Amy Bennett didn’t want to close her cafe, Greene Grape Cafe Annex in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn, but it no longer made financial sense. Her landlord was looking to raise her rent, and she was just about able to pay her employees even before COVID-19 forced her and her neighboring restaurants to close.
But it’s hardly the end for Bennett and Greene Grape because on the same block, she owns Greene Grape Provisions and Greene Grape Wine and Liquors. Those two establishments were declared “essential businesses” and have remained open. But the cafe, located on the same Fulton Street block, was toast.
The cafe ran on a slim margin and now, a place to gather was a place forbidden. She rented the cafe site in 2011 and it became a “friendly place for people to share memories, kids did their high school admissions applications at our cafe.”
“It never really made money, but it was a gathering place – a place to meet friends, have business meetings. It happened so quickly – I realized the writing was on the wall and I’m coming to terms with it,” Bennett sighed.
Bennett has been talking to colleagues in the business and she fears others won’t be able to survive either. She examined her lease and understood her rent would go from $10,000 a month to $17,000. She said she and others would have to depend on how much a landlord “understands there is no income – maybe give a couple of months free.”
“You build a business and expect to get back your money in time and then out of your revenue, you pay your rent – even in bigger places, the rent shouldn’t be more than 10 percent of revenue. I feel for those who have to stick to their business because they were just launching and it is too painful to walk away. It’s some people’s life savings and it’s painful to think about.”
Lucky for her, its one of her three businesses, the other two businesses have remained open. But while they remained open, there were real concerns about their safety and that of the customers.
Yes, she had to lay off people from the cafe, but she had jobs waiting for them at Provisions and the liquor store. Some opted for unemployment, while a few joined her at the other two stores.
Her grocery store is a bustling part of 700 blocks of Fulton Street and the liquor store is popular as more people have been found to be drinking during the pandemic. She offered some of her cafe staff work at Provisions where she needed more cashier and delivery people – she even took up doing deliveries herself.
Deliveries became more critical during the pandemic, she said, as many people were and continue to shelter in place rather than risk spreading the virus, while others are either elderly who are immune-deficient.
“Our delivery service became a Godsend for people – there was a lot of fear four weeks ago, and we stepped up and I’m at awe at what I saw here,” she said. “So we took to leaving groceries at the gate and people were very thankful. It was the right thing to do.”
The delivery side of her business was so popular that she even stepped up to do deliveries.
“I personally did 36 deliveries in one day – it felt like a civic service to deliver food for people while keeping them safe and bringing them nutrition,” Bennett said. “I used to be a competitive runner so I was looking beat my record, but my dispatch guy said, ‘oh my God’ but it was really fun.”
But while she and others in her business stepped up during the crisis, adjusting to extra cleaning, wearing masks and keeping both customers and staff safe, she’s also a single mom with children doing “distance learning,” while closing her cafe – a handful by itself.
She still worries about her staff though, few of her employees were hit by the virus. She said one employee’s husband was hospitalized, forcing her into quarantine. Otherwise, she said her stores and employees have been ‘very lucky.’
“I had a slightly elevated fever one day, but then, nothing and ended up I didn’t have it, but it’s scary,” she said.
She said she has received much appreciation from customers who like her organic offerings, farm grass raised beef. She said one customer even sewed masks for her employees.
Despite all the precautions she’s needed to take with her business and employees, she’s hopeful for the future.
“At first I didn’t think we were an essential service, but the lesson from when Hurricane Sandy hit, people ran out of milk, eggs and there was food supply pressures, so we learned to stock up on staples,” she said, “Sandy was a storm, and that passes and we rallied the troops then. We provide amazing meat and all upstate produce – we are essential if people are going to be okay. The grocery store is the last line of defense before pandemonium.”