This week, I spoke with Alicia Guevara of Mekelburg’s, a restaurant-slash-grocer that’s recently pivoted to 100-percent grocer. Alicia and her husband, Daniel, opened the Clinton Hill eatery in 2015, after a decade of hosting underground supper clubs. The idea was to merge their love of cooking for others with Alicia’s retail experience (before Mekelburg’s, she spent years working in gourmet food retail). The couple’s ingeniously high-low menu — think baked potatoes piled with creme fraiche and caviar — made the Brooklyn foodie rounds, prompting them to open a second location in Williamsburg in 2018. With dining at both locations on pause for the foreseeable future, Alicia and Daniel have speedily reworked their entire business model in order to survive. Read on for our conversation on posting #foodporn in a pandemic, panic shopping under stress, and finding just five minutes of community whenever you can.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
How has your inventory been impacted?
It hasn't really changed. We're in a much better position than grocery stores. Grocery stores use huge distribution channels with a lot of red tape. Because we travel in smaller channels, we're able to get creative and use other avenues to get products that big grocery stores are selling out of. I never sold out of milk, eggs, or toilet paper. The one thing that has been difficult is flour and yeast, they are the hottest commodities right now. Everyone has decided to learn how to make sourdough or bake cookies for their kids.
What about your delivery infrastructure — has it had to expand or change?
We launched a new platform, Mek's Direct, which is about to be fully e-comm capable. It's a riff off Fresh Direct, but it has our full menu, grocery store, beers, growlers, and pints to go. Whatever you want, Mekelburg's can show up at your door if you’re within our delivery zone.
We used to be open until 4:00 AM every night; now we're open until 10:00 PM. I had a surplus of staff and a clamoring demand for deliveries. So we changed our barbacks into delivery people and now we're delivering all over Clinton Hill, Bed Stuy, and Williamsburg, filling orders the same day, normally in an hour or two. Our bartenders have become more like personal shoppers; they need to know how to guide someone when they call in and say, “I want six beers, I like pilsners and sours, what do you have?” We try to be as adaptable as possible.
Did you have plans for Mek’s Direct before COVID-19?
No. Pre-COVID, you wanted bodies in your shop, you wanted to get them at every turn. [If a customer is buying mozzarella,] you want to ask them, “You want basil with that?" You're going to maximize someone's shopping potential with them in front of you. But that climate changed so fast, and [e-commerce] was a necessity to stay afloat. And it's really taken off. We’ve nearly doubled our staff.
Wow! So business is good.
Yeah. It's good. We went from being half a grocery store and half a restaurant-bar to a full grocery store, so the grocery store is doing great. The bar isn't doing great, but no bar is doing great right now. I'm extremely fortunate that we were sacrificed in this pandemic because of the model we’ve created. It was a lucky roll of the dice. Retail is really, really hard. It is almost harder than restaurants and bars because your margin is so much smaller and you have to hold inventory, track inventory, and do exploration walks to make sure you're competitive with the Key Food down the street. [The pandemic] has brought all of those challenges to a new front. But Americans are very good at buying everything when under stress... And that sort of frenzy has kept us above the line.
Americans are very good at buying everything when under stress.
You’re now live-streaming Let's Mek Music, the weekly kids show you used to host at both locations. How has the reception been?
Yeah, it's a one-man show performed by Scott Klopfenstein, one of the founding members of Reel Big Fish. It's a really intelligent, adult-appreciated music show, where he'll sing songs by The Ramones, songs like The Wheels on the Bus, the whole gamut. Now we’re doing it on our website at 10:00 AM every Thursday and Saturday. Parents are videoing their kids dancing around the living room as Scott's playing his guitar and singing and they're tagging us. It's so sweet to see that this culture has continued in people's homes even though we're not able to welcome them in our four walls.
Do you think you'll keep streaming it once the option for in-person events is back?
Absolutely. We want to keep people healthy, we don't want to see this restart. People are being pretty reckless around the country right now, and the idea of filling my bar with a bunch of parents and kids dancing around… When it is time to go back, we should go back slowly and with caution. I don't want to guinea pig it. I'll let someone else guinea pig it and we'll see how they do and then I'll start opening back up.
Have you changed your social media strategy at all?
We've changed our approach in the sense that we're really trying to show responsible indulgence. Anything we're posting is wrapped in a to-go bag. Or, we posted a picture of someone holding a babka muffin in front of the Williamsburg Bridge, and we were very conscientious [about the framing]: no one else is in sight in that view from Domino Park. If you're going to enjoy our food, we'll show how that happens responsibly right now. If you're going to enjoy our groceries, we'll talk about Mek's Direct. If you're going to enjoy our beer, we'll show you our pints to-go. The narrative has changed, but the product is the same.
How has your in-store atmosphere changed?
People are so appreciative. Knock on wood, we’re one of the last people standing. I can't tell you how many customers at both locations come in and they're very thankful. We have markers on the floor that show a six-foot distance between people and we've hired security. If more than 20 customers come into Domino [the Williamsburg location], we start a line. But even with these restrictions, customers are still coming to us and saying, “This is our one trip out a day that makes us feel like maybe this isn't happening,” or just “[This gives] a sense of escape.” That's very special to hear.
How do you think this will impact your business in the long run?
I think grocery is going to play a much larger role for the next six months to a year. I have old regulars coming in who are like, "You guys are going back to a bar, right?" But I can't go back to being a bar if I can only have four people sit at the bar. If I'm going to stay solvent, we have to support the parts of the business that are sustainable. On-premise dining and drinking will come back when New York says we can. I don't think people are going to be breaking doors to go sit down at a restaurant. Maybe they are, but those people make me a little nervous. So I want to see the gates open back up slowly and responsibly and I want to continue to watch the numbers. I'd rather be cautious and wrong than risky and wrong.
I'd rather be cautious and wrong than risky and wrong.
Mekelburg’s was founded as a way to expand the community you had going with the underground supper club. What’s it like to no longer be hosting people or have neighbors gathering over your food?
Right now is not so much about community. Shoppers come in, pick up their stuff, and get out. I think they enjoy seeing their regular cashier or cheesemonger or bartender who's now helping them pick out their six-pack, but that's where the experience ends. There's a vacancy now. I think that's why I have customers coming in and thanking me, because for those who are well enough to come in masked and acting responsibly, those five minutes are their five minutes of community. And the fact that they chose Mekelburg's to do that is something much bigger than I ever thought I'd be blessed with, so I'm grateful.
How to support Mekelburg’s:
- Order Mek’s Direct (Clinton Hill and Williamsburg only)
- Follow on Instagram: Clinton Hill and Williamsburg
- Tune in for Let’s Mek Music
Until next time,