Covid 19 has shut down thousands of businesses all over the world. We agree that it was the best thing to do to slow down the spread of a virus that still has no cure or vaccine. We also acknowledge the huge hit that many small businesses will suffer due to covid-19 and the reality that some may make the decisions to close their doors forever. The recovery of loss is just too much. Especially for small businesses that happened to open up right before the quarantine was set in place.
We reached out to 191 Knickerbocker, a new local restaurant that opened up about 2 years ago. They were just starting to get settled, the recognition and business they deserved when they were forced to re evaluate the usage of their restaurant. Here is how our convo went:
AIB: Please introduce yourself to our readers. Who are the founders and the mission of your business?
191: My name is Rona Davis and I own 191 Knickerbocker with my husband Chef Jesse Davis. The global comfort food restaurant concept was designed by Jesse. Though he is a classically trained chef with a background in fine-dining, he prefers homestyle cooking. The menu represents dishes that someone’s mother or grandmother taught him. It’s also a representation of our family dynamic, a melting pot within itself. I’m from Guyana. The West Indian Fritters on the menu is something my mother taught Jesse, so is our homemade hot sauce. Jesse’s paternal grandmother is Austrian, her Matzo Ball Soup brings back a fond childhood memory of his. He also attributes his earliest inspiration for food to his maternal grandmother who is from Haiti.
Matzo Ball Soup
AIB: So I know you mentioned during our live interview that your restaurant has only been open for about 2 years. What were you doing before you opened up and what was that spark that led the idea to reality?
191: Jesse had been an executive chef for so many years, from large corporate NYC owned to small family owned restaurants in Astoria. I watched him struggle through that transition from being burnt out to working for others who didn’t allow him to be his own creative self and so I left my desk job to help him become his own boss. What I didn’t realize was that it would be as difficult as he had warned me. Owning a restaurant is the most challenging entrepreneurial endeavor one can take on. Because the majority of restaurants fail within their first year, there is little or no start up funding programs for these specific first time businesses. When we sold our cozy condominium in Queens to open 191 Knickerbocker I didn’t realize we were risking everything.
AIB: Where are you from ? And what would be the taste you carry in your restaurant?
191: I was born and raised in Guyana. I migrated to New York with my family as a teen. Jesse is half Austrian and half Haitian. He was born and raised in White Plains, NY. We want people to walk into our restaurant feeling at home.
AIB: What made you open here in Bushwick?
191: Honestly, it was one of the few places where we could be first time business owners. We could never do this in NYC or Williamsburg or Astoria. Bushwick gave us a chance to open our first restaurant because rents were reasonable but also inspired us unlike any other place during our search. It was a very special community and we wanted to be a part of it.
AIB: As most know Bushwick has been going through huge changes which has led to a huge displacement rate in the native community. How do you think your business acknowledges its presence here and how do you plan to engage and do outreach with people who have been here all their lives?
191: When we signed the lease at our location, we changed our business concept because Bushwick inspired us to think outside the box and by doing so, it also reconnected us back to our own roots. We were originally going to be a Tapas Restaurant but after spending some time in Bushwick, we quickly realized that we wanted to be community oriented and include everyone. We didn’t want to alienate anyone. So we went from thinking about industrial decor to warm home vibes that would welcome everyone from all walks of life. I went to a few cafes and bars prior to signing our lease and I can’t tell you how many unfriendly pretentious experiences I had. It made me realize all the things I didn’t want to be.
DJ @princexsamo and girlfriend @bawsecat Bad Boy Themed birthday party 191
AIB: What were you most excited about right before quarantine was enforced?
191: We were becoming hopeful about business, finally, because the first year and a half was a struggle. Our business was not profitable for the first year and half because we had so many challenges getting opened and with our landlord. We were overworked and burnt out but right before COVID-19, business was beginning to boom so we pulled ourselves together and kept going. Then, quarantine.
AIB: What have you been doing with your restaurant during social distancing? What are the ways you’ve been adapting?
191: We completely reinvented ourselves. We tried the take-out only thing but honestly it was so up and down and everyone in the neighborhood was out of work. So we partnered up with The Noise Church to repurpose our restaurant into a take-out only Soup Kitchen/Pantry. In the beginning we questioned ourselves, how are we going to financially pull this off? But then we began to receive donations. We’ve been serving about 100 meals per day, three times a week, for free with the help of donations and contributions from other neighborhood restaurants and organizations.
AIB: What has been the hardest part of adapting during Covid-19?
191: Adapting to Covid-19 in the beginning was worrying about survival and what this means for our business and trying to make sense of the loans/grants being offered by the SBA. Getting food supplies for the free meals has been challenging also. So we’re not doing our usual menu items, instead we’re doing one-pot dishes like rice and beans with sausage and soups. In general, there was a lot of restlessness during the uncertainties of just about everything and recently more mindlessness and rest.
Rice and beans with andouille sausage and chicken During COVID-19 The Free Meal Project:One Pot Dishes
AIB: We know that you’ve decided to stop being open as a paid take out restaurant during quarantine and instead be open 3x a week to serve free food to those in need which is extremely honorable. Could you give us the details and how has that been going and what made you decide to take this route?
191: May 6 marked the 6th week of our new operation. Operating as a Non-Profit for me felt right because we know most of the folks in the community, Bushwick Natives and Transplants and most of them were not working, not getting stimulus checks or unemployment so why would we try to sell them take-out? It wasn’t at all logical. The more time I’ve had to think about why we did this, I also have to admit, that maybe it was because we came so close to failing and losing everything. The challenge of being a small business owner, let alone a first time small business owner will test everything about who you are like you’ve never experienced. We were in litigation with our landlord who was trying to evict us because she wanted more money for her space and I thought I was failing, so it was easy for me to decide to operate as a non-profit because I thought I had nothing left to lose.
Lentil Stew During COVID-19 The Free Meal Project:One Pot Dishes
AIB: Are there any other orgs or businesses that you have been working with or supporting during this time?
191: The Noise Church/ Fuel Pax Foods/ Feed the Freelancers/ The Seneca Bar & Restaurant
AIB: Aside from being business owners and dealing with the pressure of that during this time, how have you and your team been holding up ?
191: We’re taking some much needed time to rest and recover from our 80 plus hour work weeks. I am catching up with my reading list and doing some self-care. We’re also spending so much time with our dog and cat and they are now beyond spoiled.
AIB: What are your ideas and priorities post covid-19?
191: We have unresolved issues with our landlord, we have to return to court and resume litigation and figure out how to move forward. Also because we don’t have tax returns that show a profitable distribution for us during our first year, we don’t qualify for the SBA PPP loans. We’re honestly not sure where to go from here.
AIB: Do you have any other last words for our readers?
Even when we’re uncertain in hopeless situations, you have to find a way to be hopeful.
We want to thank 191 for the amazing work they are doing in the community and for giving us the time to tell us a little bit about themselves.
To learn more about 191 or pick up some food click here www.191knickerbocker.com
Instagrams to follow and stay updated with @191_knickerbocker @thenoisechurch @fuelpaxfoods @theseneca @feedthefreelancers