Christine Wright of NY’s Hearth on Dining at 20 Degrees in One-Piece Ski Suits - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Christine Wright of NY’s Hearth on Dining at 20 Degrees in One-Piece Ski Suits

On pivots to stay afloat

We’re doing about as well as a restaurant could be doing. With the exception of a six-week period starting in mid-March, when everything shut down, we’ve been open.

We’ve done some side projects, food-wise. When we reopened, we were working with World Central Kitchen, José Andrés’s group, making 250 meals a day for them for about two-and-a-half months; we got a stipend for each meal. Now we’ve been doing pasta kits and selling them to Baldor [the restaurant supply company]; they’ve pivoted and have been selling direct to consumers. We’re also doing prepared soups, selling to Baldor and to customers. And, last Monday, we launched our Laptop Dinners—like a fancy TV dinner you can slide into your oven. They’re not as expensive as takeout—about $16 or $18 per meal—and they are flying off the shelves. People put in orders for ten at a time. There’s a big market for good, high-quality food that you don’t have to deal with or prepare.

On outdoor dining in a New York City winter

I wasn’t sure what to expect when they shut down indoor dining. I thought, Do we shut down? Now, even in the cold, on weekends, we are full all day every day. I’ve been stunned to see how many people are willing to come out. Some people bought winter snow suits to come to dinner. People are pretty determined to get out of their apartments and will do whatever it takes to make that happen.

There were several people I saw in one-piece snow suits, like you would see on a mountain, skiing—maybe a little more stylish, as this is New York. I’ve asked them, “Did you buy that this year?” And all of them said yes, because they want to go out to eat. They probably have several layers on underneath; they are all coming prepared. Which is good. Even though it is twenty degrees out. 

I didn’t realize how windy it could get. I had never thought about the weather this much my entire life. Now I have a whole wardrobe for serving outside. I said to my sister, “Send me your warmest sweaters that you are not wearing.” Is there a limit? Should we think about the safety of people when it gets this cold? Our answer has been to do what we can do until we can’t. Never in my wildest imagination would I think we would do this much outdoor business in January.

On sales and what’s selling

For food, the average cost of a meal might have gone down $5 to around $45. It wasn’t a huge drop. The bigger drop was in the wine and the booze. People are drinking cocktails, but even if they drink three cocktails, that doesn’t replace the cost of a $125 bottle of wine. It feels like people are spending less money. It was a very cocktail-heavy summer, and now it’s all about hot cocktails: cocktails to go, cocktails for here. Last year, wine was 75 percent of our alcoholic beverage sales; this year, it’s 50 percent—that’s a COVID thing. We’ve always been wine heavy, so it took some getting used to. Now, I’m ordering tequila at the same rate I’m ordering nebbiolo.

On being your own Girl Friday, and folks wanting to get back to work

I’ve been the GM since Paul [Grieco] left at the end of 2014 and my job just keeps getting bigger. There are days when I am the sole front-of-house employee on duty, bartending, bussing tables, serving the food, taking phone orders, polishing silverware. Those are less busy days, hopefully; otherwise, I get destroyed. It’s given me a lot more respect for the backwaiters. This is the least glamorous this job has ever been; my multitasking skills have been honed. Since we’ve reopened, every week something else has been taken away: Okay, now you don’t have any backwaiters, or another manager—my co-manager saw us through the summer, then moved to South Carolina in September. Do we replace her? It was decided that it wasn’t worth another salary for now. 

All of our team conversations with Marco and our accountant—she’s very optimistic that with this staff level and this level of business, we can ride this out indefinitely. Indoor dining will reopen at some point. I feel very strongly that restaurants are not the main cause of the spread; maybe I’m wrong, but the data shows it’s more prolonged gatherings in people’s houses. I would hope for indoor dining to reopen sooner rather than later. You read these articles about the staff that doesn’t want to go to work but has to. That hasn’t been my observation. The people who came back really wanted to. They had COVID already; I had it, too. Over that last weekend in March, a lot of people got sick because we didn’t know to take the precautions. Now, I know my staff would rather be at work than be on unemployment.

It’s not new anymore. COVID fatigue is a real thing. People are dying to get back to their lives on some level.

Joshua Greene is the editor and publisher of Wine & Spirits magazine.

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