How This Terrible Winter Killed One of Brooklyn’s Darling Restaurants

606 R&D's deserted backyard.
606 R&D’s deserted backyard. Photo: Trey Mabray

When Ilene Rosen and Sara Dima, the owners of the well-liked 606 R&D, announced the closing of their Prospect Heights restaurant, they didn’t cite the usual crushing rent hike as the culprit. Instead, they attributed their problems, at least in part, to the “lack of business during the frigid nights of the past few months.” The detail struck Grub, since it’s horrifying to think that a New York winter can be so brutal that it actually shutters small businesses, so we called up Dima to find out more. Here’s what she had to say:

How much did the weather impact your decision to close the restaurant?
To backtrack, we had a very similar problem last year, whereby we were quite slow during weeknights of last winter’s bitter cold. For us, the problem is intensified, compared to other businesses our size, because we have a patio, and our patio more than doubles the size of our space. I think that our customers think of us as that patio place, and then we’re a little bit out of sight and out of mind in the winter. When we opened the patio, we were busy, but business wasn’t so great that we were able to dig ourselves out of the hole that we fell into last winter. And then when it hit again this year, our numbers were even worse. There was nothing else left that we could do.

We would have nights with no one coming for dinner until 7:30 p.m. And it’s very difficult to keep your staff motivated and confident in your abilities to run your business when there’s no one coming through the door. So you’re combating the finances of not selling the food that you’re bringing in, as well as the staff that you’re paying to be there but who aren’t cooking for or serving anyone. As everyone knows, it’s a high-overhead business. I could only push so far, and I felt like I’d pushed as far as I could go.

Compared to a bustling summer evening, how much less would you make on a blistering cold night? How does the profit margin compare?
Our January revenue this year is about 55 or 60 percent of what our June revenue was last summer. So it’s about half. We did about $98,000 in June of 2014, [and] about $55,000 in January of this year.

That’s rough. Your overhead costs stay exactly the same.
Exactly. My chef’s salary doesn’t go down by half. My manager’s salary doesn’t go down by half. My health insurance doesn’t go down by half.

Your rent doesn’t go down.
No, but I will say I have a generous landlord, and he did give us a rent concession last winter. It lasted three months.

Oh, wow. You almost never hear about that happening.
It’s very rare. You will find landlords who will do it. But it is not common.

What other factors do you think contributed to the closing?
In New York, so much the appeal of your neighborhood is about what amenities are around you. What’s the great restaurant, the great bar, or the grocery store? And I think that sometimes people have this impression that a small business just kind of exists in a bubble. But unless the money supports it, those places don’t last — particularly businesses our size that are owner-operated and neighborhood-specific. You have to support those places — otherwise they go out of business.

Or those neighbors are holed up in the cold, ordering food off of Seamless.
Right! I have a good friend who supported our business financially in a small way. She is a small-business owner herself, and she felt terribly guilty about not coming in enough, especially now that we’re closing. She looked me in the eye the other day and said, “I order from Seamless all winter.” And I was like, “Our habits are a statistic: me struggling to keep my business open, and you sitting on your couch.”

We give this real perception of success, because on weekends, when everyone is around, we’re very busy. Terribly busy! Oh so busy. But then Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and even some Thursdays, there’d be nights that we didn’t even make $500. There’d be nights we did eight covers. Eight covers!

Did you try and make changes to the menu or the service?
We would say, “What are we doing wrong?” And so we’d do the things we never do: We’d read the Yelp reviews and the OpenTable reviews. But mostly we get nice reviews! We’re not getting send-backs to the kitchen. People aren’t having a terrible time. I don’t know. It’s a tough business. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.

How This Brutal Winter Killed 606 R&D