If you live in my little pocket of Brooklyn, where Prospect and Crown Heights bleed into each other, you’ve probably seen Elijah Bah. He has certainly seen you. He opened Nûrish on the corner of Washington Avenue and Bergen Street in October of 2019 with the hopes of settling in during the winter and spring. Obviously, his plans changed less than six months later, but Bah, an immigrant born in Guinea who — this is not hyperbole — charms every person he meets, could nevertheless be seen at his restaurant from open to close nearly every single day from March 2020 until he finally took a break this past April.
Things were rough at first, but a surprising break saved his business. An organization that connects local businesses with health-care companies to serve food to frontline workers got in touch. This group wanted to serve Nûrish’s sandwiches to doctors and nurses — and they would pay for the meals. Bah says it was a regular who put the group in touch and prevented Nûrish from closing. “Someone that comes here regularly, that lives right around the corner from here, decided that day, I want to make sure that this café is open throughout this pandemic.”
Bah’s food is reliable — I get the restaurant’s jerk-chicken sandwich once a week — but more than that, he truly understands what it takes to be the owner of a local business, that you have to be out there, literally. Standing outside of your business saying hello to everybody, or working behind the counter because one of your employees got sick. “We’re celebrities, man,” Bah says. “That’s neighborhoods — I know everybody by a first-name basis,” he continues as one neighbor I’ve seen walking his dog for the last year walks in and shakes his hand. Bah introduces us, and I realize it’s the first time I’ve been introduced to somebody new in over a year.
During the darkest points of the pandemic, it was the neighborhood’s restaurants that first gave me a glimmer of hope. Specifically, it was friends talking about a “must-have” breakfast burrito at Ursula. It was the feeling I had when the sadness of losing MeMe’s was assuaged by the joy of watching new businesses fill that space and turn into KIT, a restaurant-incubator hybrid that houses up-and-coming projects like Dacha 46 and Black Cat Wines. It was seeing the line of people outside LaLou to stock up on wine, and it was the socially distant queue of people waiting for their Sunday bagels outside Greenberg’s.
We were all stuck here, and we needed to rally around our locals. For my wife and me, that meant dropping into Branded Saloon on Vanderbilt whenever we passed by — not to celebrate, but because we truly believed that any little thing helped and we didn’t want to see the best little dive on the street go away. When the weather was warm, and Branded got the OK, they built a makeshift outdoor bar that quickly became the hottest party in the neighborhood. When the weather was good, Branded was a sea of drinkers surrounded by the bar’s colorful murals, painted by the Soho Renaissance Factory, of LGBTQ icons like RuPaul and Marsha P. Johnson. (I once overheard a customer call the bar’s summer vibe “Fire Island, Brooklyn.”) But when the weather cooled off, people went away and things became dire once more. Even now, there’s no guarantee that Branded will make it through. “It is really dependent on the weather,” the bar’s manager, Patrick Fromuth says. “We’re still not safe yet.”
For Fromuth and owner Gerard Kouwenhoven, staying in business for the past 17 months meant making numerous impossible choices they never could have imagined — like last winter, when the bar was freezing because he’d had to decide whether to pay staff or the heating bill. “To quantify ‘hard’ during a pandemic,” Formuth says, “is impossible.”
One of the beautiful things about the city is that no matter how many bland buildings and chain businesses might come up, no two neighborhoods are alike. Yet, as I talked with other people I knew in the hospitality business across NYC, I started to see that they had largely the same experience as the people who run Branded, where they were almost totally dependent on the support of locals. For some, they’d already had some standing with the neighborhood, which was helpful. For others, the pandemic has been a true trial by fire.
In Crown Heights, Hunky Dory quickly gained a rabid following after it opened in February of 2019. (In true neighborhood-joint fashion, its brunch was a big draw.) But when restaurants were forced to close, owner Claire Sprouse had to turn Hunky Dory into a glorified takeout window that served mostly coffee and kolache, devastating the business’s bottom line. Eventually she added outdoor seating in an adjacent lot — “There is no doubt in mind that we 100 percent would not be open today if we did not have access to the lot,” Sprouse says — and ran a small general store inside, selling wine, books, and assorted kitchen products. At times, it was nearly impossible to keep going, and Sprouse was forthcoming about her struggles as an operator. On Instagram, she’d post about abysmal sales, often owing to bad weather: If it snowed, the place might make a few hundred bucks at most. It wasn’t pretty, but it was honest. “I want to use my voice to be transparent about the hardships involved in owning a small business in a city with such high stakes,” she explains, before adding that the community support is what she’s most thankful for. “I won’t lie, there have been a lot of happy tears sent my way over this time.”
Pretty much every New Yorker went through this in the past year — the fear that the places they love wouldn’t make it through the pandemic. And, of course, many did not. The city failed, the state failed, and the federal government failed the entire industry. So we clung to the places that were still there. We bought coffee that we could have just as easily made at home, ordered out even after we got groceries, drank too many to-go drinks because we heard that they were helping. It wasn’t exactly signing up to fight in a war, but a lot of us did whatever we could because we cared for these places, and also maybe because it gave us some feeling of control over the situation, like spending ten bucks could really help the world get back to the way it had been.
The more I talked to the bar and restaurant people in my neighborhood, the more I started to recognize a common theme that made me a little more hopeful for the future: Maybe people are coming out of the pandemic with a stronger appreciation for the workers and places where we eat and drink and live our lives. At the very least, some operators say they saw a shift in public perception that helped them make it through the darkest times.
“I am a better human being because of the hard work that I was able to do, because a lot of people didn’t have the opportunity to work, and couldn’t for their own safety and their families,” Fromuth says. “If I didn’t have the toil and work and community support at Branded, I would not be in the mental space that I am in today.”