For Nate Adler and Flip Biddelman, co-owners of the hip Brooklyn restaurant Gertie, the first year was supposed to be the most challenging.
In a city where most kitchens shutter within the first few years of business, the all-day cafe garnered accolades for its food and steadily became a destination. Neighborhood locals and New Yorkers looking to dine at one of the most notable restaurant openings in 2019 flocked to the space, located on an odd stretch of Grand Avenue next to the rumblings of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The airy dining room with soothing pastel colors and plants made you feel like you were in a California cafe, whether you ordered an egg-and-cheese breakfast sandwich or a chocolate babka muffin.
Still, the duo had plans to commemorate Gertie’s first anniversary in March with more changes: relaunching a menu focused on modern Jewish food (the matzoh-crusted chicken wings available through Resy At Home Specials were a sneak preview), shifting toward table service versus counter service, renovating a private dining room, and hiring a new sous chef.
Most restaurateurs could only dream of this much success in the early stages. But everyone knows what happened when the pandemic hit New York City in mid-March.
“We were ready to sell it to the world when the rug was pulled out under us,” said Biddelman, of the restaurant’s upcoming plans.
Instead, the past few months put Gertie in limbo as it did for the entire restaurant industry. They started donating food again through a national organization, shut down temporarily, opened a soup kitchen, experimented with takeout, and today, they’ve slowly reopened to the public.
“We’ve pivoted too many times to keep count,” said Adler. “But we came together like a team and said, ‘We’re going to fight.’’’
The Gertie team turned to what it does best: feeding people. Initially, they started a relief center to provide food and essential items like toilet paper — all free — to industry colleagues who lost their jobs overnight. It was the LEE Initiative — a program which Lindsey Ofcacek and Chef Edward Lee organized to help unemployed restaurant workers across the country — that made their philanthropy possible.
“We are living in a time where the entire world is first-handedly experiencing how important the food and beverage communities, specifically their employees, are to our everyday lives,” said Rob Samuels, COO of Maker’s Mark, which helped fund the LEE Initiative. “It’s time for us to return the favor and take care of a community that is so accustomed to taking care of us.”
Ariel Barnes, who worked as the general manager of Scarr’s Pizza on the Lower East Side, says the free food did more than feed out-of-work hospitality employees. It provided a sense of security in uncertain times. For many of her colleagues, applying for unemployment benefits was a struggle on top of the safety concerns over seemingly simple tasks like grocery shopping.
“A lot of people felt relief from what Gertie had to offer,” said Barnes, who is still unemployed today. “The whole concept of it was beautiful: they offered moral support.”
The restaurant’s work with the LEE Initiative ended just as Gertie closed all operations at the height of the pandemic. Eventually, the restaurant reopened with a small takeout menu and started a soup kitchen. Adler and Biddelman were able to hire back some employees (about eight people are on the payroll compared to nearly 20 before COVID hit).
Gertie Feeds NYC, a partnership with Rethink NYC and City Harvest, is the soup kitchen that still operates today in an unpredictable year. About 1,500 meals per week have been delivered to neighborhoods across Brooklyn and Queens each week, and the team estimates they’ve cooked and delivered nearly 12,000 meals over nearly two months so far. They hope to continue the program.
But despite the fulfillment of feeding thousands of people, Adler said, there have been moments each day that make him question “whether it makes sense to come back.” Gertie was denied a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program the first time around. Both Adler and Biddelman say there hasn’t been enough guidance from the state or city, and they often find themselves catching up last-minute, whether it’s offering outdoor dining or feeling like they’re left enforcing safety protocols on the public.
For now, the team will continue focusing on what they’re providing the community, such as a themed movie night in the revamped backyard, live folk music, and more recently, their Gertie Summer Shack concept on weekends — try the fried chicken schnitzel sandwiches and homemade ice cream sandwiches.
“It’s easier for all of us to take it one day at time,” said Biddelman. “We’re trying to feed off these little wins.”
This week (July 6-12), the special at Gertie is as follows:
Chicken Parmesan ($60, serves two; additional $30 for a bottle of wine): Chicken parmesan with fresh tagliatelle; broccoli rabe; garlic bread; and cheesecake. Option to add a bottle of NV Domaine Rimbert ‘For Me’ Formidable Merlot for an additional $30. Available Thu.-Sun. Order Now