The Pandemic Pivot: Forsythia NYC Opened During The Pandemic And Bloomed Into A Success
In a series of interviews, Carla Thomas is talking to business owners about the challenges and victories of the “pandemic pivot.” Laded with challenges from the pandemic, what choices and changes did businesses make to keep them afloat? And as the country is recovering and reopening - how are businesses operating now?
“Forsythia. It is my favorite flower. It is also the first flower that blooms every spring and symbolically, is a sign that there’s a darker time behind you and something more beautiful to look forward to.”
Jacob Siwak, co-owner of Forsythia NYC in the Lower East Side of New York, came up with the name of his Italian restaurant pre-COVID-19 but it has since taken on a new meaning since the pandemic.
Forsythia NYC opened in October 2020. Lockdown was over, but restaurants were still restricted with indoor dining and capacity limitations. And loyalty had most diners heading to their favorite spots in the city and in their neighborhoods.
With a new business, how do you convince diners that your restaurant is worth trying and how do you build brand awareness? News reports state that businesses are having a hard time staffing, did Siwak find that to be true? And what about the food? The pandemic was the first time that people willingly wanted to sit outside and eat in the cold, but what happens to the quality of a dish when it’s 30°F outside?
I had so many questions when speaking with Siwak, who’s Italian and spent time cooking and living in Italy. He seemed to take all the challenges caused by the pandemic in stride. Him and his team made really, really, bright and strategic decisions. It’s his first time opening a restaurant and here’s how it’s going now, in his own words.
Jacob Siwak: We’re in a weird part of the Lower East Side on Stanton Street, pretty close to Bowery. We’re really kind of straddling the Lower East Side and Soho in central downtown Manhattan. And we’re the only restaurant on our block at the moment. There is one bar but they only reopened, I think, eight to ten weeks ago. But we weren’t looking around at other restaurants too much. We’re really focused on what we were doing and we’re the only restaurant in a couple blocks radius, which is pretty unusual in New York City. So we weren’t too tapped into what all of these other restaurants were doing and we were more so just focused on how we could be doing the best and what we were trying to do.
It’s a largely residential neighborhood. We had a lot of people that would just walk downstairs. Didn’t have to go anywhere. Didn’t have to brave public transportation. Didn’t have to put themselves in any sort of uncomfortable situation and they were just able to walk downstairs and come eat.
We were originally supposed to open in May of 2020, we originally supposed to open Memorial Day weekend. Obviously in March, we had to put a kibosh on construction and that lasted about four months.
We were given half-off on rent by our landlord. We are having to pay that back now, but we were given relief at the time and we’re only having to pay it back over the course of the 10 years of our lease. It’s not like something that they’re holding our feet over the fire to give them their money back for which I give them a lot of credit for. And that was very helpful for us, I know that there are a lot of landlords that weren’t that way so I do give them some credit for that.
We actually then rented a second space. We kind of went in the opposite direction of most people. We found a bakery that had been closed for the pandemic that had a backyard space, that was really cute, and we reached out to the guy that runs it and asked him if we could use this kitchen space for a couple months before we open. He said ‘yes’ and we launched this little pop-up with just eight seats in the East Village last summer, before we opened in our brick-and-mortar space on Stanton Street. That allowed us to cover our rent and start operating and serve some guests before we even opened the real restaurant.
The pop-up was really just a junior version of our menu. We were able to workshop a lot of things, we were able to work on our recipes, we were able to do a lot of idea development. It was, truth be told, just a shorter version of the menu that we currently serve. Very similar stylistically and very similar in terms of price point, very similar in terms of offering etcetera, etcetera.
I am one of the cooks. It’s really led by myself and a gentleman named Mark Coleman.
I worked in both Rome and Bologna. Mark worked in Tuscany and Emilia Romagna. We’ve both spent a pretty considerable amount of time working and living in italy. We both have been working in restaurants for a long, long time now.
I think it was easier to be a restaurant that was opening than to have been a restaurant that was opened previously. Obviously, it would be easier to open a restaurant outside of a pandemic rather than inside of one. But we were able to start with just a really, really, really, small staff. We never had to lay anyone off. We never had to scale down. We never had to cut a bunch of tables. We just started serving five tables and there were only four employees in the entire company, myself included. We just started tiny and we slowly started to add components. We started to add tables, we started to add staff, and we’ve just slowly, slowly, slowly grown and built from there.
It proved to be a really effective way for us to not only operate during the pandemic, but also to get off the ground in a really smooth way.
We gained 18 seats in our outdoor structure and we have ten on the sidewalk. That’s 28 additional seats that we have in our restaurant that we’re not paying rent on. So any cost of having to build the outdoor space is very quickly offset by the fact that we were able to essentially double the size of the restaurant without adding a dollar.
We got these heaters and put them on tripods. These heaters were right at table heights and they radiated heat onto the table. What we would do is essentially not just heat our guests but also heat the surface of the table top and essentially try to use it as a heat lamp at the table as well. It doesn’t work perfectly because you are still outside in 30°F weather but it definitely helped.
There’s so many other things that needed to be worried about constantly through the winter for most restaurant operators and it was hard to focus on little details like that all of the time. Thankfully, we have a good enough team here that allows me to worry about the little things.
I really could not be happier or feel more lucky. We are fully booked almost every night, and hopefully continuing to only get busier and busier.
We were one of the first restaurants to require proof of vaccination. We did it before the city ever even mentioned requiring proof. We’ll continue to monitor the situation and take it as it comes, and make decisions only when it’s prudent to make decisions, because until that time you’re coming up with solutions for problems that don’t exist yet.
We’ve always been nimble. We’ve always been agile. We’ve always been able to change up what we’re doing, and if necessary and we’ll keep doing that.