On Saturday, March 14, Kim Martin-Flammia and Patrick Flammia opened their first restaurant, Chofi Taco y Birria. Out of a small space ten blocks from their home in Union City, New Jersey, they started serving Kim’s esquites with bone marrow, quesatacos, and red tacos de birria. They sold out of everything. Then, after two days in business, they had to shut their dining room, allowed, because of coronavirus mandates, to offer takeout and delivery only, with the threat of a full shutdown looming. Patrick spoke to Grub Street about what it took to open the restaurant, and where he and Kim now find themselves.
We’re a family-run thing. It’s my wife and myself. It’s been our dream our whole lives to open up a restaurant, so we’ve been saving to get here. We spent a lot of money just getting here because, basically, we quit our full-time jobs — I did last July, and Kim left the Mark in 2018 when we had our daughter — and it got to where we needed to open this weekend, or we wouldn’t make rent for our house or the restaurant for April.
We spent $100,000 to open this restaurant. It’s an 800-square-foot space, with a 280-square-foot dining room. That was our whole savings. I’ve been saving since I started working. It’s been a slow and steady $20 here, $100 there. We got a little help, like $10,000 from a deceased relative, but that didn’t really make the big difference. We currently don’t have any debt, which is very lucky, but it can change in a weekend basically — like it kind of is now.
Before this, I was the service director of Jean-Georges, which is also where I started my NYC restaurant career. Back in ’09, I was a captain at Jean-Georges restaurant and then moved around. I was with Carbone and then José Andrés in between my two stints with Jean-Georges. So, yeah, I’ve just been working and I’ve been saving pennies until it seemed right. Last year, when I started cooking the tacos with my wife at Smorgasburg, it made sense. We were doing 500 guests on a Saturday there, selling tacos for $5 a piece.
The real reason we thought opening the restaurant made sense was because we were paying a kitchen to be our commissary and we figured, Why not spend an extra $1,000 and we can have a dining room and grow the brand? The dream was always in Brooklyn or Manhattan, but New Jersey just seemed to be the more financially sound way to do it with our own money and without looking for outside investment or bank loans or whatever. Our money went a lot further than if we had opened up in Brooklyn.
Still, we were basically down to our last dollars before opening. We had enough cash flow, but if we paid all of our rent we’d have zero left to buy food. We’re a new business, so we’re still on a cash-on-delivery basis with every company. I don’t get to invoice everything. I don’t get to wait until the end of the month. I have to give purveyors a check to get the food.
The first weekend, a ton of people from Queens and Brooklyn that followed us at Smorgasburg came to the restaurant. So we lose that aspect of the business now and being able to depend on those people. We kind of lucked out because we’re tacos, and we’re allowed to do takeout and delivery. So that in itself is helpful, I suppose.
In the business plan, we were focusing on a lot of events that got canceled. We had Smorgasburg, which had been very good to us, and we were expecting to make that money again. We’d open in March, pay the one month of rent, and then in April, we’d have Smorgasburg and events and those would help us. Now we don’t have either of those, and we can’t have people in the restaurant.
I do have GrubHub and Seamless, but we’ve been open for one day, and I’ve only had delivery pickup. We’re too new. I think when people go on Seamless, if they’ve never heard of something, they pick it because it has 500 five-star reviews. We have zero reviews and zero stars on the apps. The companies are also not that nice to us. They take 30 percent of revenue, so it’s not really the most ideal situation.
We’re lucky enough just because it’s still my wife and me, so we don’t need to have that moral discussion about our staff members. It’s just us. We can go sit in the restaurant and do delivery ourselves. We just need to be able to pay the bills and rent. We don’t really need to worry about paying back our investment. We’re not paying any debts or loans yet. We’re not even on salary at this point. We eat the food we buy to make, and most of the money goes to our 2-year-old daughter. I haven’t had health insurance since leaving Jean-Georges.
As long as we make enough money to live day by day, it could turn out okay. But if tomorrow they say there’s no delivery or takeout, I’m screwed. I’d have to close the restaurant, and I’ve only been open a week. I would have to reach out for loans and investments, and I don’t even know if that’s possible now.
The situation changes minute by minute. Restaurants have always been like that, but now it feels like life or death — the life or death of the restaurant.
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