Co-owner Annie Shi at her restaurant, King. // Credit: Ellen Silverman

The Road BackNew York

Hospitality Is What Can Save Restaurants. But Uncertainty Is Destroying Them.

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We served our last lunch before quarantine on Monday, March 17.  When we disbanded our team and said good-bye, we knew it would be for more than a few weeks. All of the leftover food in our walk-in and low-boys were distributed to our staff and neighbors. We deep-cleaned the restaurant, moved all the liquor behind the bar downstairs and my business partner, Jess and I drank a few too many bottles of wine as we thought about what the future held for King.

Throughout the months when New York’s hospitalization and death rate were at their worst, I spent most mornings watching Gov. Cuomo’s daily briefing with my dad, who is a journalist. Clare, Jess, Sade – my business partners at King – and I spoke almost every day. We applied for loans, and waited. We weighed our options and tried to project the future, and waited. The country was in such dire straits that I had moments where I couldn’t even think about King. I wondered why I hadn’t gone to medical or law school.

After three months closed, we finally reopened for dinner service July 2.  The lead-up to reopening for full service was maddening and mad – we received an email from the city’s Department of Transportation with guidelines Monday morning at 1:30 a.m. We opened with fully built-out roadside seating on Thursday. It felt like opening a new restaurant in fast-forward: working with contractors, negotiating, drawing out measurements on the back of a piece of cardboard, notes written on table paper. I was re-imagining what full service would look like in this crazy new world where COVID-19 existed. What were our new underlying philosophies? What principles were at the core of what it meant to be King? And most importantly, what did hospitality look like in this new environment?

We’ve had four weeks of service since; it has been utterly joyful to breathe life back into our corner of Sixth Avenue and King Street.  To be in the rush of service again with people that I care about – I didn’t think I would get that feeling back for a long time.  I’ve loved seeing familiar faces walking up to King, with the Empire State Building glowing behind them. These are people that we used to see once a week, once a month; their presence was a constant in our lives. Catching up with them has made all of us feel – I want to avoid using the word normal because it’s not right, but …  a little more connected again. 

There is nothing normal about running a restaurant in a pandemic. But, as I’ve said to our staff, we are figuring this out together. We ask everyone to voice their opinions on what is working and isn’t. In these few weeks, we’ve learned a few things about how to provide hospitality in this new era. But with every answer, we have just as many questions around what the future holds for the restaurant industry at large. 

We’ve been reminded that hospitality is showing people that you care. It’s a feeling of being taken care of, and it is not tied to writing down someone’s order on a notepad or delivering a check. We opened with contactless ordering and paying, and every day in pre-service, we talk about how to show our care without traditional touchstones of service. We shouldn’t be spending as much time at tables as we used to. But if a guest puts on their mask, we know that’s a sign that they want to engage us and chat. Incidentally, mask-wearing goes both ways.  There has always been the uncomfortable class and socio-economic division of what it means to serve and be served. Recently, it has come out in city guidelines for mask-wearing. New York requires guests to wear masks while waiting in line or when going to the restroom. It is recommended but optional to wear a mask when staff is at the table. Staff, on the other hand, must wear masks at all times when working. In other words, guests must be protected at all times from staff. Staff don’t receive that same protection. 

When I asked my team to come back to work, I did so with the full knowledge that they either had no choice but to work, or they were doing so because of their love and loyalty to King. I don’t take either lightly. Sade, our head chef, and I discussed reopening procedures at length; keeping our staff safe was always a priority.  Therefore, from the beginning, we have been asking guests to wear masks when staff is at the table.  We get the occasional rude response, including a guest who told our server that he didn’t believe the virus existed, but most guests appreciate that we are taking care of our staff, and as result, of them. A restaurant, like any other workplace – or like public health more generally – is an ecosystem. It only thrives when everyone is safe and taken care of. That is our definition of hospitality.

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It feels weird to even say this, but we’re back in a rhythm with dinner service. However, there is a difference between making it through each day, and knowing where you are headed, and right now I don’t think anyone, including our lawmakers, has an answer to the latter.

For anyone who has worked service, you know it’s all encompassing. It is impossible to do or think about anything else when you are caught up in it. At the end of every night, I lock up the restaurant and make my way home. At around 2 a.m., post-shower and snack, I’m restless and wide awake, thinking about everything else affecting our country and our industry. These are the unfortunate bare-bone realities that are not apparent to most diners.

For example: The current federal supplement to unemployment expired July 30. There is a new bill in the House that would reduce it from $600 weekly to $200. That means millions of people will be forced to go back to work. A lot will go back to restaurants, and they are often the most vulnerable. Many restaurants can’t afford to provide affordable healthcare, so staff often do not have health insurance. They have no stability when it comes to income because the industry relies so heavily on tipping, a system we can all agree is racist. On top of interacting with hundreds of people every week, likely they will have to take public transportation. They have been put into the category of essential worker, without any additional benefit. And they’re coming back to an industry that is only allowed to do 50% of the business it used to, meaning that many people won’t even be able to find jobs. The ones who can must have a safe environment to return to, and New York City — like all municipalities — has a responsibility not only to enforce the rules that they have set out, but to revise those, like the one-sided view to mask-wearing, that unfairly and unnecessarily risk the lives of restaurant workers. 

New York’s Open Restaurants Program has allowed a lot of restaurants like King to reopen. But it’s not the lifeline people think it is. We spent over $10,000 to build out the required barriers and platform deck, and to purchase and install tents that would give us a fighting chance against summer storms. We are doing around 50% of our sales at best, while our costs have not gone down– if anything, they’ve remained the same. PPE costs money. Extra cleaning supplies cost money. Our unabated rent costs a lot of money. 

What do we really need? For the city to give us the ability to plan – what is coming next after October 31, when outdoor dining is due to end? What’s going to happen after September 30, the last day under which business owners are protected from personal bankruptcy if they can’t pay their lease? What happens when takeout cocktails or wine are no longer allowed, a likely eventuality because the liquor retail lobby is so powerful? Or when delivery fees jump back up to 30% from the state of emergency cap of 20%? The federal government and state have provided no commercial rent relief and no road map for what to do when landlords like ours are aggressive and refuse to negotiate. We cannot plan for our future. And meanwhile we continue to accrue costs and take on additional burdens in order to operate. 

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There is a real risk that come September, when King is set to mark its four-year anniversary, many of us restaurateurs won’t be here anymore. The reality is: All restaurants in New York City operate on paper-thin margins, and you’re lucky if you’re in the high single-digits. That means outdoor dining is still forcing us to operate in the red. It’s only feasible at the moment because many restaurants are being floated by PPP, but once that window closes, most will not have the cash flow to survive months of 50% capacity indoor business. That means federal support. We have been so lucky in how New Yorkers have received us in the past four years, but we don’t know the path forward. 

And as we have learned through these past months, restaurants are essential. There can be no New York City without them. The creativity and grit that restaurateurs have shown these past months has been inspiring — pivoting from delivery to marketplace to food banks, and now to outdoor dining. It’s that energy that makes New York special. It’s for that version of New York that I am trying to live in the present. 

Since we’ve reopened, we’ve heard over and over again from guests that King is their first meal out since March. We have witnessed birthdays, anniversaries, friends reuniting after months of social distance. Every night, I get to see plate after plate of beautiful food on their way out to tables — marinated peaches with Esmée rocket one night, or a hand-made orecchiette with littleneck clams and zucchini trifolati the next. Getting to see the staff with whom I have spent more time in the last four years than anyone else in my life. Turning off the lights every night and locking the door.  Restaurants are the conduit that allows for people to come together, and that is a beautiful and essential thing. But in order to survive, our industry needs more protection. We need the ability to plan. We need to know that the rules of the game aren’t constantly going to change.

Annie Shi, along with Clare de Boer, Jessica Shadbolt and Sade Zimmerman-Feeley, is an owner of King restaurant in Manhattan. Follow her on Instagram at @annie.h.shi. Follow @Resy, too.

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