NYC restaurateur and owner of now former Bowery staple eatery Prune, Gabrielle Hamilton, tells her story in this week's Sunday Long Read. After 20 years, the mainstay closed its doors and Hamilton now wonders openly about if the restaurant model of business could or even should survive in the Big Apple in the post-COVID era.
On the night before I laid off all 30 of my employees, I dreamed that my two children had perished, buried alive in dirt, while I dug in the wrong place, just five feet away from where they were actually smothered. I turned and spotted the royal blue heel of my youngest’s socked foot poking out of the black soil only after it was too late.
For 10 days, everyone in my orbit had been tilting one way one hour, the other the next. Ten days of being waterboarded by the news, by tweets, by friends, by my waiters. Of being inundated by texts from fellow chefs and managers — former employees, now at the helm of their own restaurants but still eager for guidance. Of gentle but nervous pleas from my operations manager to consider signing up with a third-party delivery service like Caviar. Of being rattled even by my own wife, Ashley, and her anxious compulsion to act, to reduce our restaurant’s operating hours, to close at 9 p.m., cut shifts.
With no clear directive from any authority — public schools were still open — I spent those 10 days sorting through the conflicting chatter, trying to decide what to do. And now I understood abruptly: I would lay everybody off, even my wife. Prune, my Manhattan restaurant, would close at 11:59 p.m. on March 15. I had only one piece of unemotional data to work with: the checking-account balance. If I triaged the collected sales tax that was sitting in its own dedicated savings account and left unpaid the stack of vendor invoices, I could fully cover this one last week of payroll.
By the time of the all-staff meeting after brunch that day, I knew I was right. After a couple of weeks of watching the daily sales dwindle — a $12,141 Saturday to a $4,188 Monday to a $2,093 Thursday — it was a relief to decide to pull the parachute cord. I didn’t want to have waited too long, didn’t want to crash into the trees. Our sous chef FaceTimed in, as did our lead line cook, while nearly everyone else gathered in the dining room. I looked everybody in the eye and said, “I’ve decided not to wait to see what will happen; I encourage you to call first thing in the morning for unemployment, and you have a week’s paycheck from me coming.”
After the meeting, there was some directionless shuffling. Should we collect our things? Grab our knives? Stay and have a drink? There was still one last dinner, so four of us — Ashley and I; our general manager, Anna; and Jake, a beloved line cook — worked the last shift at Prune for who knows how long. Some staff members remained behind to eat with one another, spending their money in house. As word trickled out, some long-ago alumnae reached out to place orders for meals they would never eat. From Lauren Kois, who waited tables at Prune all through her Ph.D. program and is now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Alabama:
2 dark and stormies
shrimp w anchovy
fried oysters (we’re pretending it’s a special tonight)
Leo Steen Jurassic Chenin Blanc
potatoes in duck fat
breton butter cake
2 black coffees
+ 50 percent TIP
Ashley worked the grill station and cold appetizers, while also bartending and expediting. Anna waited and hosted and answered the phone. Jake worked all 10 burners alone. I was in a yellow apron handling the dish pit, clearing the tables and running bus tubs, and I broke into tears for a second when I learned of Kois’s order. The word “family” is thrown around in restaurants for good reason. We banked $1,144 in total sales.
As our staff left that night, we waved across the room to one another with a strange mixture of longing and eye-rolling, still in the self-conscious phase of having to act so distant from one another, all of us still so unaware of what was coming. Then, as I was running a last tray of glassware before mopping the floors, Ashley leaned over to announce: “Hey, he just called it. De Blasio. It’s a shutdown. You beat it by five hours, babe.”
The next day, a Monday, Ashley started assembling 30 boxes of survival-food kits for the staff. She packed Ziploc bags of nuts, rice, pasta, cans of curry paste and cartons of eggs, while music played from her cellphone tucked into a plastic quart container — an old line-cook trick for amplifying sound. I texted a clip of her mini-operation to José Andrés, who called immediately with encouragement: We will win this together! We feed the world one plate at a time!
Ashley had placed a last large order from our wholesaler: jarred peanut butter, canned tuna, coconut milk and other unlikely items that had never appeared on our order history. And our account rep, Marie Elena Corrao — we met when I was her first account 20 years ago; she came to our wedding in 2016 — put the order through without even clearing her throat, sending the truck to a now-shuttered business. She knew as well as we did that it would be a long while before the bill was paid. Leo, from the family-owned butchery we’ve used for 20 years, Pino’s Prime Meat Market, called not to diplomatically inquire about our plans but to immediately offer tangibles: “What meats do you ladies need for the home?” He offered this even though he knew that there were 30 days’ worth of his invoices in a pile on my desk, totaling thousands of dollars. And all day a string of neighborhood regulars passed by on the sidewalk outside and made heart hands at us through the locked French doors.
It turned out that abruptly closing a restaurant is a weeklong, full-time job. I was bombarded with an astonishing volume of texts. The phone rang throughout the day, overwhelmingly well-wishers and regretful cancellations, but there was a woman who apparently hadn’t followed the coronavirus news. She cut me off in the middle of my greeting with, “Yeah, you guys open for brunch?” Then she hung up before I could even finish saying, “Take care out there.”
As I said, a lot of things will permanently change in the US because of this pandemic. How and where we eat is just one consideration...