One Year LaterCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | Checking in with the wine bar that helped launch this column. Published: April 06, 2021
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As we round out a year of living with a global pandemic, I’m wrestling with the urge to summon some kind of blanket takeaway — one of those broadly placating statements like “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” or “Everything happens for a reason” that could dignify all this, well, everything, with a point. It’s human nature to manufacture clean narrative arcs out of random acts of fate (I’m reminded of that infamous line from A Confederacy of Dunces: “Oh, Fortuna, you capricious sprite!”). But the harder I try to make sense of it all, the more futile my efforts feel. The consequences of a year-plus of widespread social isolation, economic turbulence, and escalating racial violence continue to unfurl in new and confounding ways, and I just don’t think we have enough distance from the upheaval to unpack it productively. At least, I don’t.
As I resist the urge to zoom out, I’m reflecting on the nearly 50 small business owners I’ve spoken to since March 2020. Each one tells a different story of grit and grace, and I want to reserve space in this column to check in with them. Moving forward, I’ll be periodically featuring “throwback” interviews with past subjects (spliced into the usual programming) in an effort to forge a more robust understanding of the pandemic’s long-term effects on small businesses.
To kick off the throwbacks, this week’s conversation is with Halley Chambers of Rhodora — the very first business I profiled after COVID hit, and the launchpad for this column. Since closing dine-in service on March 16, 2020, the team behind the zero-waste wine bar in Fort Greene started a wine and provisions shop, launched subscription-based wine and CSA boxes, and reconfigured the menu and physical layout for outdoor dining. Keep reading for my conversation with Halley, (who, in addition to Rhodora, oversees June and Rucola, two other sustainability-focused restaurants in Brooklyn).
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When we last spoke, it was a week after the city shut down restaurants and bars, and you had already launched a wine shop and a subscription-based wine club. Looking back, how prepared were you and your team for the full extent of this crisis?
It's interesting to remember that we pivoted that fast. From a business perspective, we were prepared to be as nimble as we could be. I don't think we were prepared for the psychic impacts on our staff, as well as the really deep impact of regulations constantly changing and very little guidance or support from the government. The amount of money all of us [in the restaurant industry] spent and wasted because the government on the federal, state, and city level could not figure out a way to structure what we were allowed to do continues to be devastating. We're all holding our breath to see what happens as we navigate out of the pandemic. What kind of support will remain? And how much are we going to continue to be subject to an ever-changing labyrinth of regulations and rules, which seem quite arbitrary, and it's not very clear who or what they are protecting?
When did you reopen for on-site dining and what did it take to do so?
I can't remember; it's all a blur. It was May or June. When we reopened for outdoors, we turned into a bar with very limited food [editorial note: before COVID, Rhodora offered full dinner service]. The logistical and operational challenges [were]: where and how do you construct an outdoor dining area in the middle of what was formerly a street? And then there was the emotional challenge: it was still really, really scary. COVID was peaking in New York. From a business perspective, we had to seize the opportunity to at least establish an outdoor space, while having emotional conversations with our team about moving back into a period in which they would be physically exposed to other people who they had no control over whether they were wearing a mask or not or following safety procedures or not.
You mentioned the fiscal toll of responding to fickle government guidelines; how many times did you renovate your outdoor dining area?
Oh man, I think we're on our fourth or fifth iteration. One of the most ruinous rulings that happened over the summer is they allowed us to build parklets, so we invested a bunch of money in these very heavy-duty planters that made an outline of a rectangle. And then a week later, the government changed the regulations completely and we had to build, I think it was 4 ½-feet-high, completely enclosed, dirt-filled barriers of a specific plywood regulation. We'd literally invested thousands of dollars and then spent another, I don't know, $7 or $8 thousand to meet [new rules] one week later. It felt totally insane.
Yeah. And then on top of that, instead of focusing on customer behavior, which unfortunately has been really problematic at times, the state liquor authority and the Department of Health ended up punishing restaurants for the behavior of guests in their spaces. And I understand that that's probably the easiest way for those organizations to do their job, but watching my staff try to manage this multifaceted retail business, wine store, serving people outside, making sure everything's sanitized, making sure our guests are safe, and then also [carrying] responsibility for people walking down the street who are drunk and maybe just entering our space ... It felt like trying to control a three ring circus at times.
I can imagine. How did you pivot again for the colder weather?
The search for heaters was real. There was no guidance on what type of heater you could use, so everyone purchased thousands of dollars worth of propane heaters, and then two weeks later [the government] was like, "Those are illegal, unless you can build a large metal box that is 50 feet away from every building and store entrance." It was a nightmare. We were calling every small heater importer in, like, Arkansas, begging them to get on their waitlist. We started looking in October and the waitlists were through the end of November. By that point, most [restaurants and bars] had run out of PPP. It wasn't like we had all this income to spend. All of this looks so different in hindsight, but those were some of the grimmest months. We were like, "Does it even make sense to try to get heaters? What are we spending all this money for? Is anyone going to sit outside? Are we all going to get sick again?" It felt Kafkaesque, like, Guess we'll keep walking forward with really no guarantee or security about what our outcomes might be. We bought a fleet of little heaters that are mildly effective [that arrived] at the end of November. The most surprising thing is that New Yorkers decided to endure any temperature and any amount of discomfort to see each other and spend time not in their houses. [Laughs.] I'm still totally bamboozled by all of these people who want to do that. I've eaten out twice, and I'm like, "This is miserable." So I really don't think it was our intelligence or that we invested smartly; I think people just really wanted to not be at home.
Outdoor dining at Rhodora in the winter / Photography via Rhodora
Were you able to avail yourself of the PPP loan or other emergency aid?
We were, and that was critical. Our small team has a dedicated accountant and it took the force of all of our will, and being ahead of the curve, to get that PPP because the regulations were certainly byzantine. The other dynamic is that most small businesses bank with major corporate banks, just because it's easier. However, when it came time to receive PPP, specifically in the first round when they hadn't banned large corporates from getting PPP, all small businesses were at the end of the list. I know many restaurants who, because they banked with Chase, literally didn't get PPP forever or missed the first round, even though they'd put all their papers in. We actually ended up switching to a small local bank because it quickly became clear that if we stayed with our original bank, which is a major corporate bank, we would never get those funds.
How are you doing financially?
Financially, Rhodora is in some ways much more successful now than it ever was before. We're making the majority of our money retailing wine and food. The wine club and the CSA [have] driven a lot of mutual goodwill with our community. When I'm there, every single person who comes in knows every single member of our staff by name, and they're checking on their dogs, their children, and their job. Everyone's home, and so we’ve really built our community within Fort Greene. In the summer months when we [started] operating in this model, I thought, We're stringing it together, we're doing what we can. But this zero-waste, hybrid bar-retail experience is actually really working.
How have your relationships with individual customers and the community at large taken shape over the past 12 months?
It's been a mutual exploration. Our doors are always open. You don't have to buy anything; you can walk in, look around and leave. And if you want to come in and buy a bunch of wine and food and never ask or know about the sustainability mission, that's totally fine. But by developing regulars, whether it's through subscription programs or just through being open seven days a week for pretty long hours, we get people who do come back and start asking questions and noticing specific touches about the restaurant that signal sustainability. One of the most important things we did when the city shut down compost pickup and processing was [invite] the community to come compost with us.
How does that work?
It's interesting … and sometimes disgusting. [Laughs.] We work with this commercial waste company that I think is the only one in the city that actually composts, and they have a relationship with a farm in Upstate New York [where] they bring our compost. People come from pretty far away to compost with us. And we're happy to cover the expense of that because it brings people in and gets them asking questions about what we're doing and why. And now I'm like, "We're never going to be able to take this away." Our chef asked, "When can I stop working next to literally an open bag of compost?" I don't know what the answer is.
When we spoke a year ago, you were planning to migrate your in-person sustainability lectures to virtual platforms. How did that go?
We did pretty consistent programming through September, and then the Zoom and Instagram fatigue set in for everybody. And so we did a lot more work via our newsletters and just talking about sustainability in person. Overall, it was a really effective tool to keep people engaged for the first six months, and then we saw our numbers dropping off. It was interesting to find other ways to engage and to [ask questions like], Are we doing this Instagram Live for us? Who's actually joining? What are we teaching? We started focusing more on in-restaurant interactions with guests.
What does your staff look like right now and how are they doing?
We have five staff members right now and they've all been with us since before COVID, save two. What's amazing is that everyone who wanted to come back to work has been able to, and we're now in a position where we need to grow our team. But everyone has had a really rough year. Most of them got COVID at some point. Having done the work to build open lines of communication and trust, we’ve created this space in which [the staff] can show up to work as their full selves and work in a space where they know they're not going to get punished for expressing concern about a decision we're thinking about making. For example, it was a debate whether we were going to serve wine in real glasses or whether we only wanted to serve wine in compostable cups, because [the staff] didn't feel comfortable touching the guests' glasses. All of [those decisions] are never imposed. It's always a conversation.
This year has really brought the stakes of work into sharp relief. It’s not enough just to grin and bear it anymore.
Yeah. I've been surprised at how many spaces have not had those conversations. So many of our staff don't really have a choice; this is how they make a living. They don't have the choice to say, "I'm too scared." It's the responsibility of all of us as employers to recognize that and do everything in our power to make space for transparent conversations and asking questions.
When I interviewed you last year, you said, "When we emerge from this, the landscape of restaurants and community spaces will never look the same." Does that statement ring true for you today, and if so, in what way?
Yeah. The scariest thing to me right now is that all of us have been moving at warp speed, and there's been so little time for reflection or grieving. At the same time, things are looking up: our staff will be fully vaccinated in a few weeks, and that's a huge success. But [there’s been] a complete devastation of a cultural landscape. Obviously we've lost some major stalwarts of New York City dining, but I think the bigger impact is on the hundreds of small businesses, specifically in ethnic communities around the city, that have closed. And the impact of the violence against the Asian community in New York … All that on top of dealing with the devastation of COVID. There's so much we have to grapple with. A year after, I am endlessly in awe of the resilience that this country has shown, that our industry has shown, that specifically my teams have shown, but I think it would be a disservice not to also recognize the deep, deep loss that we’ve faced on so many levels.
Have you seen any positive effects on the industry at large?
What I will say in my sunnier moments is that the amount of innovation and collaborations I've seen across the industry is so exciting. There has been this loosening up of what a restaurant means and what a kitchen means and what hospitality means. And everyone has been given the freedom to try all these different models and I'm really hopeful that that philosophy continues. One of the things I've gotten to do is join a social justice workshop that's put on by this organization called Drive Change, and their primary focus pre-pandemic was training juveniles in food service and putting them into stable jobs. And they're still doing that, but they've also pivoted to doing workshops for restaurant leaders on increasing equity within restaurant spaces. And it's really encouraging to see so many of my peers engaged in that program. There's never really been room in the restaurant world for creative and intellectual engagement around how we can be better employers, and COVID has given us the space to do it and take it seriously.
On a lighter note, do you feel like people’s conceptions of natural wine (and indulgences like specialty provisions) have changed?
Yeah, I think so. The amount of times I've heard, "Should I buy a third bottle? Ah, what else do I have to spend money on?" is a lot. There is certainly a capitalist advantage to people being stuck at home and not having much to do or spend on. We have so many guests who started the year having never heard of natural wine, and now they're some of our best guests and they have so many questions and they are suggesting wine producers to bring in. That ability to learn and grow with the community is really special; honestly, it’s so special that we're like, "What about what we're doing has made this so successful and how do we capture that and make sure we keep it as we go forward?"
What are your plans for the coming months?
I wish I knew. [Laughs.] The one thing that the city has said is that outdoor seating is here to stay. So part of that is making our spaces more comfortable for guests, and investing in that infrastructure to make it feel as much a part of Rhodora as the inside of Rhodora feels. So that's a big project. And it's still a bit miraculous to all of us that it's been so successful, and I'm not sure any of us have really pinpointed why. While we are not doing indoor dining right now, it doesn't really feel right for the space, we’re thinking about what it could look like ... If we still have a retail shop, do people want to sit in the middle of wine bottles? Maybe that’s kind of cool. And certainly our food menu is really limited and we do have guests who are like, "I want dinner," and we want to respond to that. The evolution of what happens is very much a team effort. Our staff meeting next week is going to be focused on what's working, what aspects of this are really special, and what we need to keep. So we'll see.
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Until next time,