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What It’s Like to Open a Restaurant During the COVID-19 Crisis

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One of the first industries to feel the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, local food and drink businesses have been both among the hardest hit and, somehow, the saving grace for many Westchesterites stuck at home.

It’s certainly not an easy thing to contend with demands of location, staffing, payroll, supplies, and razor-thin margins, but doing so now can seem almost insurmountable. To find out how they’re managing it, we with the proprietors of three just-opened Westchester food and drink businesses you can still order from, even while many local favorites remain closed.

B6 Kitchen, originally an addition bringing a full kitchen space to Hastings-on-Hudson’s Boro6 Wine Bar, B6 was a long-gestating project completed by contractor Brendan Dunleavey just prior to the shutdown, one owner Paul Molakides credits with keeping his entire business running.

“I initially closed down and laid everybody off, and then I got an earful from my wife,” Molakides says. After making calls to his chef and front-of-house staff, B6 Kitchen reopened to phone orders for hot dinners on Fridays and Saturdays.

“We started making one or two things the first week. Then we started making our own soups again.” Viewing continued operation as something of a public service, Molakides and his team saw growing orders and were able to expand, serving those same hot dinners, as well as the restaurant’s entire originally planned take-out menu, now with online ordering and contactless delivery.

While Molakides says he’s applied for PPP loans and small business relief, it’s that original idea for a takeout menu that he credits as the most important. “It’s the only thing that saved us,” he says. “It saved my business.”

 

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In Pleasantville, Soul Brewing Company watched New York’s pandemic response unfold at the same time it was planning its grand opening.

“We opened on March 14,” says Founder and Brewmaster Allen Wallace. “We really couldn’t put off opening any longer- we had been building and waiting on licensing for over a year, and it was a financial necessity.”

“The morning that we opened I heard from the Chamber of Commerce, who had to cancel our ribbon cutting, understandably.” A smaller but still successful opening day launch was followed quickly by the state shuttering all eating and drinking establishments except for carry-out. At the time, Wallace was in the process of onboarding staff while the taproom was open.

“As of now it is just me here working, with some help from family and friends. The local community has been amazingly supportive,” he says, “regularly purchasing takeout and a ‘Rescue Main Street’ drive which had everyone purchasing gift cards from the local businesses.”

Initially, Soul Brewing had planned a menu of small bites locally sourced from other favorite businesses like Katonah’s LMNOP Bakery, Croton-on-Hudson’s Baked By Susan, Beacon’s More Good natural sodas, and Pleasantville’s own Second Mouse Cheese Shop, along with “minimal takeout of growlers and crowlers.”

“That has now become our primary and only source of revenue,” Wallace says.

“We applied for PPP but, given that we are a start-up with no previous payroll or income history in 2019, we are unlikely to receive any aid,” he says. “I was informed by our bank that, for the same reasons, we wouldn’t qualify for any of the SBA-backed loans that are available.”

Right now, 100% of Soul Brewing Company’s efforts are going into making, selling, and delivering Westchester’s newest brews to thirsty residents.

“If we were able to get on top of things financially, I would love to get involved in some sort of other outreach, producing a beer in support of relief efforts.”

 

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If you look at Whiskey River’s mouth-watering Instagram feed, you’d be hard-pressed to discern that the Peekskill-based taproom and kitchen technically didn’t get to open. Occupying what used to be the old MacDonald & Peacock Cider House, the brand-new north county eatery had planned its grand opening to coincide with Peekskill’s official St. Patrick’s Day Parade on March 14. Obviously, that didn’t quite pan out.

“We did a soft opening on March 12 and had three solid days before the Governor closed all restaurants down,” Rosario-Neville says.

“With two key members, Mark Hernandez and Ashley Lurie, we created a new menu, adjusted hours of operation and determined new processes for our take-out business. It has been a fun challenge and the community has been very supportive.”

The crew switched from an all-week plan to five days per week with limited dinner hours. As more customers called around lunchtime, Whiskey River moved around its days and hours to settle into a noon-to-dinner schedule. Like Soul Brewing Company, sadly, as a new business with no prior year income, Whiskey River is ineligible for PPP and small business loans.

In order to build momentum, the team crafted a rotating weekly menu of limited-quantity specials and showcasing the varied cuisines the tap house serves: an empanada of the day, the “Up the River Burger,” “Fo’ Schnitzel,” and some iteration of burrata salad are always on deck along with bottled beer, growler fills, and to-go cocktail kits for two served in humorously labeled medicine bottles. (Try the “Cold Fashioned” or the “Pain Killer.”) This past week, for Cinco de Mayo, the team added fish and chicken tinga tacos, a street corn and burrata salad, and chicken tortilla soup along with a 16oz prickly pear margarita and other south-of-the-border inspired cocktails.

“Our Whiskey River Family strives to produce unforgettable experiences from the food and drinks we create to the interaction with our guests in person and online,” says Rosario-Neville, who comes from an advertising background.

“It’s a very forgiving time and people are more compassionate, so we are taking the opportunity to play with the menu, find out what they like and don’t like and deliver on excellence.”

 

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