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Outdoor dining at Ruffian in November 2020 / Photography by Archer Lewis

The Perpetual Pivot

COVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | In the East Village, a pair of natural wine-focused restaurants shapeshift through the pandemic. Published: February 09, 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 afternoon. Thanks for reading!

Back in the halcyon days, Ruffian, a tiny wine bar in the East Village, was my go-to spot for a drink alone after work. (Not a sad “drinking alone” drink; a joyous “I need and want to take myself out” kind of drink.) With a massive list of rare natural wines, a small rotating menu of delightfully unpretentious snacks, and a killer playlist heavy on ‘80s hip hop, the darkly lit, always-packed space felt festive in a no-big-deal kind of way — the restaurant equivalent of dipping potato chips in caviar. The sommelier never rolled her eyes when I asked dumb questions, and I always left with a new understanding of what I like in wine.

But alas, these are COVID days. And this week, I spoke with Moshe Schulman, managing partner at Ruffian — and Kindred, its sister restaurant launched only months before the pandemic — about how the two are hanging on. Of all the businesses I’ve featured, these have arguably done the most of everyone’s least favorite word: pivoting. Keep reading to learn how.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You opened Kindred in October 2019. How were the first few months before the pandemic hit?
It was a very rocky opening as-is, and it didn’t help that COVID happened. We didn't have our gas turned on, that was an issue with ConEd, which delayed us from putting out a full menu.

What was the initial vision for Kindred?
Because of the small size of Ruffian (it's 300 square feet), we wanted a space to explore the food and wine in a bigger setting where people can have more of a restaurant experience [as opposed to] a wine bar. We wanted the space to have a more dinner-friendly menu, and also cocktails — there's a full liquor license, which we don't have at Ruffian. The idea with Kindred, which the name [communicates], was family-style dining, where you're hanging out with your friends, it's casual, you grab a few plates, a couple of glasses of wine, and you're onto the next thing. Obviously, we can't do community-style dining these days.

Yeah, that’s not happening. Tell me about the early days of the shutdown — how did it impact both restaurants?
We closed [both] a day or two earlier than the city decided to shut down. COVID was getting scarier, more people were getting infected, sales were dropping dramatically, and there was no way we'd be able to survive another week of operations and pay everyone, that's how tight the margins were. We knew the city was going to shut down indoor dining and the unemployment lines were going to be extremely long and terrible, so we felt it was the best decision, although it was a hard one, to shut down. Then there was all this food left over that we weren’t going to be able to sell, so we had a community food drive out of Kindred where we invited anyone to come by and pick up free food. It felt good to at least be able to give the food away without it spoiling.

From there, there was a lot of logistics to figure out: How do you shut a restaurant down when you're not sure what's happening, if you're closing or coming back? You put every vendor account on pause. We had to figure out a way to pay people's insurance — we’re one of a few small businesses that offers health insurance to their employees — so we started a GoFundMe, which did help. It was a lot of admin juggling, negotiating, deferring payments.

How long did you keep the doors closed?
From March 15th to May-ish, when we decided to open Ruffian just as a wine shop for pickup and delivery. We sold a lot of wine in the first few weeks into June and that helped us pay off most, if not all, of our vendor bills, which was a very big relief. Kindred was still hibernating.

Before that, we started offering virtual wine classes. Alexis and Pat [Alexis Percival and Patrick Cournot, the co-beverage directors of Ruffian and Kindred] were doing two live Zooms a week. They were just 10 bucks a ticket for about an hour. Those became really popular — people were starved for some sort of interaction — and that got a little money in to pay off a vendor here and there.

Did you get any COVID relief grants or loans?
We got the first round of PPP in June for both restaurants, which allowed us to bring our employees back and start opening up. But there were so many issues with it. We actually wrote an op-ed on the PPP for The Atlantic, because it was such a rough rollout. It kind of worked out in the end once they fixed some things and changed the percentages, although ultimately what restaurants really need, even now, is more money without any strings attached.

Beyond the PPP funds, how did you reopen in the summer?
At Ruffian, we started by [bringing] the stools from our indoor dining out on the sidewalk. We had two dishes and wine cups to go. Once [the construction guidelines came out], we started building things, which we had to redo three to four times each time the new guidelines came out. Once we got through those iterations, we graduated to eight dishes, mainly vegetarian and vegan food. While Ruffian was always doing vegetables in interesting ways, this was a more conscious effort for sustainability reasons. But also in terms of cost, labor, and all the restrictions that COVID put on us, this type of food made more sense. Will we ever have a meatball or a piece of fish? I'm sure we will in the future. COVID allowed us a moment to come back and say, "How can we create a menu that's appealing and flavorful, but also sustainable and cost-effective?" This direction was the answer to that. I also want to give credit to the chef de cuisine, Steven Shockley. He's a big part of that. We also onboarded reservations for the first time, which allowed us to bring in new customers; it’s also just a different experience, so it allowed us to grow in a different way.

Can you elaborate on how reservations change things?
As Pat liked to call it, Ruffian was always the pirate ship of wine bars. It was controlled chaos, but in the best way possible. Ruffian was a place where you can go in for a quick bite and a glass and then leave, or stay for a two-hour dinner and drink through the wine by the glass menu with loud old school hip hop playing in a really small space. It was difficult to think about turnover times and how to fit people in. Also, we established this experience of being able to just show up, and hopefully there's a seat available; if not, you might wait 45 minutes but you're happy waiting with a glass of wine. Even if people complain [about it] from time to time, I think they enjoy the hunt of figuring out how to get in at the right time.

But we've turned away so many people at Ruffian just because of the space. Allowing reservations provided, number one, a calm for people in terms of safety with COVID. It also provided a new way for us to connect with guests who we never knew existed or who didn't know we existed.

A big part of the charm at Ruffian was how small and even cramped it was — how the sommelier was right there if you had a question. Has that sense of intimacy been lost at all?
You certainly lose some of it, but I think we retained a good amount of that, if not most of it, because that comes down to the experience you provide, no matter what space you're in. People come to Ruffian because there's weird stuff that they won't find anywhere else and they know that they might be drinking one thing and then Pat or Alexis might come out and [give them a] taste of something new that we just got. Even in a larger space, we're still connecting with the guests one on one, and I think that is key.

We've talked a lot about Ruffian; what's been happening at Kindred?
Kindred also had a bunch of different evolutions. We started with a provision store, selling groceries with scheduled shopping times, but it didn't really take off ... At that point [in June], people were starting to leave the city for the summer. We missed the boat on that. Outdoor dining was just about to begin, so we felt it was more lucrative to put all our efforts into creating an outdoor dining experience than try to get four more people to come in. So we pivoted … I use “pivoted” too much.

We all do.
That's the word of the year, pivoted. So overnight, we had our kitchen team put out a full dinner menu. Things started picking up, but then Labor Day happened and it completely crashed. I think we lost $14,000 that weekend. I was like, "Holy shit. We have to make a move." One of the things we did was Work from Kindred: 25 bucks a day, free coffee, free Internet, free bathrooms. The idea was, You're sick of working from home, come hang out and work outside in the beautiful weather. We put together a two- or three-item lunch menu. If we could get you to stay from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM, maybe you'd order a glass of wine with your lunch and/or stay for happy hour once we get into dinner, which a lot of people did. We did it for five or six weeks, and we had 200 unique reservations. People loved it. It saved our asses, I'll say that much.

That sounds like paradise.
People were biking down from Washington Heights, Harlem, Upper West Side, Upper East Side. They were like, "I've got to get the hell out of my apartment." That was the first major pivot that helped us get through a really scary time.

The second one was doing the orange wine festival. Patrick and Alexis were talking about Raw, the natural wine fair that happens every year. It's a big party. Ruffian was always busy during that weekend for before and after parties, so we were like, How can we create our own? We did five seatings over one day: two hours [each], 16 glasses of three-ounce pours and then food. The weekend we [announced it], we sold 125 tickets. That was really crucial to us surviving.

And then with the colder weather coming, we pivoted again. We scaled down; unfortunately, we had to let some people go because the sales were dropping. We turned Kindred into an après-ski [pop-up], with a much smaller menu of hot cocktails and cheesy pastas. That was a revelation as well. The moment we put that out, we doubled our covers. I didn't realize that people were that excited to eat out in cold weather. We changed the whole design of the outside. Patagonia was nice enough to gift us three boxes full of coats for our staff. They didn't want any [shoutouts] ... I was like, "I can do a post for you," and they were like, "No, we just want to help people out." Après-ski was very successful, but we always had an out date because we realized it was going to get too cold.

You renovated and re-renovated like crazy; how much money do you think you spent on construction in 2020?
Let's see ... Construction alone was about $24,000 for Kindred. That's not including plants, chairs, furniture, outdoor heaters, the new electric stuff that we had to buy. I would say upwards of $50,000 to get all the iterations. That's probably low balling it. And at Ruffian, probably more like 30, 35, because it’s smaller. It's a crazy amount, and we're going to have to do it again because now it's gone through the winter, so we've got to reupholster everything.

Ooph. You’ve closed both locations for the winter, except for the wine shop at Ruffian; what motivated that decision?
We wanted to give everyone a break to recalibrate in the colder months and then come back strong. Everyone was burnt out. It’s really hard to gauge customer expectations in this context ... In a regular restaurant setting, it's a lot easier to go in day of and anticipate someone celebrating an anniversary or maybe they had a death in the family or it's a work promotion or they're breaking up. You can easily access those feelings from people just by talking to them. But in this realm, when everyone has to worry about their own well being, their family, and their friends, and we’re wearing masks and taking temperatures, it's really hard to gauge and then respond appropriately to what guests are putting forward. That was certainly taking a toll on the restaurant industry at large. Speaking for myself and our staff, we needed a break. It's hard to do that over and over again.

The last couple times I've gone out to eat, it was such a logistical headache to get there. And when I got there, I was so cold that no matter how emotionally invested I was in the event — one time it was a friend’s birthday, the other time my husband and I were celebrating our anniversary — I didn't want to be there and was mostly just excited to leave.
Right. At the end of the day, it's nothing that any of [the staff] did. It's just like, "Shit, I'm out here in the cold. I want to hang out with my friends or my family, but do I really want to?" If you can't give a good experience, what's the point? It's not worth it to try when you're up against rain and freezing weather.

What are you planning for the relaunch in the spring?
At Kindred, we'll be coming out with a new menu that is vegetable-focused with some fish and lots of homemade fresh pasta. It's going to cover the Adriatic region of Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy, but as a bounce board — it's not like we have to stick to it. A lot of really good orange wine, also red and white. In conjunction with that, we're probably going to do a form of Work from Kindred, but not right away. There will be a wine festival sometime in the spring. We’re looking at it as a brand new reopening, with a better understanding of what we want to do.

And then what about at Ruffian?
Ruffian’s going to open up in a similar way to how we closed when we were at the busiest, which was a tasting menu and an à la carte menu. It's still going to have the vegetarian/vegan options. Reservations will still be there. We're also looking to expand our operations, hopefully on 7th Street, to get more space to seat more people at a safe distance. And then the wine shop, of course. We’ll make some slight changes at Ruffian, but not as much as Kindred. Ruffian is its own machine. Now it's Kindred's time.

Will you reopen with indoor dining?
We'll strongly consider every option. We're not going to do anything that's not safe or that our employees are uncomfortable with. We never did indoor dining [during COVID], even when they said you could do it. We always thought it was a wash, and there was no point investing in that when we knew it was going to get shut down again. As people get vaccinated, it’s certainly in the future for both places to include indoor in some capacity … But we wouldn't do it at 25 percent. It's not safe, and it just wouldn't be enough. The biggest thing that Cuomo could do is extend the curfew and let those folks who don't have an outdoor space or can't hibernate go to 50 percent, because 25 percent won’t be sustainable for them.

Anything else that politicians could be doing differently?
Big picture, the leadership has failed small businesses and restaurants without a doubt. The PPP was great for a good portion of restaurants, but a lot of people got left out. I wish they talked to more small restaurants — they'd get a picture of how thin the margins are. If you're going to give out grants or even loans, it has to be within 24 to 48 hours. It can't be this six-week process. The stimulus bill that passed right before Biden's inauguration, that was what, eight months since the first one? It's just ridiculous. There are so many businesses that have closed and that will close, even now, that could have been helped. Also, in New York, they were slow with their guidelines and the changes in the guidelines, and [did not] anticipate the cold weather. Winter has always been on the calendar. The fact that they didn't anticipate that restaurants would need heaters and other things was astonishing. They've always been behind, and I don't expect them to be with us in real time now.

How do you think this crisis is going to impact your businesses in the long run, both structurally and spiritually?
I think we're going to have the roaring twenties. The other night I was getting nostalgic about having one of those nights where you're visiting seven different places: you get one appetizer here and a glass of wine there, and you're grabbing a drink here, and then you're ending the night at a bar with a small snack and whatever. One of the things I want to figure out is, How do we take what we've learned from COVID times in terms of labor and scale and make it work post-COVID? I think one [answer] is creating models for small spaces that don't require a balloon staff. I'm excited to turn the page and be able to use what we've learned from this experience in a positive way, and do it without a mask on, if it's safe to do so, and with people feeling comfortable being around each other again. Because that's what I think people are starved of. Going out to a restaurant is a big part of that. It's a big part of the social equity in the world.

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Until next time,

Curated By

Frances Thomas

Quiddity Content Editor

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