From doughnuts to weed: Five businesses that opened in pandemic NYC

New Yorkers, it seems, still want to dine out, eat carbs and cheese, buy lipstick and get high (but maybe not in that order).

The numbers are staggering: More than 2,800 businesses have closed in New York City since the coronavirus pandemic began.

But there are also signs of resilience, as schools, gyms and museums slowly reopen. More surprising perhaps are the rare new businesses that have seen success in a less-than-ideal situation, like the 4,500-square-foot Krispy Kreme shop in the tourist-lacking Times Square, where Broadway theaters are dark and hotels are mostly empty. The doughnut emporium, which opened in mid-September after a four-month delay, regularly has dozens of customers outside. They are waiting to see the production line that every hour can make thousands of doughnuts, not to mention the 60cm glaze waterfall.

“Times Square is coming back. It’s not the Times Square we all know, but people are so excited and happy to see us here,” said Sara Carvell, the general manager at the new location. “I’ve seen people get very emotional to have something to go to.”

After being open for just nine days, the store was averaging 1,000 customers per day.

Here, four other business owners and managers share their stories about what it took to open during the pandemic, despite the uncertainties and obstacles.

An ode and a taste of vacation: SweetTalk

“In March, we had to close all eight of our restaurants,” said Amy Mascena, general manager of a consortium of Brooklyn restaurants, including Bar Tano, a popular spot that was frequented by local artists and musicians.

But the biggest blow to the company came when Peter Sclafani, the beloved co-owner of the restaurant group, died unexpectedly at the age of 54 in August. “He had cancer, but he didn’t want anyone to know,” Mascena said. “His heart gave out. It was devastatingly sad.”

SweetTalk, a pop-up that has overtaken the patio space of Bar Tano, is dedicated to Sclafani.

For 19 years, he and his wife, Kristen Hallett, left an impressive culinary footprint in Brooklyn, with Sclafani designing all of the properties. The name SweetTalk is a nod to some graffiti that was sprayed on Bar Tano’s roof one night.

Steven Flynn, executive chef for the company, created the menu, an ode to his native Hawaii, and a deviation from the brand’s standard Italian fare. “No one could travel, so we made it a tropical vacationing experience. We brought in a lot of bamboo and palm trees,” Mascena said.

Sclafani spent his last weeks designing the interior, which opened when indoor dining returned on September 30. Currently, there is also outside seating for 20.

“He would have wanted us to get this open,” Mascena said.

“Restaurants are a labor of love,” she continued, noting how moving it was to see everyone, from the dishwashers to the owners, return to work.

“New York is about going out and being with people. Sharing a glass of wine. We all lived through Sept. 11. We don’t like to see the city suffering. SweetTalk was like a birth. And starting over.”

'I went into warrior mode': Shen Beauty

Ten years ago, Jessica Richards opened Shen Beauty, an independent makeup, cosmetics and skin care shop, in Brooklyn. Last year, she set her sights on a larger property eight blocks away, with the intent of closing the original location and opening a new and improved one in April.

Construction started in January. It stopped in March. “When the whole world shut down, I thought about not moving forward but I couldn’t default on the loan,” Richards said. “I had furloughed my employees. I had no payroll. I didn’t have financial backing, so I went into warrior mode.”

The new 1,800-square-foot space opened September. 1 and offers 1,500 products from 150 companies, a lounge area, four treatment rooms and shelving placed 6 feet apart.

“I was really nervous about opening,” Richards said. “But our customers are such loyal, kind people. Seeing them spending money made me feel we are going to make it.”

The demand is there for weed: Etain Health

“The pandemic delayed our original opening, April 20, which is a pretty big holiday for us,” said Hillary Peckham, a co-founder of Etain Health, a high-end cannabis dispensary chain, which opened in Manhattan, after a slight construction delay, in August.

“Everything felt impossible, but not opening was unacceptable,” Peckham said. “Providing care for our patients was the biggest motivator. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if we didn’t.”

The shop’s original 1,500-square-foot location closed last July, anticipating that the uptown flagship — all 5,000 square feet of it — would soon take its place 19 blocks north. “The construction pause let us take another approach with the design to create a fresher feel while accommodating for more space for people in case there was a second wave,” Peckham said.

The family-run business acted like a team, with each person chipping in to help. Peckham’s brother-in-law was in charge of the light fixtures, while everyone else painted and installed wallpaper. “It was very inspiring to see everyone helping and coming together,” Peckham said.

In addition to filling prescriptions, the dispensary will offer demonstrations, lectures and classes. Within its first month of opening, Etain saw more than 800 patients. John Douglas, a loyal client, lives just blocks away from the new shop. “Having them here was a happy surprise,” he said. “This is so welcoming and pretty. I’d love to just take off my mask, have a coffee and chill here all day.”

'Cheese brings joy': Murray's Cheese

For many New Yorkers, Murray’s Cheese is a household name. Its newest location, a 2,500-square-foot restaurant, wine bar and cheese shop, opened in August in Queens.

Like other business openings slated for April, this one was delayed, but only for a few months.

“We were lucky,” said Nick Tranchina, president of the 80-year-old company. “We were close to completion and had already hired staff when the pandemic hit.”

The decision to resume construction in May was easy, Tranchina said. “We knew people wanted to go out, and we wanted to make people’s days better. Cheese brings joy.”

Currently, the outdoor space accommodates only five tables. Not surprisingly, demand has been high.

“We’re in the process of increasing our space,” Tranchina said. “We’ve already hired more staff, extended our hours and tightened the menu.”

As for the pandemic pause, that too proved fruitful.

“The delay gave us time to plan and build out our safety procedures,” he said. “If we were breaking ground now, I would have considered stopping.”

Written by: Alix Strauss
Photographs by: Amr Alfiky

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