Surviving a Drought: Running a Restaurant in NYC During the Coronavirus (PT. II)
(I wrote Part I right as NYC was shutting down due to Covid-19. You can read that here.)
Growing up as a first-generation immigrant in America, you’re often surrounded by a sense of uneasiness that things could go tragically wrong at any second. It could be an unforeseen immigration issue, a parent losing their job or the sudden death of a family member back home. It’s like a low, indefatigable hum that you learn to live with.
That being said, through these experiences you learn to be resourceful and are ready to face anything. After going through everything we did to open the doors at Kolkata Chai, we had assumed the worst was behind us. We had defeated shady contractors, mercurial city inspectors and major financial setbacks before selling a single cup.
Last month, New York City mandated restaurants and cafes move to delivery and takeout only in response to the Covid-19 outbreak. As a business that was just finding our footing after a tough winter, this was devastating news. Ironically, on our 6 month anniversary of opening we decided to temporarily close our cafe to prioritize the health and safety of our staff and customers.
The decision to close was heartbreaking. Operating the cafe brought us great joy and the space we had created for our community was our proudest accomplishment. Granted, in the scope of what people around the world were facing in the midst of a global pandemic, this was a minor event. But in our world, where the cafe had become a haven in the diaspora community and was a massive point of pride for our parents, this was anything but minor. Not to mention the issues this posed for our investors, debt obligations and rent payments.
Before closing, we put together a gameplan for survival. We would pivot to doing delivery and introduce new e-commerce products to try and drive revenue. The success of these depended on there actually being a demand for such offerings, but that was beyond our control. We had to try. As we scrambled to pivot, I noticed a lack of urgency from my other peers in the restaurant world. Did they know something about government bailouts that we didn’t? Were their operations simply too big to effectively pivot? The idea of slapping up a GoFundMe and praying for the best didn’t quite sit right with us. So we went to work.
The first challenge was to create a delivery system. Every 3rd party service (ex: UberEats and Doordash) was backed up due to the rush of new restaurants signing up and given that these “partners” took anywhere from 15%-30% of each order, it wasn’t a sustainable solution for us. Within 48 hours, we managed to create a delivery system by patching together a form on our website, a Google Doc and turning our front of house staff into delivery dispatchers. Now that we had built it, would any come?
Within minutes of going live, the delivery requests flooded in. Our team spent every waking minute of the day, many times late into the night, fielding requests and create each day’s delivery schedule. Remarkably, with the volume of orders each day and our community’s generous tips, we were able to stabilize some of the losses from our cafe . This felt like a small glimmer of hope in a very dark situation. As we hustled to the cafe in the early mornings to set up our day, the scene in NYC was eerie. Roads were empty, almost every retail store was shut down and the city that never sleeps seemed to be stuck in an unwanted day dream.
As the demand for deliveries picked up, we had to make another difficult decision: Was it truly safe enough to continue? Were we putting our staff and customers at risk? Despite the encouraging revenue numbers, after two weeks, we decided to pause deliveries until the number of active cases started to drop in the city.
Without deliveries, we were back to zero in revenue. At this point, giving up and letting things play out was the easy choice. Instead, we huddled and tried to find a way forward.
We decided to expedite the R&D of a product we had originally wanted to launch during the summer: A DIY Chai Kit featuring our proprietary spice and tea mix. Given that the majority of country was under strict quarantine, making a meditative cup of chai at home could be the perfect antidote. We put together a test batch, shot product photos using Portrait Mode and went straight to Instagram to let people know. After the first day, we had sold enough kits to pay our rent for the month of April. We would live to fight another day.
In part 1, I talked about how this situation would force us to innovate. In the four weeks since then, I’ve realized the importance of an omnichannel approach in today’s consumer climate. Being omnichannel means having a robust, meaningful presence to reach your customers across multiple sales channels such as retail, digital, social, e-commerce and others. The reason a lot of small businesses (especially restaurants) won’t make it out of this is because they never stepped out of their comfort zone. They never invested in a cohesive digital strategy because they couldn’t see the ROI on it immediately. They never created a thoughtful social strategy because it “took too much time”. They didn’t want to deal with e-commerce because it was “too much work”. Now, as the world has flipped upside down, we’re seeing the value of investing in these early and consistently. We created Kolkata Chai Co as a digital-first food & beverage brand and in the end, that might be what allows us to survive this crisis.
Nonetheless, these past 30 days have been nothing short of a nightmare. To watch something that you’ve worked so hard to create hang in the balance is excruciatingly difficult. At the same time, our ability to constantly innovate and pivot speaks volumes to the type of business we’re committed to building. We’re super grateful for our community of patrons and supporters who have stepped up during this time. Whether you bought a gift card, purchased a chai kit for a friend or Venmoed us a donation, every single gesture has sent air through our lungs.
I tweeted something a few weeks ago that summarizes my mindset as we continue to navigate this:
That being said, I’d like to make one small edit: Let’s keep those masks on for now.
If you’d like to support us during this time, grab a chai kit to warm yourself up: https://kolkatachai.co/shop/diy-chai-kit. Be wise, stay inside and we’ll see you at our party once all this over. 👋🏾