Airing between regular episodes of the VinePair Podcast, “Next Round” explores the ideas and innovations that are helping drinks businesses adapt in a time of unprecedented change. As the coronavirus crisis continues and new challenges arise, VP Pro is in your corner, supporting the drinks community for all the rounds to come. If you have a story or perspective to share, email us at email@example.com.
In this episode of “Next Round,” VinePair CEO and founder Adam Teeter speaks with Patrick Cournot, Alexis Percival, and Moshe Schulman, owners of Ruffian and Kindred in the East Village, NYC. The team returns after first speaking with Teeter in April 2020 to discuss how they’ve managed after receiving PPP loans, shifted from offering provisions to full-service outdoor dining, and continued to reinvent their restaurants along the way.
Both Ruffian and Kindred have undergone major transformations, from moving wine lists online, to operating as shared coworking spaces during the day. Thanks to their motivated team, the restaurants have made it this far, but their owners are unsure of what the winter has in store for Kindred, Ruffian, and restaurants nationwide.
In this conversation, Cournot, Percival, and Schulman dive deep into what customers don’t see from the outside, and why restaurants need government officials to approve grants and aid now. While this team has done everything they can to constantly reimagine their restaurants, they anticipate new mandated restaurant closures as soon as next week. The restaurateurs emphasize that Americans must change their behavior and support politicians who deliver the hard truth.
Or check out the conversation here
Adam: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter. And this is a VinePair Next Round conversation. We’re bringing you these conversations between our regular podcast episodes to give a clear picture of what’s happening to restaurants and bars during the Covid-19 crisis. Today, I’m again really lucky to be talking with Alexis, Patrick, and Moshe, the partners in the amazing wine bars and restaurants Ruffian and Kindred in New York City’s East Village.
For those of you that listened to the podcast earlier in March, they were some of the first people we talked to when all the crazy shit started to hit the fan. And again, we are really lucky to have you guys back to talk to us about what’s going on now. So Alexis, Patrick, Moshe thank you so much for joining me.
Alexis: Thanks, Adam.
Patrick: Thank you.
A: So do you guys want to just give us a quick update? The last time we spoke, you were just amazing in your transparency of what was happening with your businesses, your negotiations with your landlords. We were at a point at that time where outdoor dining wasn’t even a thing anyone was thinking about. You guys hadn’t started the Ruffian wine shop yet. We were just talking about “how are you adapting to being closed?” We talked about how you generously opened up your refrigerators and gave food to your employees, and everyone was just trying to get their bearings at that point, right? No one really knew what was happening. I think PPP was just beginning to be talked about. Obviously, a lot has changed since then. So I’d love it if you could update the listeners on what’s happened to your businesses since we last spoke and kind of bring me up to speed as to where we are today.
Moshe: How many years ago was that? A lot, a lot has happened. I was saying, just in a quick summary, I would say that both Ruffian and Kindred have continued. We’ve continued to adapt and invent as we’ve gone along, we’ve probably created three to five different iterations of “what a restaurant is” during this period. So we went from doing a wine shop at Ruffian and provisions at Kindred, to doing complete, full-service outdoor dining. And during that time, continuing to update and adapt as the new guidelines came out by the hour. So as Pat and Alexis said, yeah, it feels like years ago. But we’ve been able to survive by continuously adapting and hustling. And that’s where we are today. I know that was a quick summary, but Pat or Alexis might be able to jump in.
A: That was a pretty quick summary, Moshe. There’s a lot more that happened, but I understand it all feels like a blur. So Patrick, so what has happened at Ruffian?
P: I think we’re talking about April, May, that territory. And in or around April or May, we started to do literally one dish to go, just a khachapuri — a Georgian-style cheese boat. And at that moment, when we were just trying to figure out what any kind of sales would look like that weren’t strictly online, we wanted to pick a dish that we thought reflected us making something from scratch, and doing something that related to the Caucasus, where a lot of the wines that we championed come from and we wanted to get to do something new and we hadn’t done khachapuri yet. So yeah, we started with just that dish and for at least two weeks, I want to say we were just selling glasses. Like plastic cups of wine to go. Orange wine, $12 a glass or something to go with the khachapuri, and you could go eat in the park. We’re next to Tompkins Square. So it was really warm out back then, or I think that was even before the summer, really. And we moved into summer and we built a platform at first and we just had patio umbrellas out there. And on rainy days, it was just overwhelming. You couldn’t do anything, and over about a month, I think we went from just a patio, to building a tent structure above it and started to do almost proper service. And as soon as we felt like we could do something fairly proper, we kind of solidified our direction we were going with, which for Ruffin was we actually made ourselves vegetarian — a significant change for us. We were always a vegetable-championing restaurant, I guess. And we always tried to cook things that we thought were on the edge of what we were interested in trying to grow in a new direction. But that was a pretty big change, and enabled us to grow an audience that was very willing to try stuff at that time. It allowed us to reduce our price point. So what our customers saw by 20 percent, in a stretch where most restaurants actually were increasing prices. And this was at that weird moment where New York State or City allowed us to do that 10 percent tax, which was just a terrible idea and which we didn’t do. It doesn’t make any sense. Why would you be tricking your customers into paying more? Charge them what you want to charge them. So, we were actually not stretched trying to lower our prices, because we felt as customers of places like ourselves, that we had less money and we were very unclear about what was going on and having something just nice and just delicious, and an opportunity to go out was all we needed. So this enabled us to do that and we grew more ambitious, and pretty early on, decided to do a tasting menu. And with vegetarian food, we were able to do a tasting menu I think at first at $25, and now it’s at $30 per person, three courses, and it’s about to become a four-course meal. And it’s one of the few tasting menus that’s open right now in New York. And so that allowed us to start to dial in concept again and get back to the roots of what we do, which for us on the wine side, myself and Alexis are the wine people for us. And tasting a lot of wines was complicated. And so that was the next step. It was like, well, in an era of when you don’t get to taste wine, how do you taste wine? First to us, adapting our outdoor area to be able to set up the distributor that comes into taste-test at one table. Setting up a middle table where we would put our glassware. And then we would step back to a third table to taste. So essentially, we would never be even within six feet of our distributors, they could pour wine for us, then we would take the glass, drink, taste, spit, et cetera, put our glasses back, they would refill it. And that’s been a weird process. I bring this up when I’m supposed to talk about Ruffian, because that led to the idea for us of doing Kin Co, which Alexis and Moshe will get into later, which became the orange wine festival we did at Kindred.
A: I mean, I gotta get Alexis in here, too, because you both are famous for loving to work with thousands of different books. And I can’t imagine that that was easy now. And so the fact that you still kept doing it just blows me away. I know a lot of other places around the city that basically went to one or two reps. What was that like? I’m assuming that people who sell to you were very thankful that you were still willing to meet with them. I think you probably now have a really great look into that, too. What’s it been like for them? For reps who are selling wine right now? How have you noticed their worlds have changed and especially for the kinds of wines that some of them are selling? You guys buy the wines that are kind of harder to find, that are more on allocation. Does it seem like their lives have gotten harder, too, when you meet with them and they taste?
Al: Well, right in the beginning in April when we had a lot of inventory to sell, ‘cause we were sitting on a lot, especially at Ruffian, and we basically sold off the whole cellar. Wine reps would check in periodically, but a lot of our reps are friends, and they were incredibly sensitive to the fact and they didn’t want to add insult to injury by being like, “Hey, buy wine.” You know, the feedback I got from them early on was that they were selling because wine shops and liquor stores were doing great. But it was all things that would retail for between $10 and $15. So they were moving quantity, but they weren’t moving allocation wines, and they weren’t really moving things on a higher price point. So it definitely hurt them, particularly people who most of their accounts were restaurants. They really got slammed. I can’t speak for Patrick, but I mean, obviously we were very conservative when we started buying inventory again for both restaurants, but I was relying on my notes from the previous two months pre-Covid. So I would look back at my tasting notes from a month or two prior. So I felt pretty good, current, and confident in the things that I was buying. ‘Cause a lot of reps weren’t coming to the city and they weren’t sure how to conduct tastings or whether to use those little mini bottles or to drop off sample bottles. It was a little ambiguous at the beginning, and I guess we’ve just sort of slowly ramped it up. I’d say in the last maybe two months, we’ve been doing a lot more in-person. Usually now like three to four a week.
A: Wow. OK.
Al: And the other impact I would note would be in some ways, ‘cause you brought up the weird stuff, weird s*** that we carry. This has been a help because a lot of things that would be allocation weren’t really moving. And so things that would have flown out the door really quickly when we would inquire about them, would still be there. So that kind of helped, but for people bringing in or trying to get new containers in, there’s been a delay with some of that.
A: That’s crazy. And has the fact that you guys really have a clear thesis in terms of the wines that you pour been a benefit to both of the places over the last few months? In that, you know, I know that I can’t find really amazing Georgian wines, Greek wines, et cetera, at a lot of places besides Ruffian and Kindred, and you guys sort of do the work for me. Did you find that that was also true for the majority of your customers and has been what’s helped continue to make you a destination?
Al: Certainly for Ruffian Wine Shop. I mean, the initial feedback we got from people was not that they weren’t buying wine from a multitude of different restaurants and stores. It was that they knew that we carried stuff that they couldn’t get elsewhere.
A: Right. That makes a lot of sense. OK. So obviously, Patrick, I was just so excited about talking about the fact that you guys were tasting six feet apart and stuff that we got off track. But are you guys still open and operational?
M: Oh yeah, sorry, let me jump back in. We were probably talking around August, maybe into September at that point when Alexis and I were really just pulling from her previous notes, buying stuff from previous years. Which — at least let me just make one caveat since we’re talking probably to mostly professionals — I think what we noticed or what’s challenging is one, quality, even though we want to say in the wine world “X vineyard always makes great wine” or something like that. And I think that’s partly true, but we realize how much work and how much added value we put in by just tasting through many, many different skews and different producers and finding one that was just the right thing at the right time and fit in with everything else. And not being able to taste as often has forced us to rely on, I think a second best principle for finding deliciousness, which is that kind of backup, sommelier knowledge. Where the trust in our distributors instead of getting that penultimate moment where we literally taste it and we’re like, “Oh, that’s delicious. This tastes like …” and it might have nothing to do with the typical description of that region. So the most interesting things about Ruffian are often the wines that don’t fit nicely into their traditional descriptor, the Grüner Veltliner that doesn’t taste like you think it’s going to taste. So I found wine less exciting in that stretch in April, May, June. And I was also in a very depressed mood, which therapy has helped a lot. And also I was coming off of having Covid in January, February, and my palate was f*****, and I couldn’t taste a lot of things. I wasn’t getting a lot of enjoyment. So moving out of September into the last slightly fall months, I think we’ve gotten more into this rhythm and I think that we’ve been talking more about exciting flavors and how the flavor inspires the meal or something like that. And now, we’ll get into the things we moved into most recently. We’ve gotten back into a lot of the challenging projects that we used to do at Ruffian and Kindred, which require, like, if we know 15 or 20 wines on a specific menu. Let’s say on an orange wine menu, that meant that we probably tasted a hundred plus. So, it took several weeks of lead-up if we only tasted with four people every week, just to get that density of tasting in, and if we expect our customers are coming here saying, “Oh, Patrick and Alexis or Libby or Charlotte taste everything, and therefore it’s good,” then we better taste everything. So it’s been the last few months where I really felt like we got back into our old gig, and now I think as Moshe and Alexis are going to say all of a sudden, I think we started to feel like we were doing something new and different. Maybe even more exciting than what we were doing before. That the challenge has forced us to adapt in a way that all of a sudden we were more happy about. And I feel really proud about Ruffian’s changes.
Al: Yeah, Pat, I would also add along with the tasting menu for the food at Ruffian, it’s pretty incredible that there’s also a wine pairing option. And it’s really, really cool, and changing all the time. And one of the things that I was challenged with as we were opening back up, and I think you guys would agree was that, how do we provide hospitality behind a mask and six feet away? How do you care for people and make them feel taken care of and provide the dining out experience without endangering staff or endangering the customers? But not have them feel like you’re barking at them because you know, they can’t hear you. And one of those ways were those little details to bring the Ruffian, and then later the Kindred experience in an evolved way, I guess, in this weird new circumstance.
A: Did you guys start taking reservations at Ruffian? You hadn’t taken them before right?
P: Yeah, we did four-and-a-half years of no reservations at Ruffian, and we started doing reservations post-Covid. They have been really wonderful. I’m very surprised. I think that we all felt like reservations were a bad thing. Specifically in the Covid sense, since we don’t do indoor dining while we’re not required to take people’s numbers, the reservations actually do that for us. And so if someone were to get sick at a restaurant, we have a very good means of reaching out to everyone. So wow, never thought about reservations in that sense, but really, really helpful in terms of communication, so that that’s been helpful. And also I used to work as a maître d’, Alexis used to work as a maître d’, and I think maybe Moshe did as well. And one thing that I missed, for the last five years at Ruffian, and I really love now at both Kindred and Ruffian, is that if somebody comes to the restaurant and they make reservations, so they have their identity now in Resy, we can take down notes about your experience to enable us to do better, or bring in other ideas in a subsequent experience. And even though we know our customers well, and Alexis and I would always try to do this, if one of us weren’t here, for instance, how would another random bartender know? You know that on one night, we had one person X with us. So now they could see I’ve opened up the notes and read, this person loves X wine and we don’t have that wine anymore. And I immediately look at the reservation when I come in at 3 in the afternoon or 2 in the afternoon. And I’m like, “Oh cool. This person, I don’t know if I’ve ever met before.” But I already know I’m excited about them trying this, this, and this by the glass, or if they ask about it by the bottle, this, this, and this, it was like bringing back one of those fine dining elements that — I don’t love fine dining, but there’s so many wonderful things about it — and it allowed us to insert that in a casual experience and allow people to define their experience, or for us to define their experience better and more and more specifically.
A: That’s crazy. Yeah. And that makes a lot of sense.
M: Yeah. I will say just add to what Patrick said, I think we’ve always had this discussion as a group, you know, with Ruffian since it’s 20 seats, it’s tiny. And it was almost impossible to do it before, but then certainly the pandemic challenged us. How do we come back and have some hospitality, but also do it in a more efficient way? And I think the two answers, at least in the early parts, other than the wine shop, were the tasting menu and offering reservations. And like Patrick said, they’ve proven to both work incredibly well and they’re something we’ll continue to do.
A: Wow. So it sounds like now at this point, Patrick, Ruffian is still open. I don’t want to jump too far ahead, but I want to talk to you guys about the decisions you’re gonna make in the future at both, but so Moshe and Alexis, can you talk about Kindred? Because Kindred was always more of “the restaurant,” right? Whereas Ruffian was the wine bar that also served great food. So what happened at Kindred?
Al: Well, so Kindred had only been open for a few months and was still getting its feet under it in terms of its identity and coming out strong and getting kind of set in people’s minds. And then we had to close. So, I think when we were really reopening for business, we started with Ruffian and put our efforts there first to get it rolling ‘cause it was the known quantity, I guess. And then we moved on to what to do with Kindred. And when we very first reopened, we were looking at doing provisions, sort of CSA, grocery. Because at the time, things were still difficult to acquire in the city. It didn’t quite take off in the way that we thought. I think that maybe we joined it just a little late and a lot of people had left the neighborhood by that point.
A: Hmm. Interesting. OK.
Al: Luckily, it didn’t take very long for outdoor to get going, and we hopped right on that immediately. I think they announced it and that afternoon we started commandeering the space outside of the restaurant so that cars wouldn’t park there, to the chagrin of our neighbors, unfortunately, but outdoor has really been great. Our landlords worked with us well. We’ve been very fortunate at both restaurants to be able to take frontage on either side that is larger than our frontage footprint, like wider. And so I do know that there was a collective sigh of relief amongst us and the staff when we were open operationally as a restaurant again, because it was like, “Oh, we know how to do this. We know how to be restaurants.” You know, we don’t know very well how to do provisions on the fly, but we can definitely be a restaurant. That worked out really great. And then I guess the next iteration to help bolster sales, Moshe, would have been work from Kindred. Am I right? Or am I skipping something?
P: The virtual menu, which I think was Moshe’s idea, that that was really effective. I don’t know if you guys want to call in about that.
M: Sure, yeah, part of the evolution of outdoor dining — we went through so many different iterations of that as well, between how big the menu is, how small the menu is, changing overnight from provisions to full service. And then we decided to get rid of paper menus and go to digital for the Covid precautions and less contact, but it’s also more efficient. And it’s just more immediate. And that has proven to work out really well. We were able to customize what guests can see with what the items are. But more than that, the idea was, “how do we offer the same details for the same hospitality again, without having too much front-facing contact or getting too close to each other?” And with this digital menu system, you’re able to provide all the details that anyone would need to know. Allergies, or what grade is this wine? Where’s it come from? So that proved to be very useful and helped us continue to adapt in the new model.
A: So I have a question for you guys. Obviously this is a little off topic, but I’m curious to hear your take because there’s been these articles that are ridiculous, but you have certain people, like the The New Yorker published an article recently, like, I’m sick of digital menus, right? That digital menus make everyone get on their phones and we don’t talk to each other, whatever. And my reaction to this is it’s a f****** pandemic, guys. We’re really publishing articles that we don’t like phone menus? Maybe get over yourself. But I’m curious. Are you aware of those kinds of articles? Is it just because I’m a journalist in this space and I’m reading all of it? And if you are aware of those articles, is your reaction the same as mine? Which is, “this is ridiculous that anyone is even writing them and someone is publishing them.”
M: Kind of, yeah, I’m saying it’s interesting if people are complaining about being on their phones for a menu, they’re usually on their phones in general at the tables.
Al: Yeah, they’re usually on Tinder.
M: And I think for the most part, our guests actually have had great feedback overall at both Ruffian and Kindred, and I think we’ve done them in a creative way. We have the QR code on coasters at Kindred with our logo. So I think it is a little more inviting than just having printed paper, but I think it provides a lot of the info anybody would need from a server or a sommelier that they may not otherwise be able to get right now because of the restrictions of six feet and just general hygiene.
Al: I’m going to come in just on the opposite side of that in that I actually, I don’t love them. I think that handheld menus are a part of the dining experience and the overall aesthetic. But just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t change and adapt. There are pluses to the digital menu. Several of which we listed here, and it does look great. We’ve made it as close to our restaurants’ aesthetics as possible. And that’s just the way it is right now. You do the best with what the changing world is presenting you.
P: I brought it up because I wanted to say something else about Ruffian. During the pandemic, Alexis has predominantly run Kindred’s [wine] list. I predominantly run Ruffian’s list. Along with Ruffian I currently do it with the beverage director at Kindred. Alexis does cocktails with Charlotte, who’s our head bartender. So while we talk all the time, we’ve each kind of picked up different things about the digital menu that we like and focused on. And Alexis has used the digital menu, especially for the bottle list at Kindred, to be very easy to get through and pretty seamless. I think you can get through almost whatever it is, 50 bottles, very quickly scanning your eye around on a phone without flipping through a big book. When you’re doing that in a wine bar, you’re always knocking a glass over or something. So I found that experience at Kindred is really efficient and, since we have cocktails and other things, we really focused on streamlining it and making it easy for our guests to get in and out and get what they want. And also pictures, which, hey, you could never have that in a paper menu. And also at Ruffian, since the wines are always more unusual in that sense, we’re not trying to get the classics from Slovenia. We’re trying to get eccentric wines from around the world. If you come into Ruffian, we would have you taste something, and we would also give you fun descriptions about them or the menu was categories and fun categories. And that was a piece that had been taken from Ruffian by not having paper menus and not having the sit-down experience. So through the digital menu, we were able to bring that experience back. And as the staff over here, along with Alexis, we would come up with descriptions of the wines. And when you click on a wine you were looking through the menu, you see all the options by the glass, or by the bottle, you can click on it. Then you see a picture of the bottle. Then you see 50 words on what we think about the wine and stuff like that. And we could never have given you that consistent of an experience previously.
A: That’s awesome. And I agree with you. I think there are definitely things I miss about the paper menu, but there’s also things I like about these digital menus and I understand that it just is what it is.
P: You know, when we started with the digital menu, it wasn’t pretty, right? It was an ugly looking menu, but we started on early because we knew the reality of the situation, and instead of fighting against the reality we looked at it and said, what can we do to make it better? And Moshe, and then us as well, reached out to the owner of the company and actually asked them to work with us to help streamline it. To add pictures, to allow us to put our logo on the front page, and we invested in it over several months, and over several months, it got better. And if people continue to invest in it with their creativity and their passion, it would also continue to get better. So I don’t know the person who wrote this article, and I think that it’s detached from what our customers have told us who enjoy it, and we certainly don’t want to be unsafe, but also it’s just this attitude of like, during the Covid thing, during all the aspects that we’re going to discuss, embracing the real situation and at least trying to inhabit it with your love and care enables something that might not be your first choice to maybe all of a sudden be different or better or more helpful than you imagined it to be. And for people to sit on the sidelines and just be upset, they’ll still be upset at the same thing. And as we’re getting towards winter and people are upset about not being prepared for outdoor winter dining, this was something that we invested in over a lot of time. And continue to tinker and adapt over several months with our love and also, with money and with time. And so, I think to hear somebody say that I would want to say, I’m glad you’re not a restaurateur because you know, the restaurateurs need to be adopting because we don’t know what the next problem will be. And we don’t know that this is going to go away. So maybe we’re stuck with these online menus forever. Let’s make them better if we are.
A: So another question. I think it was in July — I can’t keep anything straight anymore — at some point, New York city allowed 25 percent indoor dining. Did you ever consider doing indoor dining, and are you doing indoor dining now?
M: Well, Adam, if you don’t mind, just before that, I just wanted to finish the Kindred evolution. So I would say, Kindred was kind of rolling along, doing full service outside dining only for a couple of months, and we were double the size in terms of labor. We were at least at that point, and it’s always been harder to control in terms of finances and cutting costs. And so we had a couple of really scary weeks, right after Labor Day where people just leave town, things start dropping off and we had to reinvent again. And then one of the ideas that one of our employees, Jake, had brought up early on, and then my wife kind of also mentioned again while we were away for the weekend was, why don’t people just work from Kindred during the day? And it’s something I’ve thought about as well for a while, because I’ve worked in WeWorks, we’ve all kind of done the coworking thing. And I was like, you know what? We’re at a scary spot. Let’s pull the trigger. Let’s make it happen. And I think within two days, we pulled together a “Work from Kindred,” service where we opened up our patio from 9:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. for people to come and have an outside coworking space, socially distanced, for $25 a day, free coffee. All the charging stations, everything could get in an office, but outside when the weather was still really nice. Our chef, Josh, put together three really delicious, but simple dishes for lunch. And people were able to get wine.
Al: Oh, look you mentioned Josh. I just wanted to say our chef partner, Josh, who’s not on this interview, has been absolutely killing it and has just been so adaptive to all the challenges that have come his way. So I just wanted to throw that in there.
M: Absolutely. Agreed. And I think that helps. Work from Kindred actually launched really well, because people needed something to eat, and it was delicious, and they came back for that and the Happy Hour specials. And so I would say it proved to be really successful, and it was another eye-opener for all of us where we threw another idea at the wall, put it together overnight, worked crazy hours, but understood there was a need for it. We had a hundred people who did the work from kindred over a six-to-eight-week period, multiple times. And that’s something that we can certainly do in the spring and we will do in a better fashion now that we understand how to run it. But that more importantly took us out of this financial hole for a minute where it allowed us to survive another week or two while we tinkered again with the concept. So after we did Work from Kindred, we again needed to continue having money coming in to survive as we all do. And that’s when Patrick came along with The Orange Wine Festival idea, and together, we ran with that to bring ticket sales in, which allowed us to continue operating in a healthy way. But we can talk about that a little more, but just to get to the end of Kindred’s evolution, during this phase of transitioning to the Orange Wine Festival and the Work From Kindred, we understood we were coming into colder months and we had to make a change. So unfortunately we did have to let go of some of our staff, and cut it down to a skeleton crew. And then we opened up a new pop-up called Après-Ski which we started Oct. 31. Much slimmer menu, much smaller staff, hot cocktails, different menu, complete different menu. And this has allowed us to, again, survive and embrace the cold in a creative and fun way. And people have responded really, really well. I’ll stop there and then we can jump back.
A: Yeah, so I am curious, thanks for bringing up to speed with both places. So in July I think — I could be wrong — at some point the city finally decided that it would allow indoor dining. A lot of that was coming from pressure, you heard about a lot of restaurants, especially in Queens, et cetera, that were on the border of towns where there was Long Island right across the border and three doors down, basically you heard restaurateurs trying to sue the city, saying they’re letting people inside their establishments and we’re still not doing it here. So there was definitely a push from certain places to make sure that that would happen and the city finally relented and allowed 25 percent indoor dining. Did you guys think about it and did you open indoor dining or not?
P: We think about everything. We thought about that long enough to literally think that it wasn’t even worth asking our staff. We went to our staff and essentially told them, this is what we’re thinking. We don’t think it’s safe. Do you feel differently? And I don’t think anyone said anything remotely different to that. And then we were like, OK, then let’s start talking about ways that we could do this safely.
Al: And in Ruffian you can’t. You have to squeeze by people in order to use the restroom. 25 percent of Ruffian is like, you’re still on top of each other.
M: Yeah. And I think, the bigger picture here, which we all talked about, is that obviously everyone’s struggling. People were trying to get back to work. Businesses are trying to stay open. And for the folks who don’t have any outside dining, I understand why they were pushing for 25 percent. However, in the big picture of what’s going on in the country right now, there’s no one who would agree and say 25 percent, No. 1, is sustainable. It might almost save your business. But also, No. 2, the writing was on the wall, even in the summer, from all the experts. Saying that November, October, November come the winter, this thing is coming back, and there’s no way anyone’s going to be able to survive indoor dining without having the cases increase. And that’s proven to be true. We’re in it right now, as we’re talking, where we’re at 2.6 percent in Manhattan, it’s a 19 percent increase in Newark. We have Chicago and San Francisco have shut indoor dining down and many other countries and other cities will follow here. And it was just, you know, from my perspective, and I think Alexis and Pat would agree. It was a little confusing to see other larger restaurateurs certainly in New York City jump on 25 percent just because they could, knowing the consequences. And we’re so close to a vaccine, the quickest a vaccine has ever been created, and why ruin it now? Why couldn’t we wait a little bit? Just keep doing outdoor dining, keep the cases low.
Al: People couldn’t wait because there’s been no help. And you’re speaking to two issues, Moshe, that just popped into my mind while you were speaking. Adam, you mentioned restaurateurs out on the fringes of the city, which have totally different challenges than what we have in Manhattan. And that speaks to the totally ham-fisted approach to all of these regulations that have just been like a hammer where a scalpel will do and just not looking at the individual needs and the individual situations of the different zip codes and how they operate. And certainly now this closing at 10:00 p.m. thing for outdoor, which is completely idiotic. It’s just been incredibly frustrating. I understand why, if you’re a restaurant with no frontage and 25 percent of your restaurant will actually bring in enough sales, I see that quandary and I understand why some people decided to do it for survival purposes. We have a different situation. We’re very fortunate to have more seating outside than we actually have inside. But that’s because people have been backed into a corner with absolutely no help. We have restaurant friends who didn’t want to open inside, but didn’t have a choice if they wanted to survive. There’s no help. There’s no help. And there’s no help coming anytime.
A: Yep. That’s completely true. And that’s a really, really good point.
M: Yeah. And what I would add to that is that, earlier in the pandemic, when we were all dealing with the same unknowns, a lot of the bigger voices in our industry were pushing for it. We got to get our insurance, we gotta get this relief. We’ve got to get that, but the moment 25 percent hit, they all kind of went quiet. And to me, that’s pretty troubling because now we’re in a situation where they’re going to shut down all indoor, probably by Monday, if I were to guess by next week, as the cases continue to go up.
A: Right, and we’re talking Friday the 13th, if people are listening to this one, it will run next week.
M: Yeah. And I think by the time people listen to this, Cuomo and de Blasio will probably shut all indoor dining down. And then where does that leave everyone? We’re back to square one, but with even more cases. The folks who weren’t able to survive without 25 percent will still be in the same situation. So Alexis is right, and I agree. It comes down to focusing on what really will help, which is The Restaurants Act being passed and getting more PPP and the PUA getting restored to give everyone a lifeline to get through the winter and get through outdoor dining without having cases go up. And stop relying on scarier situations of having people indoors. And the science is clear, it’s indoor dining and gyms.
A: Well, I think that’s interesting that you bring that up, Moshe, because I think Alexis, what you said is really true that people have been backed into a corner.
And some of the restaurateurs I’ve talked to have said, it’s actually not fair to pin it on them. Like if you look at the article that came out this morning in The Washington Post, what they’ve basically proven is actually this new spike is actually to be blamed on basically people around the country who’ve said, f*** it. And made their pods bigger. And have had people inside their homes and there were a lot of people who have had people over to watch football because we’ve decided that the NFL and college football should still happen this fall. And so people had viewing parties and it’s spreading just as much there as in the restaurants, but the easiest thing to blame is the restaurants. Right? And it’s not fair to just blame them and penalize them, especially when there’s no relief. So you’re going to have people who keep pushing back and saying, no, like, please let us stay open at 25 percent, or are they going to try to break the rules, because they need to survive. And so I think that it’s so much more nuanced.
P: Yeah. I agree with you on some levels, but I think what we have been discussing over the last few weeks, and I say over the last two or three weeks. Four weeks ago, I would be saying the same thing as you. We’re like well, New York isn’t “the place.” It’s not the epicenter of this anymore. we don’t know enough about these facts. It seems like a very poor decision to have indoor dining to us. But cases are low, and no one’s proving that they’re encouraged statistically. And then over each week, more and more statistics have come out to the point that this morning, when we were just trying to talk normally, and have normal morning meeting stuff like, the numbers that we’re dealing with now, are so jarringly overwhelming. The city and state had said they would close indoor dining, if it was at 2 percent or would reevaluate. We are so far past that point that we are now talking about possibly closing public schools before closing indoor dining. And from what we’ve heard at least in San Francisco, but we’ve heard this also way months ago in Canada, they were saying that they can prove quite clearly, or they see statistical trends that show that indoor dining dramatically affects this. And we started indoor dining and now they keep saying, it’s always about a month after when you do something. Right? So here we are, we’re in a f****** disaster. A month ago, our people would have been more understanding, but for the major players in the industry that have connections to scientists, to good lawyers, to consultants, to politicians, and are smart and thoughtful and should be doing this stuff. They have been surprisingly silent as New York went from 2 percent to 2.2, 2.4, 2.5, 2.6. And now are we literally going to wait until Monday? On Monday, we’re going to be at 3 percent, right? So I think that the goals have changed, or the goalposts have been moved. And unfortunately pressure from a lot of these restaurateurs has caused those goal goalposts to move.
I do think the government, especially the federal government is to blame for their inaction and just overwhelming stupidity. But the city and state government had rules and didn’t follow them. And restaurateurs that knew better seemed to lean in and try to force them, and are still forcing them, to act in a way that’s dangerous to the other civilians and the livelihoods of other New Yorkers.
A: Oh, yeah. I mean, I completely agree with you that I think it still spreads inside.
P: I hope that tomorrow when this comes out this applies more pressure, not only on politicians and I hope everyone is doing this, but also other restaurateurs, to say this is crazy. And if it comes to things like outdoor dining that affect us more, obviously we’re understanding, too. We think that the government needs to act very aggressively. You know, it should be smart. As Alexis said, acting aggressively can be using the scalpel, not the hammer, but we think they should be acting aggressively from a more thoughtful perspective. And if we had already agreed on that 2 percent threshold, what are we doing?
A: So why do you think that so many of these restaurateurs are not? Is it a money grab? Is it they don’t think that their customers will eat on the sidewalk? Because they have gone silent, but I mean, you’re closer even to a lot of the people in the restaurant business than I am in covering it. Do you have an idea of why this could be?
P: The smart restaurateurs that we know that work at their own restaurants are not doing indoor dining and the few that are, are doing it very cautiously and are doing way more precautions than what are being required of them. So we’re not connected to the larger restaurant groups and we try to gauge from them stuff, but the largest restaurateur in our neighborhood, Ravi DeRossi, we’ve spoken to him and I don’t think his places are focusing on indoor dining. And I don’t know if they’re doing much of any, if any at all. So it seems like big restaurateurs like him are quite clear about the science and everything else about this. And we would all love to sit more people indoors and make more money. Moshe also, he’s talked a lot about Kindred, and all these changes. But one thing he didn’t say was, post-PPP loan, Kindred has simply lost money every week. We’re not trying to figure out how to make money. We’re just trying to figure out how to pay our landlords and employees and vendors as much as we can and continue to pay as much tax to the government as we can. That’s all we’re doing. We’re not making money. We’re literally losing money every week. 25 percent more sales or something won’t ever add up to 25 percent because no one wants to eat indoors. It’s stupid.
M: Yeah. I don’t have a good answer for you, Adam, about why they are doing it. I don’t think there is a good answer, and I don’t know. It’s just been disappointing, honestly.
Al: I personally think some of them can diversify. I think some of them probably have enough investorship to sit tight and then relaunch, and I think some of them have large and diverse companies that can focus on other revenue streams besides sit-down dining.
M: But I think, also just in terms of outdoor dining, obviously that’s safer but I will say just as a general note, in terms of the cases rising, it’s also been concerning how the general public, I think, has kind of taken a little bit of a back step, just based on the inquiries that I get at Kindred in terms of large parties. Now while we’re legally allowed to have a 10-person group at a table, but I’m getting inquiries for 15, 20, 25. And I’ve gotten, I would say, 30 to 40 in the last two weeks. And at the same time, I’ve also gotten probably 10 cancellations due to Covid or exposure to Covid in the last five days. And so there’s something going on where, obviously the information is out there, but for some reason it’s digesting in some people and others, maybe not. So that’s also been interesting to see.
Al: Well, yeah. And Moshe, don’t you think that’s also turning a blind eye themselves personally, not realizing that’s a risk to take, to have a large group of 15 people, but that’s also putting restaurants in a really awkward situation. We legally cannot accommodate you. And that’s added duress to restaurants to have to say no, and our job is to make people happy and say yes to most things. And we can’t. We can’t.
A: Well, yeah, that’s sort of what I’m curious about. And this seems like where our conversation is evolving is, me bringing up the indoor people, it seems like at the same time that restaurateurs like you, responsible ones, are realizing it’s a problem. And shouting, we should shut this down again, et cetera. You have this population in the country that is just kind of over it. And so they’re being looser and they’re saying, OK, fine. Like I’ll get together inside with my 10 friends. Or, I mean, it’s shocking to me that you’re having those calls, but I’m not surprised that people are looking and saying, “hey, can we have 15- or 20-person gatherings?” I look out in the park in Brooklyn and I see 30 people sitting together and I’m like, these people are not all in the same pod. Like, there’s just no way, you know? And so, all of that then is affecting the restaurant industry because the larger this spreads, the more restrictions that happen and then restaurants can’t reopen and people are out of work and the government’s providing no support. So what have you thought about as this is clearly probably going to get worse, right? We’re talking two weeks before Thanksgiving. If you read the data, the government, all the top scientists are predicting we’re gonna have a massive super-spreader event because people aren’t gonna listen and they’re going to go home. Just do a quick search on Kayak and every single rental car in the city is out around those dates. Right? So people have clearly planned that they’re leaving and they’re going to either go home and get Covid and bring it back to the city, or they’re going to take Covid to wherever they’re going. So we’re going to see a huge, super-spreader event in the next probably two weeks. Have you guys thought about closing? Is that something that you want to do? Or that you feel like you’ll be forced to do it? Like what is going through your minds as we’re getting into a time in the year where we think Covid is going to spread pretty dramatically, and it’s also going to get super cold?
P: Adam, you asked before whether we thought about doing indoor dining. And in all reality, we didn’t really think about doing it, we just brought up the idea ’cause we bring up ideas and we try to talk about everything. Whereas closing, we had already made an agreement, loose terms that we would close. We were saying probably right before Christmas and close for a couple of weeks. Just planning it out, more than a couple months in advance, just because our staff would need to know. We’re trying to figure out how there is gonna be government aid, So we’ve been thinking about that, and I have a 5-year-old, so I’ve already been thinking about the high possibility that like right after Thanksgiving, there might be no more public school or something like that. So I think that those things have been percolating around. The last three weeks have been like there’s a stop sign. The light has already turned red, and a car is speeding towards that stop sign. And as an onlooker, seeing a kid walking on the street, you’re like, Oh, he’s got to stop. Oh, they’ve got to stop. Oh, they’ve got to stop. And they keep going as fast as they’re going. That’s what we’re watching right now. In our plans for, “oh, of course, we’ll be able to make it till January to December and then close” are being scuttled by the insanity that’s going on right now. I think we’re jumping almost like 200 percent in one month in the country. The current situation, I think we’re now having to reevaluate things almost daily. And we never planned to be reevaluating a decision that’s only three weeks away, three weeks away. But we’re being forced to do that because people are being irresponsible. Whereas before we were being forced to do that, well we still are, because the government is giving poor indication of what’s going on. So yeah, if you’re asking I’m sure this is a broader conversation we’ll talk about, but yes, we are planning about this, and this is something that we’ve barely even gotten to have a meeting about because things have gotten so bad in one week.
A: Right? It’s crazy.
M: Yeah. We had, you know, we had multiple meetings about like Pat said, what happens, come the break. In December a planned break. And then, you know, whether there’s PPP again or not, then we would make a decision of what kind of service we would offer or do we take a pause while there is government relief, but as Pat is saying, this thing is happening now in real time, where by next week we might be forced, who knows what the city is going to do? And so we haven’t even had a chance to have a full meeting about it, but we’ll be dealing with it in real time as the things change by the hour. And hopefully we can make it until our planned break if it’s safe. If not, we’ll have to adapt and navigate the other course.
Al: Yeah. I think our initial plan, which as Pat was saying, is getting kind of scuttled, was surely there will be relief by then and we can hibernate mindfully and thoughtfully, unlike in the summer where it was sort of like forced upon us. And we’ll plan it out, and we’ll be able to pay people, and everyone would get a break because as we’ve mentioned several times, we’ve reinvented ourselves at two restaurants over and over and over again and continue to do so. Everyone is kind of exhausted and needs a reset. And now, reports are saying there won’t be any relief until at least the Administration changes. And that’s after our planned break was supposed to happen. So, Ruffian’s holding steady. Kindred is struggling week to week. And then are we going to hibernate, or what? You know, we’ve tried. We’ve tried to be like the ants, but we’re going to end up being forced to be like the grasshopper.
A: Right. Yeah. It is. It’s just really insane. And yeah, I think that the biggest moral of the story is back to what we talked about the last time we spoke, which is that the government needs to provide relief and there needs to be more pressure put on the government to do so.
P: For sure. Interesting, as we’re talking, I just got an email from the Department of Transportation about new guidelines for roadway barriers, as we’re getting into the winter and enclosures and snow. But you know, again they’ve been consistently two months behind everything in terms of guidelines, but this is not the most important thing right now. Why are they sending this out when we need to focus on what we are doing with indoor dining? Well, we have to shut the whole city down or the country down for another two weeks to kind of quell this new surge. So we’re going to have to redo our barriers again, guys.
A: Yeah, well I think all of this just shows, of all the conversations that I’ve been lucky to have with people like yourself who’ve been gracious with your time to talk with me, just all the red tape is insane. And all the changing regulations, things that I think the normal consumer doesn’t realize. I did an interview yesterday with James the owner of Popina, and I don’t think consumers realize that even to have heaters in his backyard, he has to bring the Fire Department in to approve everything. Right? Like he can’t just order them and set them up. So he’s had them for two weeks and hasn’t been able to turn them on, so that’s insane.
Al: People aren’t thinking of things like electricity. This is old New York. Most restaurants in the city don’t have enough power. Most of them don’t have enough power to power the equipment they do have. Nevermind adding 1,200-, 1,500-watt heaters outside. Multiples. We had to have the electrician in. And sometimes we don’t know if we’re throwing good money after bad, because it’s all a gamble and we’re like, maybe this will pay off, but maybe it won’t at a time when we don’t have extra money to throw around. And it’s really scary. You know, every time we pull the trigger on a decision, like to upgrade our enclosure, to add decoration, to put in more lighting or get the electrician. Every time we make one of those decisions, it’s like, man, I hope that pays out.
A: Yeah. I completely agree with you. And I think, hopefully we’re helping, but sort of to take this a little bit full-circle back to the phone menu idea. It’s like, I feel like consumers need to be much more aware of all the restaurants are going through. So when you show up, you should feel lucky that you’re able to eat outside and have an experience at all, right? This expectation that maybe there’s heaters that keep you warm enough, or that the decor looks nice enough, is all kind of ridiculous. Everyone’s just trying to do what they need to do.
M: Yeah. Even if the restaurant has heaters, please dress appropriately for the weather, you know, it’s not the beach. And, you know, I think to your point, Adam, as restaurateurs, I think we would put that olive branch out to customers and say, just be mindful of how long you’re sitting and are you canceling or no-showing? Please let us know with as much time in advance, I had to send out a text to all of the reservations tonight. We’ll be enforcing our cancellation policy, ‘cause we had probably 60 no-shows or canceled heads — 20 reservations equals 60 people — over the last couple of weekends. For whatever reason, some of them are Covid-related. Some are not. Some people just forget, and they don’t show up. And we’re working on such thin margins that if I don’t have that table available, and a no-show or cancel just an hour or two hours before, that’s a hundred dollars or $200. But every bit of money is important right now.
A: So, I mean, I guess to wrap all this up, ’cause we’ve talked for a good amount of time now, what do you guys think consumers could be doing to help support you more? And what can we do obviously with the elected officials, and what do you want them to hear from you right now that they should be doing in order to support you more?
M: Well, I would say to our guests and any guests who want to enjoy, come to Ruffian and Kindred, and we’re so grateful that people continue to book a table at either spot and some do both in one night. And we hope that people continue to do that. And then we have our wine shop at Ruffian that people have been ordering from. I think staying consistent with that. And our loyal customers are great. And we welcome that. We’re doing so many interesting and fun things at both spots. At Ruffian, we have our regular service menu. We’re doing everything but the bird for Thanksgiving that you can pre-order and get delivered or pick up. It’s a delicious menu, but except the bird. It’s vegetarian and vegan. And we’re about to go into a new pop-up at Ruffian that I’ll let Pat talk about. And at Kindred, we’re doing this Après-Ski pop-up where you can enjoy hot cocktails and some delicious food, Alpine-themed. So I would say just continue to dine with us, and keep those guidelines in mind and how much we have to put in to offer a service and an experience. And on the politician side, I think the challenge is they’re constantly two months behind and I wish they would get on the ground a little bit more and talk to small businesses to understand what we need, and what are we anticipating? And certainly on the federal level, we need the Restaurants Act to pass. We need more grants, and certainly the PPP would go a long way. And they need to restore the PUA to give unemployed people a lifeline as well.
A: Pat, do you want to add anything? Or Alexis?
P: Moshe mentioned our last place Ruffian, we’re now switching into what we were expecting for winter. We’ve been expecting winter. Well, for the Department of Transportation and for our mayor and for the city and state officials, obviously winter is coming, but winter was on the calendar from the beginning of the year, right? For next year, also. So we’ve been expecting winter for a long time. So, I work in the industry in a way my wife doesn’t, she loosely participates in our restaurant, but also is a partner and thinks about it. But I mean, she doesn’t spend her day-to-day on this and instead would say, you know, I don’t want to worry about stuff all day long. I’ve got to worry about my business and other businesses, you know? And so for a lot of people, I think the “staying up to the minute with what’s going on with Covid” and everything else is probably not what we all need. We need relaxation in our lives. We need less worries. But that doesn’t mean that the truth goes out the window.
And so I think for the two of us, we try to think, we try to protect ourselves from all the scary thoughts at times, but at least have a plan that’s realistic. And based on what’s going on out there. So Kindred is converting into an Après-Ski because obviously it was going to be cold and for multiple months we’ve been preparing for how we enjoy outdoors in the cold. At Ruffian we will now convert ourselves into what we’re calling “Base Camp,” which is supposed to give people a fun experience of what it feels like to be at, maybe almost a base camp at Kilimanjaro or any of the big guys in Europe. So like an opportunity to have fun outdoors in the cold and make it an exciting experience. We’re all clear that we’re out there because of Covid and because we’re not denying the truth, but at least in that opportunity, you get to go have an exciting time in one of the safer ways that one can enjoy themselves right now, and build some story and narrative around it. But, as far as people in general, especially when it comes to our relationship to our politics and to our government officials and what we can say and what we can do, obviously support us as long as it’s safe. We don’t want to be outside causing New York a problem if it’s no longer safe. So we understand that, but I think what we would hope for people is some of these things and especially nationally in Covid, but also locally in New York were inevitable. Inevitable. No scientists that we know of were saying anything other than this for this winter, right? Everyone has said the same thing for half a year straight. So I don’t understand at what point New York City and New York State’s government — well, obviously the national government is a f****** s*** show. We haven’t talked about them and we don’t need to. I feel bad for our city and state that they need to pick up the pieces that the worst president ever has left, but the reality for them is this. And I think that they need to stop moving goalposts and doing stupid things. They need to know the truth and we as a public need to be supportive of that truth. And if that means closing restaurants down now to protect public schools if we can, we should do that. And if that means closing even outdoor dining down, if that’s what has to happen, I think as a public, we should be supportive of it. But at least expect people to have a plan, especially a plan around the poorest people and the people that are most in need right now. And in terms of normal employees and insurance, can we seriously as a nation get some kind of plan around PUA and what insurance looks like when everyone gets let go in a couple of days, right? That stuff is imminent. In a couple of weeks, people will lose their jobs. They will lose insurance. We had this plan in place over summer. We made this plan again. I think the pressure needs to build up on this horrific president and this horrific Congress, that is we cannot wait until January for this stuff. Maybe for other stuff, maybe for PPP loans, but we cannot wait until January for unemployment benefits and for security for employees and low-wage employees. It’s everything. But I also hope people support the truth. And once again, this truth was inevitable. We all knew. We just tricked ourselves into thinking otherwise. Support the truth and support politicians when they’re delivering us hard truth.
A: Well guys, I really want to thank you again for taking the time to talk to me about both what’s happening with your business, but also just giving really great insight that we all should really pay attention to. It’s always great to talk to the three of you. And I know it’s not going to be an easy few months, but I appreciate that you’re always willing to make the right decisions, and really think about what’s happening as a whole. And I think you’re really great examples for a lot of other people in the business. So I just appreciate you a lot and thanks again for joining me on the podcast.
Al: Aw, thanks, Adam.
P: Thanks, Adam.
Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair Podcast. If you enjoy listening to us every week, please leave us a review or rating on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever it is that you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now, for the credits. VinePair is produced and hosted by Zach Geballe and me: Adam Teeter. Our engineer is Nick Patri and Keith Beavers. I’d also like to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder Josh Malin and the rest of the VinePair team for their support. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you again right here next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity
Published: November 19, 2020