When the coronavirus pandemic hit New York, Colleen and Ian Bock were a few weeks and permits away from opening a new restaurant and bar in Ridgewood. Now, after spending a year and a half on the Acre, they’re caught in limbo. They are unable to open the bar, or even serve takeout, and they’re also ineligible for any grants or loans, like the Paycheck Protection Program. Complicating matters is the fact that Colleen is immunocompromised because of type 1 diabetes, meaning that even if they could open, she’d be unable to work without putting herself at serious risk. They talked to Grub Street about how they’re hanging on.
Colleen Bock: I used to be one of the owners of Father Knows Best in Bushwick. I left in August of 2018, and I would say within a month we were seriously hitting the ground looking for spaces. We have been under construction for a year, and when this all happened we were probably two to three weeks away from opening. Our job is still open with the Department of Buildings, and trying to get construction permits closed out has actually been our biggest hurdle. Early on, the DOB had set a lot of social-distancing standards that made processing paperwork really, really slow. It’s been six weeks since we’ve been trying to close out our job. It’s one of those things where we, obviously, have zero control. We’re just along for the ride.
Ian Bock: We’ve had four appointments now to confirm we took our construction fence down, and they’ve canceled all of them. There’s no real explanation. It’s kind of hard to tell if they’re just trying to avoid getting out there, or if people have called out. But I could expect them to do a drive-by in a car to confirm there’s no big, ugly fence.
Colleen: Our landlord, who owns a lot of buildings in the neighborhood with commercial spaces, has been very generous with us. He understands we’re in an awkward position. We can’t qualify for any of the grants or loans being offered because a lot of those are based on loss of revenue, and we didn’t have any revenue to show. We don’t qualify for any of the payroll-protection loans either, because we as managing owners haven’t been paying ourselves.
We’ve been waiting to have income, and we were doing the work here ourselves to save money during the last few months. But we also recognize that we’re actually somewhat fortunate to be in this limbo right now. We don’t have to try to retain staff or have anyone depend on us for work, so we’re lucky in that way.
Absolutely we’d be in a worse position if we had opened three weeks or even three months before the shutdown. I’d say that because our landlord is helping us out a little bit, we have six months before we really have to start worrying. At that point, we’d need to start discussing a capital call or finding a new investor to continue. What’s also helping is that we’ve been selling gift certificates, to get a little bit of cash coming in. We covered a month’s rent with those so far. That’s significant to us, because it’s one more month we don’t have to worry. People are spending small amounts of money at small businesses, and it’s huge. Being good for six months would mean no more surprise costs after this ends, but in New York construction there are a lot of surprise costs. If we can’t close the job out while this is going on, who knows how long it will take once offices start opening up? Everyone’s going to be trying to do it all at the same time.
Ian: This limbo will eat into our operating expenses, the money we have to buy all of our inventory and start hiring staff. We’re currently spending that money on rent. Obviously everyone will have to open in a different way than they did before. We probably won’t be able to at full capacity; we’ll be doing most of the work ourselves, and have a limited staff. That’s assuming the money we have lasts as long as we need it to.
Colleen: Another thing that complicates all of this is that I’m immunocompromised. I’m type 1 diabetic, and Ian’s the chef. We’re legally not allowed to be working out of this space right now. But during the first couple of weeks when everyone was spinning around trying to figure out where the ground was, we were trying to figure out, Should we be doing takeout? Is it the Wild West, so would it not matter that our permits haven’t been closed out? But at the end of the day, in order for us to be the most productive and helpful, we need to not be sick. And for me, if I get the coronavirus, that would be devastating.
I had already started to stay home a couple of weeks before the shelter-in-place order was given. I think it was two weeks before everyone started to stay home, which is the exact opposite of the way I operate. I’m usually very hands-on.
There are a lot of extra considerations to take just because I’m immunocompromised. We were just asking ourselves, “What is it going to look like when they finally let restaurants open? Are we going to be at 25 percent capacity for a while? Is it going to be safe for me to go to work if I’m wearing gloves and a mask?” I have no idea, and it is something to consider. It depends on what happens on the other side of this, and we have no idea what it’s going to look like.
On April 1, I changed our health insurance over to Medicaid because we don’t have income anymore. Then last week, I was trying to get my insulin refilled. They are saying that my Medicaid doesn’t start until May 1, so I had to pay full price for insulin last Wednesday.
I’m unemployed and I paid $178 for one vial of insulin — and that was with a coupon. It’s literally a single vial; that’s less than a month’s supply for me. It would’ve been $400 without the coupon I got through that GoodRX app. I don’t even know how the app works to be honest. I was just Googling how to get insulin without health insurance. It was a last-ditch effort.
I could have called New York State of Health to see if it’d start our Medicaid early, but I had already been on the phone for a couple of hours on Thursday. We were sitting in the car outside the pharmacy; Ian was running in and out because I can’t go in. I think some pharmacies are allowing you to pick up more than one month’s supply to try to help out, but it’s scary. There hasn’t been any sort of issue in the supply chain for medication yet, but who knows what it’s going to look like if this goes on for longer than people are expecting? Especially if everyone is picking up extra medication.
I think that even if my family or Ian’s family didn’t have two pennies to rub together, they’d still give us the one penny they had. My mother is a line cook who makes, like, $15 an hour. Right as the coronavirus was happening, before the restaurant that she works for closed, she tried to give me a check for $1,000 because she knows how hard it is.
More Shutdown Diaries
- Food Was My Only Source of Joy in Quarantine. Then I Lost My Sense of Taste.
- Our Restaurant Isn’t Getting Help. Ramadan Keeps Us Going.
- We Opened a Restaurant During the Pandemic