How Covid Helped a Neighborhood Rediscover Its Restaurants

Like many New York neighborhoods these days, Ditmas Park was missing an ice-cream parlor — until January 2020, when the Low family opened What’s the Scooooop, where the menu ranges from organic ice cream cones to to kimchi-topped French fries and banh mi. The family already owned several other food businesses in the city, including a nearby Spanish wine bar, Manchego, that has a ramen joint, Koko, attached.

Elgin Low, 32, who grew up in the Brooklyn neighborhood, designed the space for maximum appeal to young people, with a cartoon mural by the local artist Jon Burgerman (among other Instagram-friendly wall art) and a play space for the littlest kids.

January is hardly an ideal time to open a scoop shop in New York. Mr. Low hoped that spring would bring warm weather and foot traffic from the elementary school two blocks down and the “tot lot” around the corner.

Instead, it brought the pandemic, and a total — if temporary — shutdown to the shop and its neighbors along two blocks of Cortelyou Road, Ditmas Park’s main business corridor. “We never really got a chance to build up a customer base,” Mr. Low said.

The crisis has dealt a financial body blow to food businesses here, which have transformed the area over the past two decades into a mini restaurant row, with wine bars, spice and coffee shops, and farm-to-table restaurants settling in next to longstanding taquerias, pizzerias and delis.

But the emergency conditions have also turned the owners into a collective, sharing sidewalk space, propane tanks, bread deliveries and navigation tips on a shifting sea of city, state and federal regulations. The customers, too, have changed, as commuters who once ate lunch in Midtown, grabbed drinks downtown or had dinner anywhere in the city have stayed in one place: home.

A look back at the past year shows how restaurants have handled the rough and tumble of constant change on two blocks that reflect the dynamism of many New York neighborhoods — and may foretell the future of its food businesses.

The population has been shifting younger and more affluent in Ditmas Park, an area south of Prospect Park sometimes called “Victorian Flatbush” for the 19th-century homes that line many of its streets. But it remains diverse; a 2018 survey by the Flatbush Development Corporation reported that the population was 36 percent Black, 26 percent white, 17 percent Hispanic or Latino (“of any race”) and 17 percent Asian, making it more diverse than Brooklyn or the city as a whole. Businesses pay $4,000 to $6,000 per month for a storefront, or about $50 per square foot, said Dina Rabiner, co-president of the Cortelyou Road Merchants Association. (By comparison, commercial rents on Seventh Avenue in more affluent Park Slope are $7,000 to $10,000.)

That combination of relatively low rents and higher incomes fueled the restaurant boom that came to a sudden halt on March 16, 2020, when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo shut down indoor dining across the state.

By the next day, some key pieces of the pandemic economy were already clear: Takeout and delivery were essential; to-go sales of beer, wine and cocktails were allowed; and employees and employers were making excruciating choices between safety and financial survival.

Kimberly Sharma’s family owns 38 Domino’s franchises in the New York metropolitan area, including the one on Cortelyou Road, which set sales records for that location in the first two weeks of the lockdown.

“In some other stores, like the one near the Elmhurst Hospital, people were too scared to come to work,” she said. “Some of our people were afraid even to get tested.”

Soon, she said, a new routine set in. In the early morning, she’d check the numbers and the news; often, after a particularly negative story, people simply stopped showing up. “I went to employees’ houses to reassure them that the stores were safe, to get them to come to work,” said Ms. Sharma, 25. “My dad was on the phone every morning, moving P.P.E. from store to store.”

Avi Shuker, an owner of Mimi’s Hummus (and husband to Mimi Kitani, the chef), said he knew immediately that the pandemic could be an extinction event for New York restaurants.

“I woke up the next day and decided to survive,” he said.

Like many other restaurateurs, he and Ms. Kitani, both 40, started hopscotching from one new idea to another. He hauled all the tables and chairs out to the sidewalk, and brought the wine cellar and beer stash up to street level. They finally started selling hummus to go, which he had resisted since the restaurant opened in 2009, fearing that it would leach away restaurant customers. He watched lines of panicked shoppers build outside nearby food markets like the Flatbush Food Co-op.

Mimi’s had long sold Middle Eastern specialties like tahini and rose water, but Mr. Shuker began making runs to wholesalers in Brooklyn Terminal Market, stocking up on staples like milk, strawberries and salad greens. Extra produce from the kitchen was sold from tables out front. Neighborhood regulars began stopping by every day to shop, instead of once every couple of weeks to eat.

“The street was empty for two months, but the people who did come were so grateful, it was a really different vibe,” he said. “At the same time that we were being asked to separate, people really came together.”

Qathra Café is the only independent coffee shop on the strip, with tin ceilings, brick walls and a loyal following who linger at their laptops. It’s a daily stop for commuters en route to the Cortelyou Road stop on the Q train, two blocks away.

A co-owner, Sherman James, 39, has lived in Brooklyn since 1988, when his family immigrated from St. Lucia. When he began thinking of leaving his computer engineering job to get into the coffee business, Qathra became one of his regular research stops; he liked its ethical approach to sourcing coffee, tea and ingredients. He started working there as a barista in 2015, and became an owner in 2016.

“One of the reasons I got involved in this place was because it was so friendly,” he said. But all last winter, he said, the only priority was to get customers in and out as fast as possible. Complicated coffee drinks, once an attraction, became a problem when the line of customers on the sidewalk stretched longer. “One person orders a pour-over, and you have to call it a day.”

Taj Singh, the owner of the Castello Plan, an all-day cafe that serves craft cocktails and wine, said he realized the shutdown was inevitable when brunch, the busiest shift at many restaurants here, slowed from 90 tickets per day to four or six. A native of Coventry, in the English Midlands, he’d worked in finance for decades in London and New York, but owning a bar was his longtime dream.

Mr. Singh, 40, had spent the past year painstakingly and expensively transforming the place after buying it in 2019, and learning the restaurant business “from plumbing to paperwork,” he said.

Last March 15, a bright Sunday, he ate in his own restaurant for the first — and, he knew, possibly the last — time. “I wanted to just enjoy it while it lasted,” he said. “Soak it up. I thought: ‘I did good here. If we never come back, it’s not on me.’”

When he reopened a few days later (for delivery and takeout, as permitted by the state), 10 employees stayed on furlough; he was the only worker other than the chef.

“The supply chain was a wreck,” he recalled. “The bread would stop coming. Then it would start again, but the meat would stop. Everything that used to arrive at the doorstep, I had to pick up personally each day.”

He was putting in 16-hour days while his wife worked from home and managed their children, 7 and 10. “I would do a bit of home-school in the morning and then start out.”

Unlike many of his colleagues, Mr. Singh had tech skills that helped him escape the tangle of high-profile online delivery platforms like Grubhub and DoorDash; some were taking more than 30 percent of revenue from each order. (In May, the City Council passed legislation to cap third-party fees at 20 percent.)

Instead, Mr. Singh signed up for Bbot, a service that connects the restaurant’s website directly to a delivery platform. Because most of the people who order from Castello are already customers, he was willing to sacrifice a presence on the big companies’ high-profile platforms for the control and cash that comes from paying a flat fee.

The more ambitious a restaurant was, the more challenging it was to pivot to delivery. The Farm on Adderley, the longest-running farm-to-table restaurant in Ditmas Park, had just started an exclusive delivery deal with the upscale site Caviar, said co-owner Jai Chun.

Mr. Chun, 46, and his wife, Kathie Lee, 45, have owned the place since 2016; he said they ate there often when they started dating more than a decade ago. Its bedrock remains its menu of seasonal produce, much of it from farmers who supply the Cortelyou Greenmarket a few blocks away.

“Right now we have sunchokes, brussels, mushrooms, but next week we might have asparagus and strawberries,” Mr. Chun said, and Caviar couldn’t process the constant updates. So the menu became more streamlined and “we entered the chicken sandwich wars,” he said. Delivery took a back seat to raising the lofty, clear tent that now arches over the restaurant’s large back garden, its main source of revenue in the spring and summer.

“Who would have thought that outdoor space would make or break a restaurant?”

For Jose Javier Cordova, an owner of Cinco De Mayo, a taqueria that’s been open since 2000, delivery was routine; inventing an outdoor dining setup was the problem. Mr. Cordova, 54, worked as a waiter for 25 years at a formal restaurant on Wall Street before retiring to realize a long-held goal: cooking the food of his native Mexico City in his own restaurant.

“At the beginning, we put tables outside, but people didn’t like to sit in the sun,” so he invested in shade umbrellas. Rain meant buying scarce and expensive tents on Amazon, even as the restaurant was bringing in only $100 to $200 a day; the approach of winter meant building a shed.

“We are still putting in the electric heaters,” he said. “And pretty soon we won’t need them any more.”

Amid all this chaos, nearby residents began to rally around the local food businesses. About three-quarters of those who live here work outside the neighborhood, according to a 2018 study by the Flatbush Development Corporation, but with offices closed, that dynamic changed.

“People who used to commute to Manhattan were staying put, and businesses were innovating to meet that demand,” said Katie Richey, an owner of King Mother, a sleek wine bar.

Last summer, Ms. Richey, 28, and her business partner, the chef Erika Lesser, set up an outdoor stand to sell frosé — slushies of lemonade and pink wine — and then started a wine club, a cheese club and an online store. As fall set in, they persuaded the dentist next door to let them build a wooden shed over the sidewalk, decorated it with evergreen garlands and nudged the menu in an Alpine direction to project a “chalet” vibe.

What’s the Scooooop started delivering ice cream sundaes, a race against time and heat. At Sycamore Bar & Flower Shop, the owner, Ms. Lee of the Farm on Adderly, began selling Doritos, Funyuns and Cup Noodles for $1 when the city decreed that bars had to provide food with every drink. “There were a lot of bewildering conversations with the authorities,” she said. “Like, ‘what is food?’”

The stress and disruption of the pandemic, many said, knit the community together in new ways. There was a new mutual dependence, not only between the restaurants and local customers, but also among the owners, who became more supportive than competitive. And the recent arrival of warm weather, vaccinations and some indoor dining — along with the federal stimulus package — has brought an optimism that wasn’t there in February.

Karen Rose, 49, immigrated to Ditmas Park from Guyana when she was 14. She attended Junior High School 62, just a few blocks from Sacred Vibes Apothecary, a destination for herbal remedies based on traditions from the Caribbean, West Africa and India that she opened in 2009.

“I’ve known Cortelyou Road since my first day of junior high school,” she said. “It was the kind of street that had everything: one pizzeria, one antique store, one comic book store, one barber shop.”

In the 1990s, she said, storefronts sat empty, and restaurants didn’t last. But now, even during the pandemic, “it has bloomed into this beautiful space that our community supports and loves.”

In fact, she opened a culinary offshoot, Sacred Spice, around the corner in November. Both have had blocklong lines during the lockdown, she said.

None of the restaurants on this strip have closed, though many owners said they had been unable to pay rent at times, or were in debt negotiations with landlords.

Salahi Deli, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, may be the only local business that made no particular adjustments to the pandemic. Mohammed Salahi, 40, whose family has owned the place since 1991, said the neighborhood was then so empty at night that he locked the doors and served customers only through a bulletproof window.

Before the pandemic, he said, overnight business was always good, especially for hot food like chopped cheese sandwiches and chicken-rice platters. Now it has slowed to a trickle; revenue overall is down 50 to 70 percent for the past year. However, he said, since the business is staffed entirely by family members, costs stay under control.

“We are nine brothers and one sister who all came from Yemen,” he said. “In the next generation, I have 38 nephews, so there is plenty of labor supply.” And, he said, they never considered closing up shop.

“We stayed open on 9/11, we stayed open during Hurricane Sandy,” he said. “And we will be open after this.”

Follow NYT Food on Twitter and NYT Cooking on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest. Get regular updates from NYT Cooking, with recipe suggestions, cooking tips and shopping advice.

Source: Read Full Article