Pivot or Perish: How Four Top NYC Restaurants Adapted to the Pandemic

Credit: Noah Fecks for Olmsted

Welcome to The Greats, a series on the restaurants that define their cities. Here now, a look at how four New york City Greats have pivoted for the pandemic.

When New York City shut down its restaurants in March of 2020, suddenly all restaurants — the Michelin-starred and the mom-and-pop shops — were in the same position. Originally given a two-week timeline and not much else, it quickly became clear that things weren’t going back to normal anytime soon. The choice was evident: pivot or perish.

And while almost all restaurants looked immediately to takeout and delivery, some restaurateurs also explored ways to feed their communities and create sustainable, new ways of doing business in a post-pandemic world. From a newly opened neighborhood spot to the Michelin-starred property opening a second location, four restaurants around NYC on OpenTable’s list of The Greats — the restaurants that define our cities — describe four novel ways they adapted their operations as the pandemic marches toward the one-year mark. 

“How do we bring our employees back?”

Olmsted in Brooklyn 

A peek inside Olmsted’s market fridge | Credit: Noah Fecks for Olmsted

In March, Greg Baxtrom shut down Olmsted, his lauded Brooklyn restaurant that brought the chef’s fine dining pedigree (Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Per Se) into a neighborhood restaurant setting. He had to lay off his entire staff immediately. “It became a game of ‘How do you justify bringing back employees when you aren’t making any money?’” he says. 

Through a chef friend, he learned about The Lee Initiative, and immediately applied to be a part of the group’s Restaurant Workers Relief Program, which sent him a grant to turn Olmsted’s kitchen into a commissary to provide food for unemployed restaurant workers. The restaurant was quickly cranking out more than 500 meals per day, allowing Baxtrom to bring back cooks and dishwashers. 

“The Lee Initiative allowed us to rehire back of house staff, but how do you bring back your pastry chef?” Baxtrom remembers thinking at the time. By May, he and his team figured out a solution: opening up Olmsted Trading Post, a shop selling items from partner vendors alongside staples made in-house. In typical Olmsted fashion, no detail was unaccounted for. The restaurant made custom labels for the items it produced, such as XO sauce, duck liver mousse, smoked bacon, and freshly made bread, and gave shelf space to neighboring businesses as well, like Breukelen Rub spice blends. 

Baxtrom and his team recently made the decision to forego indoor dining, even though New York City allows it. “In that case, the city doesn’t tell us what to do — it’s the staff,” he says. To make up the difference, the team is about to pivot again, opening up sister restaurant Maison Yaki for the first time since March for takeout and delivery. 

One thing that hasn’t changed? The loyalty of Olmsted’s customers. “I’m hopeful and grateful that our customers are so devoted. They have always shown up,” Baxtrom says. 

“Our backs were against the wall. We had to be nimble.”

Rangoon in Brooklyn 
An outdoor dining structure on a street at night.

Rangoon’s outdoor set-up, built to resemble a Burmese temple | Credit: Christian Larsen for Rangoon

Myo Moe and Daniel Bendjy were set to open their highly anticipated Burmese restaurant, Rangoon, in March when the pandemic hit. The duo, who built a following through pop-ups, serving a cuisine that’s hard to find in New York City, were already a year behind schedule, and money was running dry. “It was our first restaurant, and we opened it on a small budget,” Bendjy says. “We were already opening in our own state of emergency.” 

The pair had barely figured out the flow of the kitchen for normal service, let alone for takeout. So they shut down for several weeks to retool everything from the layout of the kitchen line to the noodles they used for dishes in order to make them travel better. A positive write-up in The New York Times forced an unexpected, but welcome change: Rangoon had to temporarily shut down to better prepare for the onslaught. When Moe and Bendjy reopened, the boost gave the duo the extra revenue they desperately needed to reinvest for their restaurant’s future — building out the restaurant’s backyard and a striking custom streetside dining set-up.  

Bendjy and Moe commissioned the same architect who designed the restaurant for an outdoor dining structure based on a minimalistic version of a Burmese temple. Pulled together in just two weeks, the results are striking. The three walls of the structure are composed of wave-shaped shutters that can be opened and closed independently, allowing one wall to be closed in order to block wind while the other two are open for fresh air. Both functional and beautiful, it’s one of the city’s most sophisticated set-ups. 

Bendjy and Moe’s investment in outdoor dining has a silver lining for Rangoon: It doesn’t just solve a temporary problem for the restaurant — it also sets Rangoon up for a more profitable future. With both indoor and outdoor seating, Rangoon can now seat double the diners it originally planned.

“A single restaurant feeds thousands, way beyond just the diners in the dining room.”

Cote in Manhattan
A spread of meat and sides from Cote's meal kit

Cote’s at home meat packages | Credit: Gary He for Cote

Heading into 2020, Cote was red hot. The restaurant — which marries the tabletop grilling experience and ingredients typical of Korean barbecue with elements from high-end American steakhouses such as meticulous meat sourcing and in-house dry aging — had garnered a Michelin star, rave reviews, and even announced plans for a second location in Miami.

But when the pandemic struck, owner Simon Kim immediately had to calculate the damages of laying off his staff. “If each manager had, say, three dependents, let’s do the math. Throw in the vendors that rely on restaurants — the wine guys, the meat guys — just through the jobs it creates,” Kim says. With the potentially devastating impact of layoffs in mind, he made the decision to keep his managers on staff for as long as possible, and the team began brainstorming other revenue streams. 

The answers for immediate revenue lay in the restaurant’s strengths: its in-house, dry-aged beef and its award-winning wine program. Cote began shipping the restaurant’s beef and sides nationally, while also offering pristine cuts for local pickup in New York. Simultaneously, the staff launched Cote Wine Shop, giving diners the ability to bring home bottles from the restaurant’s impressive cellar or book a consultation with Victoria James, the restaurant’s lauded sommelier, to select a bottle for them.

With some new revenue streams established, Kim and his team turned their focus to translating Cote’s interactive menu to takeout and outdoor dining. The result is a menu with many of the steakhouse’s sides and some pre-grilled cuts of meat, as well as newly added comfort foods such as bibimbap and fried chicken. Outdoor dining evolved as well, going from simple tables to winterized cabanas complete with the restaurant’s signature tabletop grills, heaters, and decor that mimics Cote’s sexy dining room.

Kim plans to keep the alternate revenue streams for the future, but was quick to note that no amount of restaurant creativity will match outside help. “When people ask, ‘What help do you need?’ I say that without policy to save us, everything else is futile. The RESTAURANTS Act must be passed,” he says.

“We found our way through community.”

Honey Badger in Brooklyn

Fjolla Sheholli and Junayd Juman are used to rolling up their sleeves, between tending to an upstate farm, teaching themselves to cook, and doing the entire buildout for Honey Badger, their Brooklyn tasting menu restaurant that focuses on local foraged and wild foods. So when the pandemic hit and the pair temporarily closed the restaurant’s doors, they got to work figuring out ways to support both the farmers they worked with and the local community.

With restaurants shut down overnight, farms upstate had a surplus of unpurchased crops that Sheholli and Juman helped harvest and then turn into meals to help feed Honey Badger’s elderly neighbors. This continued for several months until a form of financial help came through.

Via a partnership with San Pellegrino’s restaurant relief program, Honey Badger received a grant for rent assistance. With a few more months guaranteed, the couple turned their attention to reopening the restaurant, creating outdoor spaces where diners could safely experience the restaurant’s unique, often foraged tasting menu of dishes such as a wild game pâté with a ramp pesto that’s wrapped in a Japanese knotweed leaf —  the edible leaf of an invasive species found all over the Northeast.

“We thought, ‘People can’t travel, so let’s bring chalets to Brooklyn, so people feel like they are in the woods somewhere, having some wild meal,’” Sheholli says. The result is a collection of hand-built cabins, each containing a HEPA air filtration system, a heater, and a different theme  — some of which were dreamed up by the couple’s 10-year-old daughter — such as one that resembles a miniature mountain A-frame, complete with hand-cut wooden shingles

Next up, Sheholli and Juman plan to offer some of the preserved products as well as foraging classes through the San Pellegrino relief program’s next iteration: an online store that will connect restaurants and patrons who want to support them beyond simply dining at the restaurant. The pair hopes it will have the added benefit of exposing a larger audience to the restaurant’s focus on shortening supply chains and connecting diners directly to the natural world.

Sheholli credits the restaurant’s ability to pivot and pins her hopes for its future on the relationships she’s developed through running it. “One of the best things that we’ve done was to create those relationships with farmers and foragers, so it was naturally like ‘how can we help each other?’” she says.