“I can’t even think about next week. That’s literally six months away for me right now,” Joel Lee Kulp acknowledges behind his paisley blue-and-red mask, his demeanor no less pleasant than before COVID.
On March 17th, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio announcedthat the city should “prepare to shelter in place” — an announcement that hit the restaurant world of New York like a ton of bricks. At The Richardson, a cozy bar on the edge of East Williamsburg and Greenpoint, the news was received with as much trepidation and alarm as it was in the rest of the city.
Those who work in the service industry, owners and workers alike, are used to managing several regulatory stakeholders, from the City’s health department to the State Liquor Authority.
“As a bar owner, you’re pretty used to following the rules,” Kulp said, but the COVID-19 pandemic complicated the balance between keeping a business afloat and staying compliant by adding a new kind of duty: helping to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Kulp started with bottling to-go cocktails and redesigned his entire menu for outdoor dining in an effort to keep his neighborhood haunt alive. Now, he’s innovating even further to mold his formerly in-house-only bar into a multi-faceted cocktail destination.
Immediately after the shutdown announcement, Kulp laid off his 12 hourly staff members, encouraging them to apply for unemployment. He then closed the bar for two weeks, considering if and how he was going to remain at least partly open. Getting his feet underneath him, he moved to ensure that the business would continue to exist, applying to every city, state, and national aid program that crossed his path.
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, none of these programs were clear or simple. The first round of the Small Business Administration’s PPP program’s guidelines were unclear and the initial terms of the getting the loan forgiven were incompatible with New York’s reopening timelines. Inconsistent application processes like that for the Economic Injury Disaster Loan, “literally changed every day when you logged in to the website,” Kulp said.
After three weeks of making sure every conceivable piece of paperwork was filled out, Kulp then had to figure out how he could keep the bar open. Or at least address the critical questions: “What should we do? What can we do? What do people want?”
“In the early weeks it was cold, wet, and scary,” said Kulp. Additionally, he felt responsible to his staff, many of whom had worked at The Richardson for years, and whose futures were as uncertain as his.
The Cocktail Store
So he turned back to his roots: tending bar. Using bottles he already had in stock, he assembled a limited run of cocktails. “I put up a post that said ‘I have x bottled cocktails, all proceeds are going to the staff GoFundMe.”
The fundraiser was effective — he was able to raise $3,900 for his staff, and also ascertain if the public was interested in finely crafted cocktails.
“We sold out. People bought drinks, tipped well, it was a whole thing. And then basically once we figured out that was viable, I realized I can actually do this. So let’s try it out,” Kulp said.
The next week, Joel rooted through the liquor that remained in the bar and assembled a small menu of The Richardson’s specialties. Bottled in screw-top glass bottles stickered with The Richardson’s logo, they were homey and comforting — well-tailored for the uncertain days of the citywide quarantine.
“We were only supposed to leave our houses to go for essential items — you go to the grocery store, you go to the drug store and that’s it. For us, on Graham Ave, that means you’re also going to the butcher, the beer store, the drug store…so come to the cocktail store,” Kulp said.
And so the first new model was born. Since reopening in early April, he has gone through several iterations of his cocktail menu in swing with the seasons and expanded the hours of his store pick up from two to four days. Additionally, with the beginning of Spring weather customers were eager to be out of their apartments. So, he started selling carafes of Aperol spritz, encouraging diners to take their beverages elsewhere — the park, a local bench, wherever made sense.
Getting Ready To Reopen
Without a clear date from the city or state for re-establishing sit-down dining, the best Kulp could do was prepare. And as a result, The Richardson was more ready than most when the Open Streets announcement came from the city, four days before Phase 2’s start date. Joel had hired back a number of his previous staff, having them fill a couple shifts a week for the few days the bar was open — which gave him the ability to rethink his menu with the former chef.
“We developed a style of menu that I had been thinking about for a very long time,” Kulp said.
This new menu would feature tinned fish, and pre-made pickles and pastries purchased from the chef who had previously run The Richardson’s kitchen. Most importantly, it would not require a kitchen staff.
“What I realized while we reopened, in all these phases is, the days of having a lazy slow Tuesday afternoon with one bartender behind the bar and one person in the kitchen plating food every now and then – those days are over. Because I need somebody behind the bar making drinks, and somebody on the floor serving drinks, and I need somebody else on the floor to make sure that nobody stands up and doesn’t put a mask on. Where is the room for somebody in the kitchen here?”
Further changes would mean their new dining room became the entirety of the sidewalk triangle that leads up to the bar itself. And their new menus would utilize QR codes, minimizing points of contact between customers and staff.
Different Kind Of Hospitality
Though seemingly small, these choices reflect necessary changes to the face of hospitality.
“Attentive service will have to be a little more hands-off than before,” Kulp said.“As someone who’s always been about “give them everything” — in the old days I’d give them an ashtray, give them a coaster, give them matches.”
Now, customers will have to ask for water on their tables; greeting conversations are much shorter and consist of directing them to the QR codes on the table.
All of these remodels, necessary in Kulp’s eyes, would have been almost impossible pre-COVID. Programs like his kitchen “…were pieces that were integral to our business model that were not feasible in their own right.” Now, in a world dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, he can simplify his offerings and, in turn, empower his bar staff to say yes whenever they can.
Looking forward, Kulp is happy to see indoor dining not yet implemented. “We know what 37 seats look like, six feet apart. 30 seconds in, we asked ‘What if 37 people were in here?’ We’d be horrified!”
Still, he’s excited about what the future holds and glad to be back as a part of the community – in spite of and because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “My thing has always been, look: I understand that this environment isn’t for everybody. But the people that it’s for respond very well. And if you’ve got a little bit of an open mind, we’re here for you. I’m gonna treat you really, really well. You just gotta let me do it.”