“You can only have so many Zoom shows”COVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | A pair of nightlife venues in Gowanus struggles to survive. Published: September 29, 2020
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New York City’s ban on indoor dining is lifting tomorrow, albeit with significant restrictions. Though plenty of restaurant owners are jumping at the chance to reopen, others are exasperated by what they feel are the state’s vague directions and minimal aid to do so. This week, I’m featuring someone in the latter camp: Julie Kim, co-owner of Littlefield and Parklife, a performance venue and open-air restaurant, respectively, that share a property in the heart of Gowanus. Along with her business partner, Scott Koshnoodi, Kim has spent the last six months experimenting with new business models — from virtual comedy shows and takeout dining to live outdoor events — all the while feeling “pushed to the back burner” by government officials. Keep reading for our conversation.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When did you first feel the effects of the pandemic?
Wow. Earlier than I expected.
When all of the things were happening in China at the start of the pandemic, attendance at our dance parties was significantly less. Then promoters started to get really nervous about what was happening abroad. Then you got the first case in New York. The last show we did was Tinder Live on Saturday the 14th [of March]. The next day, my business partner and I decided to pull the plug. This was before the governor declared a mandate to shut everything down. We reached out to our staff, which was really hard. I think that was the hardest part. I cried. We have 40 employees that we've worked with for a decade. They know us. They trust us. Then Monday, the news came from Cuomo that he's shutting things down. Fortunately, some of our staff got ahead and filed for unemployment, because that was another shit show.
What happened next?
For the first three weeks straight, I worked hard to find money. Grant applications, federal funding. There was so much paperwork. It was chaotic. No one had any answers. There was a sense of hopelessness; it felt like the end of days. I was grateful that at least my staff could file for unemployment, and I started a GoFundMe for them, but what about my business partner and me? We're self-employed. At the time, we didn't know what kind of assistance we personally could get. It was definitely the low point. But, you just push through it. That's how humans are. We really know how to fucking persevere.
Were you able to secure any funding?
Yeah, we did. We got the PPP and a couple of grants. I'm grateful for that. But they aren't scaled for the standard of living [in New York]. You can get several tens of thousands of dollars, and that goes a long way somewhere else in this country. But in New York, that goes to, like, one month's rent. So I had to choose where this money was going to go. I gave a little bit to my staff. I gave a little bit to the product we need. We started pivoting [Parklife] to do takeout only. And then I was like, You know what? Let's advance Littlefield. I learned a lot about virtual shows and how to livestream. I brought back two of my managers, who basically worked for free. In the mornings, I learned about virtual shows and then at night, we posted shows on Zoom. We did that for a couple months, and then as the weather started getting better and New York was keeping cases low, we prepared for Parklife to reopen [for outdoor dining].
Tell me about the launch of your outdoor programming.
We brought back a core group of staff to work [at Parklife], but Littlefield was still dead in the water. We scaled back on the virtual shows, because it was summer and people wanted to be outside. They'd been cooped up since March. So we said, Why don’t we do a series called Littlefield Live at Parklife, where we bring our shows to our sister restaurant? We built a stage, set up speakers, and hosted really successful socially distanced shows where we included food in the ticket price, that way we helped the restaurant. It felt like a win. We weren't making any money off those shows. It was more about giving people a chance to feel okay during this pandemic. To enjoy themselves a little bit, let go, but still be safe. We were very straight with people: they signed a health declaration when they came in to say that they didn't have COVID, they hadn’t exposed themselves, and they would follow the rules. Same with the performers. We told them, "This will be a stripped-down show, you can't bring your whole band." I had to pivot to all online ordering and tableside delivery. [Patrons] can't come inside, unless they use the bathroom, and it's only three at a time. I try to minimize exposure for my staff: They have already gone through so much. They are my top priority. So that was great, and it kept Littlefield viable. Agents started reaching out to us about booking more things. Then Cuomo said, "Nope, we're banning outdoor ticketed events and shows." So that was another blow. [Ed. note: The new rule banning ticketed live performances was posted on the State Liquor Authority website in late August.]
How are you grappling with the new limitations?
Having an engineering background, I’m used to troubleshooting [Ed. note: Before founding Littlefield and Parklife, Kim was an environmental engineer]. Literally, that's all it's been. It's like, "How do we troubleshoot this problem and how do we find a longer-term solution? How can we be efficient with our time and energy?" It feels like the state is making us pivot, re-pivot, and spend our own money on all of these things like PPEs, and then once we find a creative way to try to keep our businesses viable, we get shut back down. So now we're at another crossroads. How do we keep Littlefield going heading into winter? You can only have so many Zoom shows. And then Facebook banned live streaming of music. How many more obstacles must we be confronted with? I'm really concerned about winter.
How do you feel about the return to indoor dining?
Indoor dining is about to reopen with 25-percent capacity, provided you have an enhanced air purification system. You know what that means? That means more money that I have to spend. And New York restaurants are tiny. For us, 25-percent capacity and 6-foot distancing, that's 10 people. I'm not going to spend all this money on revamping our air system for 10 people. It's not feasible. We're lucky that [outdoor dining] is part of our premise. We have plans for some [upgrades]… We're looking into what's financially possible. New York City makes it so hard to be a small business owner, because you have to go through a lot of red tape to get anything done. We're trying to figure out an effective and efficient way to keep our patrons warm and keep our business from dying in the water. In the interim, we're going to brand some blankets and sell those at Parklife. We'll also rent out blankets for people. We'll introduce a lot of hot drinks on our menu. And we're going to have free incidental entertainment, because that's what Cuomo wants. We host movie nights right now on Wednesdays and encores on Sunday nights. We're going to continue that through October with Halloween-themed movies. We'll also do very important screenings of the presidential and VP debates. We're planning on having a socially distanced election night viewing. All of these things are free.
Is “free” what defines “incidental”?
That's a very good question [laughs]. The way I'm interpreting it is, you want the draw to be your food and drinks — 99 percent of it. Incidental is just something in the background, so inherently it has to be free. So for people who come to movie night, they're there to hang out, but there just happens to be a movie playing in the background. It's the same thing with music. Honestly, musicians and DJs just want to do something in front of somebody. They're so starved for that.
Will you return focus to your virtual shows?
This winter, we're trying to figure out how to make online shows a little more interactive. We're looking into installing cameras and showing the audience [at Parklife], then if we have a band playing at the Littlefield stage, they can see the audience and the audience can see them. Kind of like a live Skype thing. I don't know. We're just trying to figure it out as we go, unfortunately.
The stage at Littlefield / Photography by Mark Doyle
What have you learned so far from transferring live performances to a digital format?
Stand-up comedy does not work on a virtual platform. It's amazing how much feedback and energy the performers get from being in a live setting. It was one thing that we didn't anticipate, because we watch comedy on Netflix. But you're watching a comedian riff off the energy of the live audience they're in front of, even though it's being filmed and you’re watching it at home. When we tried it on a virtual platform, there was no engagement. So we started introducing some people to do live laughter, but there was a competition within Zoom of which audio is placed above what. Then we looked into laugh tracks and background music. But we can do other types of comedy… It works with Drunk Science, which is a monthly that we used to host where comedians do dissertations on real science topics and have a scientist judge them. At Littlefield, we would use a big projection screen and they [the comedians] would have a PowerPoint presentation. The visuals work very well on Zoom where they share their screen. We were also able to successfully pivot Punderdome, which is our most popular monthly show where we have contestants sign up to compete with puns. We helped Fred Firestone [the host] figure out how to do that [on Zoom]. Anything where it's interactive like that, it works. COVID has taught us to pivot the shit out of things. I hate that word, but that’s been a big takeaway.
COVID has taught us to pivot the shit out of things.
How do you think that this crisis is going to impact your business and your community in the long run?
On the positive side, it's really brought all of us independent venue owners together. We formed a New York offshoot of the Independent Venue Association called NYIVA. We meet each week online and discuss the problems and talk about solutions and resources. Normally in New York City, it's cutthroat. It's not to say anyone engages in bad, dirty tricks or anything… But we are looking out for ourselves. Now it's, How do we keep us all alive? That's been the good thing.
But in the long term, people are leaving the city. The landscape is going to change drastically, especially [if there’s] a possible resurgence. We're seeing it now that cases are starting to go up. We have performers who travel throughout the country and the world… How is that going to affect our programming? Are we only going to do local shows now? I don't even know if a vaccine is going to do anything. You're going to see people who are anti-vaxxers, and then there’s the issue of who gets the vaccines first. There are so many uncertainties. Nightlife won't look like it was before, at least for a couple of years.
How to help:
- Donate to the GoFundMe campaign for Littlefield and Parklife staff
- Watch a virtual show
- Purchase a gift card for a future live show and/or a gift card for food and drinks
- Follow Littlefield and Parklife on Instagram
- Follow the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) and support the movement to #SaveOurStages
- For New Yorkers: Visit Parklife for tacos, beer, and margaritas outdoors (plus incidental entertainment)
Until next time,