Pizza to the RescueCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | A wine and cheese bar in Williamsburg pulls through COVID with a pizza pivot. Published: September 21, 2021
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I know we’re all sick of the word “pivot,” but what happens if I throw “pizza” in front of it? “Pizza pivot” … It just hits different.
This week’s interview features Tuffet, a Williamsburg wine and cheese bar that got through the worst of the pandemic with — you guessed it — a pizza pivot. Since January 2011, owner Alicia Rebensdorf has been attracting neighborhood locals with a small-but-perfect menu of rotating cheeses, charcuterie, and wine, but it wasn’t until the pandemic that she garnered attention beyond her corner of Williamsburg, thanks to the aforementioned P.P. (and other P’s, too; more on those below). Evidently, the only thing better than wine and cheese is wine and cheese and pizza. Keep reading for our conversation.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was the inspiration for your menu?
My favorite thing has always been to go out and have a really good cheese plate in my neighborhood, which is where my business is. It started really simple: 12 cheeses, eight meats, and different kinds of dried cherries and nuts and other accompaniments to mix and match. As we've developed, we've expanded [the menu]: we have crocks, which are basically melted cheese dishes, and platters for parties. Now we’re doing a lot more events [like] weddings, birthdays, and showers, in which case we have a whole different catering system. So it started out as just a cheese and wine bar and has developed into a place where people come for full dinners, which I never originally imagined.
Your menu is designed for sharing, which COVID made difficult, if not verboten; when did you first feel the impact of the pandemic on business?
It was so quick. I remember that Saturday [before NYC bars and restaurants closed] was gangbusters, we were so busy, and then by Sunday afternoon, I was like, Oh, we're going to close. By Sunday night, it became a citywide ordinance. I decided about three hours before [the city] did.
What did you do next?
I took a day to reel, and then immediately I started pivoting. One of my employees slash best friends [Jenny Olbirch, aka The Pizza Girl NYC] makes pizza, and that Tuesday, we decided to do to-go pizzas. We opened that Saturday doing takeout orders.
So, less than a week later, you reopened with a new to-go menu?
Yeah. We were only open on Saturdays and Sundays for the first month, and then we started opening every day from three to six or something and doing to-go drinks and to-go cheeses. Once they allowed outdoor seating, we opened up that option and did little private rentals of the garden. We gradually increased our hours as we were allowed, and whenever my staff was available or wanted to [work]. Most of them were so locked in [that they] wanted two hours of personal interaction, even if it was behind a mask. It was nice for all of us to have some place to go. I would come in, and almost every day there'd be one of my staff in the backyard enjoying being outside in a safe space. It bonded us together in a lot of ways.
Did you lose any staff members?
Not really ... Some people took a break just because they were uncomfortable or they didn't feel safe, but most people kept one or two shifts, just to break up the monotony of everything. We didn't have full-time shifts for anyone based on the hours that we were allowed to be open, but there was some safety net for [the staff], so I didn't have to worry about them for the most part. I did in the beginning, but once I knew that they could get unemployment, it was a huge relief. I take great pride in making sure that they're taken care of. One of my old staff members is a dancer, and she lost all her work, so she came back [to work at Tuffet] in order to get through this.
Did your regulars show up and support you?
God, they were amazing. So supportive. They came and ordered salads and pizzas. This has always been a place where people come and they know the bartenders and they know the same faces. And when we started doing private events again — parties in the garden for 18 people, which is way below what we normally do — a lot of regulars would come and invite their friends over. They've been great.
It would be 22 degrees outside and the backyard would be full of people with fleece blankets and water bottles huddled by the fireplace. People just wanted to get out.
How did you manage outdoor seating in the winter?
I spent a lot of money putting up heaters in the backyard and [offering] hot water bottles and fleece blankets for our guests … My landlord was great; he helped me [with the upgrades]. We just threw everything we could into keeping people warm. Weirdly, we were actually busier this winter than we normally are. It would be 22 degrees outside and the backyard would be full of people with fleece blankets and water bottles huddled by the fireplace. People just wanted to get out.
Cold-weather cures at Tuffet / Photography by Alicia Rebensdorf
Were you able to avail yourself of any emergency grants or loans from the government?
I was, and that has been very supportive. I got the PPP in both rounds, and I got the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which has been a huge help, especially because [Jenny and I] are partnering up on a new business in Greenpoint that I was looking at in January before COVID. That place was supposed to be another Tuffet, but it’s now going to be a wine and pizza bar. It's kind of ironic that because of COVID, [Jenny] developed this whole new business model. She's sold out every week.
What’s the new business called?
The Esters. Esters are organic compounds that you find in wine and cheese — and cheesy pizza. We love science, especially this year more than anything. It’s also funny because I'm very type A, and esters are very structured compounds. And then gluten is this wild, crazy web, and that's more Jenny’s style. We're still going to have the cheese menu, but we're bringing in pizza ovens, which is so great because now [Jenny] has a brick-and-mortar home for her pizza.
When did you know that you wanted to partner with Jenny in a long-term capacity?
She's always been special. She's very professional, and she cares obscenely about her product and making her doughs right. She has a work ethic like no one else. And she's friendly — friendlier than I am, which is such an asset. Once I saw that her business was really building, I was afraid I was going to lose her. I was like, She's going to open her own spot. Lots of people had approached her. Sometime in the fall or winter [of 2020] when I finally got the keys to the new space, I had this epiphany in the middle of the night: Of course, that makes so much sense. She jumped on board and it's been great.
When is The Esters opening?
Hopefully soon-ish. We were planning for September, but we're having some old Department of Buildings issues; that's the way things go. It depends on the city, quite honestly, but possibly the end of October.
How is business at the original location?
We're doing great. We've got five weddings this month, and they're slowly creeping back to normal size. It's hard keeping track of all the changing regulations and now checking vax cards and IDs. Mostly everyone is really good, but now that we have private events, you have people who might not have proof on them … And it's hard to tell people that someone they love can't come. The divisiveness of our country comes up in those situations. We have to be cops, and the fatigue and stress of that is definitely intense. But as far as business goes, we're busy.
Beyond launching The Esters, what’s next for you?
Just plugging away and expanding our catering options for weddings and birthdays and all that stuff. We didn't have a 10-year anniversary because of COVID, so maybe we'll have a good one for the 11th. And just being grateful every day. The new business will [allow] me to give more opportunities to the people who have stuck with me through this whole thing, so I'm appreciative of that as well.
Show your support:
- Visit Tuffet at 286 Graham Ave in Williamsburg (open weekdays at 3 p.m. and weekends at 1 p.m.)
- Follow Tuffet, The Esters, and The Pizza Girl NYC
Until next time,