Oxalis’ Steve Wong on the Restaurant Industry’s Reinvention Conundrum
Oxalis, the neighborhood bistro in Crown Heights, is used to reinventing itself and adapting to change.
What started as a pop-up in 2016 is now a Michelin-starred restaurant that also just launched a new business offshoot: Pantry Box, also known as Boxalis, features everything from wine and produce to picnic, date night, and brunch kits. Its success is one reason why the forward-thinking restaurant isn’t planning to reopen for dine-in service until August at the earliest.
But a pandemic-driven pivot like pantry boxes isn’t a panacea, and it won’t drive permanent changes in the way the American restaurant industry operates, or how it treats its workforce.
Those are issues that weigh heavily on the mind of Steve Wong, director of operations and co-owner of Oxalis.
Wong and his two business partners — chef Nico Russell and beverage director Piper Kristensen — have long believed that, even before the coronavirus pandemic, the restaurant industry was overdue for reinvention. That it was unsustainable and, in many ways, inequitable.
Together, they’ve tried to find ways to make things better. But it’s been a challenge.
Oxalis recently fundraised more than $10,000 for Reclaim the Block and Black Visions Collective, two Black-led organizations dedicated to police reform and transformative justice. Previously, the restaurant has also raised money for the International Refugee Assistance Project, RAICES, and the Texas Civil Rights Project.
“We know there’s more that we can do, and we’re constantly trying to figure out how to do better,” Wong said.
He’s hopeful about food media highlighting more BIPOC writers, as well as BIPOC-owned restaurants like his — Wong is Taiwanese American, and Russell is Mexican Filipino American.
“That role that the media plays is going to play a big shift in terms of lifting up businesses for people of color, women of color, for LGBTQIA ownership, for people who have always been marginalized,” he said.
“But,” he added, “there’s only so much the media can do.”
One primary way Wong sees the industry reinventing itself for the better is through the adoption of One Fair Wage, or the payment of a living minimum wage, plus tips. Yet even as much as he, Russell, and Kristensen support One Fair Wage, he said it’s not financially feasible to offer it at Oxalis, although they are currently paying employees above minimum wage.
“If you’re talking about restaurants that are operating at break-even and you increase labor costs, even if you care deeply about paying your staff, how do you find that dollar amount?” Wong asked. “How do we reinvent ourselves?”
Wong believes legislation for a higher universal minimum wage is part of the solution, as is the ability for restaurants to raise their prices so they can provide healthcare and benefits for their employees. Or, perhaps, the removal of restaurant costs related to payroll taxes, property taxes, licensing, and fees.
“If we want restaurants to change and become better, there needs to be community support and there needs to be consumer support and a willingness to pay more, so we as an industry can afford to operate in a better fashion,” Wong said.
Raising prices, however, is something Wong and Russell are averse to doing. The restaurant is known for its $70 five-course tasting menu in a city where similar dining experiences generally start at $150 or more per person.
“One thing that excites us about our company is that we can give people who don’t normally eat out in fine dining a chance to have food that comes from a background of a chef who’s worked at Daniel and Mirazur,” Wong said. “That concept of accessibility and fine dining is really important and exciting for us as people who come from blue-collar backgrounds.”
If and when Oxalis reopens for dining again, Wong said there might be a slight increase in menu prices, at least temporarily, but he doesn’t want prices to stay that high indefinitely.
As more restaurants in New York City slowly begin to reopen, the team at Oxalis isn’t in a rush to do so just yet, citing safety concerns for its staff. Wong, however, is confident that the restaurant can survive for the long run.
And he remains hopeful.
“Pandemic or not, everything that happened was a looking glass into how unsustainable things were for restaurants for so long,” Wong said. “If we want to see change in the restaurant industry, we need to bring more traffic and business and money to those businesses that have been traditionally underrepresented, and we need to pay more for it.”
Resy At Home Specials is a four-week special Resy program featuring exclusive dishes from a handful of top New York restaurants, all available for takeout. For more information, click here.
This week (June 29-July 5), the special at Oxalis is as follows:
July Fourth Taco Barbecue ($45, serves two)
Tacos al pastor, served with elote, grilled onions, salsa, and nixtamal tortillas.
Deanna Ting is a Resy staff writer. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter. Follow @Resy, too