Pasta With a Side of ProgressCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | In the LES, a Roman-inspired restaurant rejects the industry’s “bluntly toxic” working conditions. Published: August 24, 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!
People often ask me how I find businesses for this column, and most of the time, they’re simply places I frequent, or have at least been to once or twice and felt a good vibe. This week’s feature is an exception, but only because it’s so hard to snag a reservation: Forsythia, the much-hyped Roman-inspired pasta restaurant on the Lower East Side. Slated to open last year over Memorial Day Weekend — rough timing is an understatement — the restaurant instead morphed into a pop-up for the summer before finally settling into a permanent spot in November 2020. Since then, owner Jacob Siwak has slowly and thoughtfully expanded the space, team, and concept, all the while working to reimagine the restaurant industry’s problematic norms (think: low wages, nonexistent benefits, punishing work environments ...). Keep reading to hear about Forsythia’s many innovations thus far, plus Jacob’s sagacious approach to the maelstrom of COVID anxiety.
Oh, and if you’re wondering, I managed to land a reso for later this week ;)
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about your restaurant background before Forsythia.
I started working in restaurants at Olmsted [a celebrated farm-to-table restaurant] in Brooklyn. While I was working there, I went to culinary school. I ended up doing a little bit of everything at Olmsted: I spent time in the kitchen [and] the floor. Then I got a job offer to move to Rome, which I leapt at immediately, for obvious reasons, and spent the second half of 2018 in Rome. When I came back in the beginning of 2019, I launched a pop-up with Brian [Maxwell], who does all of our business operations here [at Forsythia]. We did that for six months, and it went very, very well, and that's what birthed this restaurant.
How did that concept morph into this one?
It was not necessarily that that idea grew into this, the idea was actually quite different ... That was a 12- to 16-course tasting menu that was priced a lot higher than this restaurant. It was more that we only had eight seats and were doing four seatings a week, and we had a wait list that was completely unattainable. It grew out of control almost immediately. We wanted the capacity to meet the demand.
When were you planning to open Forsythia?
We were supposed to open on Memorial Day weekend . We started construction in December , pretty much right on time. Things were dragging a little bit … I did not love the [architecture and contracting] teams that I was working with at that time. Both were honestly miserable to work with; had that not happened, I think we would have finished before the pandemic. We were about 75 percent complete when the beginning of March rolled around and we had to put a kibosh on things pretty quickly. I pressed stop on this about two weeks before the city made us. The entire team was commuting on public transportation, and it did not feel like the responsible thing to do to be asking them to be traveling an hour sometimes to get here when [COVID] was starting to develop within the city.
So you halted all construction; then what?
We launched a pop-up in the East Village. That was just myself, Brian, and Mark [Coleman, the chef de cuisine]. We did all of the serving and cooking ourselves.
What inspired that?
We wanted to do something. It was out of boredom and out of wanting to start growing this brand that we were excited to start growing. Initially, it was [a place to] buy fresh pasta, awesome sauce in a jar, a really nice salad, bread, and a dessert. You could go home and have a luxury dining experience where you're doing the cooking — but no cooking-cooking, except for boiling pasta — in 15 minutes or less. Then, after three or four weeks, they started permitting outdoor dining. We were lucky enough that we had signed a three-month lease at this bakery that had closed with a beautiful backyard. We put a tent up in the backyard and started seating four tables at a time, so eight guests at once. We were open five nights a week. It was very small, but it was a really similar menu to this. Honestly, a lot of the stuff that we were able to workshop there, we're now doing a better or different version of here; it was Forsythia Junior, basically. We were really busy the entire time, and we broke even as a company. It worked out well for us. A lot of our regulars from that summer are now our regulars here, which is really nice.
You opened this space in November — six months after the original date. How did you make the call to open then?
We did it as soon as we could. When we started, we were cooking out of our dining room on induction burners for three weeks before our kitchen was even done. We had five tables outside, so it wasn't like we had to scale up massively. We just hired one person. That was the advantage of opening during COVID: we never had to downsize, I never laid a single person off. We were able to start really small and slowly add team members, tables, and components to our dining services.
What about indoor dining?
It was still banned. Then it came back, but we were still cooking out of the dining room, so we couldn't do it. When we finally opened for indoor dining, they closed it again a week later. We had five or seven nights of indoor dining service in November and that was it. Then it was back to five tables outside for the remainder of the winter.
How busy was it in the dead of winter?
It was very slow. I found that people weren't willing to dine much past 8:00, 8:30 p.m., which ... fair. I wasn't either. But we foresaw that it was going to be slow, so we didn't staff and scale [as if] expecting to be slammed every night. I was making all of the pasta during the day and then I was the only server at night. Mark was here, Brian was here, and another cook was here, and that was the entire team.
What happened as the weather warmed up?
In March, we added one person to the floor as we started going from two turns to three turns. We added a few tables and more components, and then we opened inside and things slowly started to grow.
It’s been widely documented that restaurants are having a hard time staffing; have you experienced that?
Yes and no ... Fewer people are applying for our available jobs than before, but we are not experiencing the same problems that other restaurants are having in that they are unable to find anyone who can fulfill their vacancies. We are doing so pretty easily, and a lot of that is because of what our work environment, pay, and benefits look like. We have created a really cool and special place to work and when we bring people in for interviews, they immediately see that. It's really different from what restaurants are typically like.
We're not more generous than we should be. We're as generous as everyone should be.
Can you elaborate on some of the industry’s structural problems and how you're pushing back against them?
The number one problem in the restaurant industry is that people are grossly underpaid. A former employer of mine posted a job on his Instagram page offering line cooks $18 an hour. If their benefit structure is the same as when I worked there, it's either zero or five days of paid time off and that's it. I would encourage him to try and live on $18 an hour with five or zero days of paid time off. Our minimum wage here is $22 an hour, and most people make more than that. The people who make that are generally part-time employees. We're not more generous than we should be. We're as generous as everyone should be.
The second [problem] is with paid time off. Most restaurants have a system where you request a day off and then you swap a shift with someone else and they cover for you, but it's not paid. That's insane, full-stop. We offer 10 days of discretionary paid vacation. This is really standard corporate stuff, nothing unusual. Then we close the restaurant for two weeks a year, and that's also paid time off. I choose [when], and I'm super transparent about that. And we close the week after New Year's because the holiday season is really demanding.
Then the last thing is how people are treated. It is not difficult to be kind and empathetic and understanding of other people. It is Humanity 101. I came from a really traditional French culinary school, I worked for a really traditional French restaurant, and they're bluntly toxic environments. It's go, go, go, go, and a "What more can you do for me" vibe, and it did not resonate with me. Then I moved to Italy, and the restaurant I worked at there had all of the same critical acclaim, popularity, and was just as busy [as New York City’s most vaunted restaurants], and everyone I worked with led a balanced life. There was no professional sacrifice whatsoever. When I came back to the United States, I tried to find that environment and I staged [apprenticed] at a variety of different restaurants, and I was not able to find it. So I found it incumbent upon myself to create it, and that was how the pop-up started, that was how this started. I could go on at length about how desperately the restaurant industry needs change and how a lot of stuff gets either brushed aside or swept under the rug because of people's talent and their ability to cook good food, and it's very bothersome to me.
Are you exasperated by the scope of change that needs to happen?
A little, but I also thoroughly enjoy hospitality and I love being at the restaurant at night when it's humming and people are enjoying their dining experience. I get legitimate joy out of it. My goal is to employ as many people as possible in this new way that I see the restaurant industry moving and with that, the requirement is then to open as many restaurants as I possibly can. That's not something that's daunting or exasperating to me, but it's something I very much look forward to and I'm tremendously excited about, more than anything. I have so many ideas, too many most of the time. We're getting close to every night looking the same as the night before, and we're very lucky that we're doing three full turns every night; hopefully, pretty soon, we can start thinking about the next one. It's all exciting to me. I don't know how to solve the other half of the problem, which is all of these established, institutional New York restaurants that fundamentally treat people incorrectly. I think it'll take years to unravel that and it'll take more and more other sorts of restaurants opening, providing other opportunities so people don't want to work [within the traditional restaurant model] anymore, and the quality of food diminishes to a point where the public loses interest.
Farfalle rosso, a summer special / Photography via Forsythia
The summer began with optimism and excitement about the end of COVID, and now as the Delta variant proliferates, many people are getting scared again. How do you conceive of and respond to these shifting cultural moods?
From a standpoint of public safety, it makes sense. My partner is a physician and was a resident in Dr. Fauci's residency program through the bulk of COVID and was intimately dealing with it on a daily basis, so I have been very aware of its damages and how important exhibiting caution is. I understand the trend towards being more cautious. It's not something that scares me as a business owner; my perspective is, How do we address and deal with that growing or changing sentiment publicly? If we have to change things like that, we have to change things like that. We did it by mandating proof of vaccination before it was required, and we'll continue to do it with other things moving forward.
Can you elaborate on why you’re not scared?
This is just a hunch, but I don’t think that there will be more lockdowns or capacity mandates put in place. There is a need to encourage as many people to get vaccinated as possible. That is a really different component of this wave versus waves of the past … This isn't the first time a bump up has happened, but it's the first time it's happened that we've had widely available vaccines. My hope is that the restrictions that get put in place moving forward are mostly tied towards those who are unvaccinated, and there won't be capacity measures put in place for those who are vaccinated. We will not seat people here if they're unvaccinated, regardless of what the rules are, and my hope from a business standpoint is that that encourages as many people to get vaccinated as possible, and therefore COVID starts to move in the opposite direction.
It doesn't make sense to try and come up with all of these solutions for problems that don't exist.
That's a very measured take.
It's the only take that you can have. It doesn't make sense to try and come up with all of these solutions for problems that don't exist. I'd rather think about how we can put together as thoughtful of a dinner service as possible for the guests who are coming in tonight, because we have a hundred people coming and we better have an awesome experience for them. Nothing can distract from that.
What are you excited about in the coming weeks and months?
So many things. We're doing a little construction ... We just finished this [the new outdoor structure], which is amazing. I could not be happier with the team that did it: Slade Architecture and Bronze Hill [the contracting firm]. They did a 10 out of 10 job. Next door, we are building a pasta making room that will double as a dining room after we're done making pasta at around 4:00 p.m. every day. I'll have some pasta making classes over there eventually. Hopefully we'll open more restaurants and that'll be the hub for all of our pasta making. I'm very excited about that room. A bunch of collaborations with other restaurants are coming up in the fall and winter that we're pretty excited about. I'm really excited about being able to operate at what we've been operating at for an extended period of time. We'll be done [construction] in two or three weeks and then hopefully, from then on in, we’ll get the gears turning so that we're delivering an awesome experience for people every single night.
Until next time,