In the last three weeks there have been two things that people want to discuss with me: how it’s been to reopen my business after six months of being closed and how I feel about Messi wanting to leave Barcelona. The answer is the same for both topics. I feel emotional and anxious.
Unlike thousands of our counterparts, Brass Monkey did not elect to do takeout or delivery when those options were first presented as ways to sustain a restaurant business model during the early weeks of quarantine. We also did not immediately open an outdoor café when bars and restaurants were permitted to take over sidewalks and parking spaces even though we were approved for a permit to do so on the first day it was allowed.
We waited for several reasons: the major factor being that we began a renovation of our outdoor roof terrace months prior to shutdown and the space was unusable until that project was finished. We also just weren’t sure if reopening was a feasible option financially. The cost of operation still far outweighs the earning potential with such reduced capacity and limited hours and with over five months of unpaid debts piled up on top of all that, it’s risky to say the least to reopen and accrue more debt.
And one substantial reason that hung over our heads as we debated our reopen is that bars and restaurants have – rightly and wrongly – been focused as the highest risk setting for potential viral spread if things aren’t properly managed. I say “rightly and wrongly” because I understand that the act of consuming alcohol by definition lowers inhibitions and fosters potentially poor decision-making. However, what we can glean from history is that prohibition doesn’t work because it only encourages people to take underground action, which has far more perilous potential than consuming alcohol in a controlled environment. Google “underground covid parties” and your city name and see what you discover. I also believe, like most if not all of my counterparts in this industry, that if we are not afforded a better opportunity to allow our businesses to thrive again, we will not survive.
To my knowledge, the bar/restaurant industry is the only sector of business in New York undergoing surprise inspections to determine if we are abiding by all COVID-19 guidelines for operation and penalized thusly. Close to 200 establishments in the state, most in the five boroughs, have had their liquor licenses suspended for various infractions including congregating indoors, permitting people to consume alcohol without “substantial” amounts of food and improper mask usage by both staff and customers. Even more have been permitted to continue operating, but have been levied large fines that can negate a day’s or a even a week’s business or more.
I, for one, do not wish to be part of the problem and I certainly don’t want to put my employees or customers in potentially dangerous situations. Once the renovation of our roof terrace was complete, we ultimately decided we had to at least attempt to salvage something out of this dismal year if only to give some of our employees a chance to earn some income, particularly for those unable to qualify for assistance from the government. But first we had earnest discussions with everyone before bringing them back and asked them to really consider whether they are ready to rejoin the workforce under these conditions. We assured them that we would be following every recommendation made by the medical science community to the letter of the law and that we would do everything in our power to make their work lives safe. As safe as we are able. We also stressed that we could not afford to be one of the many venues shut down for not following the protocols.
We are now starting our fourth week of business and we have yet to do one full week of operation. The first week, we delayed the opening and closing a day early because we had a lot of kinks to work out implementing the new cleaning systems, etc. in order to meet compliance with all COVID regulations. The second week, the Department of Transportation (DOT) sent out a notice on a particularly cloudy Thursday morning that required all businesses to remove outdoor furniture because of extreme weather conditions forecast in relation to tropical storms passing over the area, thereby shuttering business for a day.
As I write this we just completed five consecutive days of business for this first time since we reopened our doors a month ago. However, we did have to close early one day this week, again, because of torrential rain. Prior to COVID, the rooftop portion of business was always susceptible to interruptions because of rain and other weather. However, back then, we had two levels of indoor seating that could accommodate people until the rain or weather passed. Now, if it looks like there will be consequential precipitation for more than an hour, we have to close because we can no longer afford to pay people to stand around and do nothing while Mother Nature does her thing.
For now, we are not opening on Mondays and Tuesdays. Our calculus for cost of business-to-anticipated foot traffic determines that it’s probably not financially sound to open those days. With fewer offices operating in person in the area, we don’t have a lunch crowd or happy hour anymore. Hotels in the area are just beginning to reopen with reduced capacity, but with travel restrictions, a weak dollar, and the overall diminished image of America during this time, there is a notably sharp decline in tourism.
Add to all of this that bars and restaurants have to close early because of the restricted hours of use for outdoor seating areas. The DOT permits businesses to utilize their allotted street space for outdoor dining until 11pm. Limiting the hours of use allows nearby residents some assurance that there won’t be the noise and disturbance of people congregating out their windows late at night. It also mitigates the mayhem that can result from debauchery into the wee hours. Although the overt reasoning for all these restrictions is coronavirus containment, I don’t think it’s an unreasonable assumption that many decision makers are probably internally pleased to subdue the machinations of nightlife outright.
Technically, we could keep our outdoor rooftop terrace open after this 11pm curfew since it doesn’t fall under the same regulations as the street dining areas. We are licensed to operate until 4am daily. However, we also have to account for the lack of 24-hour public transportation that would previously guarantee a way home for our employees and customers. Now that trains are shut down for five hours starting at 1am so they can sanitize the cars, people have to adjust the entire framework of their day if they work “nontraditional” hours. Some subway lines shut down as early as midnight, so if we don’t get our employees out the door early enough, they may have to take an expensive cab or rideshare home. Or, it may take them twice as long to get home if the trains aren’t all running and they have to take a bus for part of their route. We’re already asking a lot of them to do the work that they do and creating the additional hurdle of a frustrating commute is unjustifiable to me, particularly when they are making far less than they used to be.
Prior to COVID times, we operated for about 16 hours a day every day of the year except Christmas or 112 hours weekly for 52 weeks. Currently, we operate at about seven to ten hours daily or 38 hours a week. With less than 25% capacity and about one-third of the operating hours, we were only able to hire back about a quarter of the staff that we previously employed. Although they are thankfully able to make about the same hourly wage that they were making prior to closing, there aren’t enough hours for everyone to work as much as they did before. Many have taken on second or even third jobs to earn what they previously made.
As for our side of things, the business is only generating 5-10% of what we did this time last year. In order to purchase product, we have to make some sort of dent in the outstanding debts we have to all of our suppliers. And, although our cost of goods and payroll is reduced, our largest expenses: rent, mortgage, taxes, utilities and insurance remain the same. You do the math.
In Messi’s interview with Goal he discusses how difficult the year has been for him. He suffered a lot because of how the club has been mismanaged and felt that his time at Barcelona had reached an end. He expressed a deep sadness because he has such love for the club and the city that has given him his life. Messi came to Barcelona from Argentina was he was 13 years old and he just turned 33 and in those twenty years he has established himself as almost certainly the greatest footballer to ever play the game. He feels betrayed by the president (Bartomeu) because he had been assured that he could leave many times over the year and then he was told that was not the case unless another club pays the exorbitant transfer fee (700 million Euro) to release his contract.
He says he will remain for another year and give all his effort to the club as he has always done. He recognizes that his difficult year is nothing compared to the suffering so many have endured because of COVID. I suspect he understands that what he brings to the sport of football (soccer) and specifically to FC Barcelona provides great joy and comfort to people particularly when there is so much uncertainty and pain in our lives – myself very much included. He has always shown gratitude for his place in the world and given back to the people who have admired and supported him throughout his career.
I have expressed a desire to leave hospitality for at least as long as Messi seems to have wanted to leave Barca. Longer, actually. There’s a joke amongst people who have worked in the service industry for a long while that many will say, “This is definitely my last year (fill in the blank – bartending, serving, managing, etc.).” It’s a joke because it is almost never that person’s last year doing that job. I cannot speak for other fields, but nightlife veterans know that it’s a hard game to quit. My first restaurant job was the summer before my junior year of high school which would make this my 25th year working in hospitality.
I have been telling my business partner for quite a while that I am done. For several years during the period when I transitioned from bartending to managing, I took no more than 3-5 days off a year and I worked 14-16 hour days, seven days a week. I’ve earned the right to walk away. I’ve dedicated a lot of my time and life to moving the business forward and I sacrificed a lot in order to make it a success. Of course, I am grateful for what the business has provided to my life. But, more often than not, I feel there is nothing more for me to give and nothing more that I can receive that makes the work worthwhile.
What gives me pause is that I feel a strong loyalty to the employees who have been so loyal to me. They are like family now and I feel responsible for their futures. I know that for many of them this job is their opportunity to support their families and that, in some small way, being part of Brass Monkey gives them some measure of happiness. At least I hope that is true.
I also know that what I have helped create is in many ways my legacy to the city. I have worked in the Meatpacking District for two decades since the late 1990’s when cabs didn’t know how to find the neighborhood and the sidewalks were covered in the drippings of cow carcasses that used to hang from the steel awnings. Before Brass Monkey, I worked the overnight shift at Florent where I served whiskey in coffee cups to the ladies of the night who use to dominate the street corners and who taught me how to walk on the cobblestone while wearing heels. So much of my life has happened on the small blocks along the Hudson River below 14th Street. It is a part of me.
Since our reopen, I have seen so many familiar faces return to support us and it warms my typically cold heart. I want to keep providing a place for them that feels like returning to an old friend. It is what I have done for so long and what I will continue to do. So for now, like Messi, I will stay. Even though it may make me sad and anxious, I will stay. Although the circumstances for operating the business are miles away from ideal and the light at the end of the tunnel doesn’t seem to exist, I made a commitment that I will keep. I’ll keep playing the game. For now.