Matt Abdoo of Pig Beach on the Pandemic and the Future

We’re checking in with some of our friends to see how their restaurants are doing during the pandemic. We talked to Matt Abdoo, chef and partner at Pig Beach in Gowanus, Brooklyn about what he and his team have gone through this year, what he’s learned and what he thinks needs to happen to keep restaurants alive. You can support Pig Beach by visiting the restaurant, ordering takeout, pre-ordering a holiday meal kit or purchasing their sauces and merchandise. The following was told to Sarah Strong and has been edited and condensed.

We closed down when the city gave the no indoor/outdoor dining, takeout only order because our model had never really been takeout oriented. Many of our guests at Pig Beach come for the experience: they come for the big outside space, they come for the barbecue and beer garden aspect, they’re socializing and mingling. We just never put a lot of focus on our to-go program because we didn’t really have to and it didn’t seem our guests had that much of an interest in it.

We closed down on March 16th and then we reopened when Cuomo and de Blasio hinted that they were going to allow indoor dining to happen. We reopened for outdoor dining on July 8th and did our best to build the street structure with the 18 inch wall separation and all the things that we needed to: the plexiglass shielding between the cashiers and the guests, the hand sanitizing stations, all the signage, six foot social distancing and the stickers on the floor. We did everything and it was the same boat that every single restaurateur was in, doing everything that they could to stay afloat and continue to operate their business. 

Sadly, we had to lay off about 75% of our staff and keep only our skeleton, bare bones, minimum management crew. We had managers working cash registers and I myself was back on the cutting line, cutting the brisket and the ribs, doing everything and anything that we could just to continue to keep the lights on.

We had a really great summer all things considered because we just have so much outdoor space. To add insult to injury, the government decided to mandate the reconstruction of the bulkheads of the canal and the beautification of the canal property that we sit upon. We had about 2000 square feet of outdoor space taken away from us because of that construction from the beginning of March through November. We lost out on all that potential space, which was really frustrating and hurtful financially, but that being said we were very fortunate and very lucky to have the amount of outdoor space that we had to begin with to be able to do the outside dining and street side dining that got us through the summer and early fall.

They finally finished construction so we have taken our tables back out, which is really great, and we have tons of space back. The problem is that it’s 40 degrees out and the second the sun goes down people aren’t sitting outside anymore, it’s too cold.

Now that it’s winter, things are really scary. With this looming threat of indoor dining being taken away yet again, it’s just gonna gut the entire restaurant industry. You have people that really spent their last nickels to be able to build all these structures and make things safe and do all the protocols and temperature checks at the door and contract tracing logs and post all these signs and all this other crazy stuff which has been forced upon restaurants, which is a great thing to help limit any spread of this virus. 

The frustrating part for me, and I’m sure almost every restaurateur that’s out there, is that we had Governor Cuomo come out with a statement recently that 70% of all new cases have been contract traced back to household gatherings and said nothing about the restaurant industry being a main cause of spread of the virus, yet restaurants are still the number one target for shutdowns while you can have any other business operate. Those businesses are not nearly as safe as restaurants. I just went to Trader Joe’s and there’s no temperature checks at the door, there’s no contact tracing forms to fill out and the place is packed. There’s no protocols or management people in place making sure that everyone is doing their best to be safe, yet restaurants continue to have this crazy scrutiny. It’s been really challenging and really hard, but we’ve been doing everything we can and trying to stay optimistic that we’ll be able to make it through.

We are fortunate that we were able to have the outdoor space we have and we put our picnic tables feet out 6.5 feet apart. We would be out there every single day with a measuring tape because guests would move them around and we just wanted to do everything we could to follow the rules and protocols and make people feel safe when they came to our establishment. I think the greatest compliment that we’ve had during this pandemic has been that we’ve had a lot of repeat guests coming back and praising us for the measures we took to make people feel safe when they come in.

My heart goes out to so many of my restaurant friends, chefs, general managers and owners that don’t even have any outdoor space. They’re doing everything they can to survive and it’s just been absolutely heartbreaking to see people’s blood, sweat, tears and dreams be taken away from them for something that they didn’t do. For me, restaurants and chefs are always the first people to stand in line, to volunteer our time, to donate our product, to go and raise money for anything we could possibly think of. We’re the first people to step up when there’s a natural disaster, we’re the first people to-go offer help and support, and it’s really sad that the government hasn’t had our back and stepped up to support us during this crazy time.

We typically winterize a little bit. There are heat lamps underneath our outdoor awning where people can sit and feel more or less comfortable, but the hard thing for us right now is that we’re all torn. We usually spend anywhere between $3,000 to $5,000 to winterize our space, that is to add more insulation and halfway enclose the space to keep it warmer, and we also had this plan to build all these fun individual lodges in our outside area, but we’re hesitant to do any of this because we don’t want to spend $5,000 and then have the government tell us we can’t use it and close us back down. We’re in limbo right now trying to figure out what’s going to happen and what our approach to that will be, it’s just really hard.

We get information from the state at the same time as everybody else.To my knowledge, nobody has any sort of inside track on any of this stuff. I’ve even tried to talk to my tate trooper buddy and see if he gets any early information but he said he reads it the same as me. The rules are all over the map, but they seem to really target restaurants. I’ve yet to have anybody prove that the spread of the virus is confined to solely restaurants, which is interesting because we’re really the only companies that can show that data because we’re the only ones that are using contact tracing forms. It’s truly challenging and really frustrating.

You can go to any grocery store or big box store and there’s no rules. We thought this was supposed to be two weeks to flatten the curve, and it’s turned into ten months of so many restaurants closing permanently. It’s destroyed people’s livelihoods and the economy and the small business person that’s given everything they’ve ever had to pursue a dream. Everything is catching up to everybody.

We’re fortunate enough that we’ve been able to work out a really good plan with our landlords. We’ve downsized everything we could downsize, we’ve cut our staff, we’ve cut our expenses to as little as they can be, but even for the best of us that have had these great opportunities to work with landlords and work with staffing and try to get things as tight as possible, everybody is running out of time and everybody is running out of money and everybody is running out of options. To be shut down again for another two months without any sort of financial support is going to lead to many more restaurants closing permanently. It’s a really scary time.

I would completely be  on board if the government or the governor or the mayor or anyone with political power said, “We know things are bad. We’re finding that a lot of these new cases are coming from restaurants, here’s the data, here’s the statistics, here’s the reports. We need you all to close down, but don’t worry, we have your back. We’re going to give you PPP money or pay you to close down to help do your part so that you don’t have to lay off anybody or fall behind on your bills or your utilities or your rent. We’re just going to ask you  to pause for two months AND we’re going to pay for that to happen financially.” You would have every single restaurateur saying, “Sure, we got it. You’ve got our backs, we’ve got yours. We’ll do everything you need as long as you have our backs and can ensure us that we’re not going to lose our livelihoods.”

But there hasn’t been any of that. There’s been constant turmoil. You have all these small businesses floundering while nothing changes. I had to lay off so many people that I care about. Last week, I had to have another conversation with many of my employees saying I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next month and we might all be out of a job.

On top of that, you have unemployment benefits running out for everybody come December 26th. There are certain people who have been out of work since March because many of the people who are in the hospitality industry are also involved with show business or theater. They’ve had every industry that they’ve worked for and applied their lives to get taken away. It’s really frustrating and infuriating that you have a governor and a mayor saying just get a job as an essential worker. I find that phrase to be so appalling because my job is essential to me and my family. I think every single job is essential. People need support, and a lot of these people aren’t getting any. It’s getting to the point now that people are really fed up and frustrated and scared. I’m scared of what’s going to happen once we get to the point where everyone’s unemployed. There is a lot of fear, and the direction that things are going is really scary.

During the pandemic, I’ve learned that we can be very adaptable to so many different scenarios. I’m very proud and excited about my staff who have worked so hard to help us adapt while still maintaining a good experience and still keeping people as safe as possible. It’s been really interesting to see how well restaurants have been able to find a way to adapt and survive. Every single time we figure out a way to adapt there’s a new rule taking away that method and forcing us to either close entirely or adapt again.

I think what was really cool was when the governor allowed the alcohol to-go program. It was really great for the summertime. We figured out fun ways to batch cocktails and make them as single serve drinks in recyclable, plastic, screw cap bottles for people to buy a cocktail to-go.  We utilized already sourced to-go containers and made them work in ways we never intended them to work. 

Everybody is different, and I think every restaurant has found a way to adapt and think of new things and new ways of doing what they’ve always done. So many restaurants have just completely had to change their entire focus. The great thing about barbecue particularly is that it’s a low price point cuisine that’s really casual and really easy and really fun, so we didn’t necessarily have to change all that much as far as our menu and our food goes because much of it is very conducive to takeout. Much of it is very easy to put in a to-go container. At a fine dining restaurant so much of the experience and the price tag for a meal is about how it’s composed and delivered and served and cleared and the type of china you’re eating on and the glass you’re drinking from. I’m sure those types of restaurants have had a much more difficult time trying to transition their cuisine and their price tag into something that’s still reflective of what they’re trying to do but in a to-go container.

We have a great relationship with our supplier Baldor, who has done a great job promoting restaurants on their platform through their restaurant series. They partnered up with restaurants to put together heat and eat meal kits. It’s been really great to see that support from our vendor. We did a wing box with them, which is our famous wings with key lime pie and cornflakes with honey butter and it comes with Alabama white sauce and carrot and celery sticks, and we probably sold upwards of 200 of those boxes through them. It’s been really, really great. We did a Thanksgiving box too and they sold about 170 of those.

We also did a Pig Beach Out East program which was a family feast size heat and eat meal kit. We would  get in our Pig Beach van every Friday and drive out to Long Island and the Hamptons where many of our investors live so they could support us. We did this to try to generate revenue and do anything we could outside the box to keep the business going. I just pray and hope that the restaurant industry and the hospitality industry and the theater industry and everybody that’s been put out of work and everybody that’s been struggling so hard gets support from the government. I hope the government finds a way to help them out and get them through this without leaving them with absolutely nothing by the time this pandemic is over.

I want to say a huge thank you to all of our guests that have come out, all of our regulars that have come out, all of the influencers and social media friends of ours that have supported us and have put the word out. It’s been really, really heartwarming to see so many people try to help in whatever way that they can. It’s been great to have that support from everybody. God willing, when we get through all this we can get back to having everyone together and having the big fun gatherings. We couldn’t have gotten through what we’ve been dealing with without the support of all those people. A big thank you to all those people who have been helping and supporting any way they can.

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