Getting by with a Chef on Mulberry Street
In our new series “Getting By,” Lower East Side residents and business owners share, in their own words, how they’re navigating the new normal of pandemic times. In this installment, a chef on Mulberry Street, Allen Walker-Hodkin, talks about his experience.
The Nolita [restaurant] was our busiest dinner shop, our commissary, and our only store without a basement (#chefsdream). Pre-Covid I started my mornings there before my scheduled runs across our 4 locations. I still remember the third from the last car on the F train was the least packed at 6:30 in the morning. Our kitchens employed 50-plus and we had a fully staffed commissary of five including a driver that delivered six days a week. The streets were part hip professionals, tourists, and university kids all out for a good time. Nolita always had a dirty-casual feel that pulled people from all over.
During the shutdown, we shut down completely. I remember watching sales in the second week of March decline 50% day over day. By the time we closed, we weren’t even at 10% sales from the week before. It was a mad rush to get all of our food from our four locations to our Nolita location (#nobasement) so we could open a food pantry for our staff. I ordered in 500 [units] of beans and rice, 250 of potatoes, everything to hold onto just in case. Perishables were all claimed and out within days, we took advantage of our commissary location to store and hold even more food. Freezers were stacked across our locations with protein, I managed to keep as busy as ever.
Then I got a phone call about a cook I used to work with [who] passed away from Covid. That was full-stop territory. I was already beginning to meet some staff at 3 and 4 am pantry pick-ups to avoid crowded trains. Everything was changing every day, it was news, constant texts, pantry for staff, and undressing in hallways before coming home.
We had gift card sales that raised $25,000 for our staff who needed it the most and were handing out cash to help families stay afloat. Shit was real, everyone knew someone that passed away. It got to a point that we pivoted hard and went from having staff travel to come to the pantry and instead we ended up loading everything in my car and took it on the road to 40-plus staff members with weekly cash drop-offs as we sold more gift cards.
The whole company sucked at Zoom—it was half Zoom and then half phone calls making sure we understood what just happened in Zoom. It was getting up at 4 am and getting weekly food deliveries so we could load grocery bags with food and envelopes with the week’s donations and gallons of hand sanitizer and still undressing in hallways before coming home.
Now I bike everyday at 7am and start at our Chelsea location and work my way back so I can end at Mulberry Street for the short(er) ride home. Our kitchens have a part-time rule so we can provide more work for more people, and we pay the NYC living wage standard of $18 as our minimum wage. The Nolita location is still our busiest dinner shop, but no commissary, and our only store without a basement (#chefsdream). And Nolita still has that dirty-casual feel that pulls people from all over, these days it’s just from all over NYC. We still get to practice our French from time to time though, even if it’s just with each other.