Put your belly to the bar and face the music.
As the hospitality industry and world at large continue to grapple with a once-in-a-century pandemic, all eyes have been focused on establishments that have succumbed to the financial pressures of government-mandated shutdowns, limitations of outdoor dining and dwindling opportunities for cashflow.
But don’t drown your sorrows just yet, because in an age when bad news is as easy to find as Bud Light in a sports bar, there are glimmers of inspiration. For an existing restaurateur, staying open is a complicated dance. But what about those opening during the pandemic? Much like moving during a snowstorm or breaking up on Valentine’s Day, the already arduous task of dealing with Coronavirus is complicated tenfold when your brand new to the block.
“We were in a state of shock.”
That’s the sentiment from Karen Valentine, the co-founder of Brooklyn, New York’s Kokomo. In the span of the past 100 years to choose when to open a restaurant and bar, Valentine and her team had the misfortune of choosing a spring 2020 opening date.
“We leased our space in October 2019 and were slated to open April 3, 2020,” she explains. “The pandemic hit New York City on March 15th. By that time staff was hired, menu tastings were complete and final touches were in place for opening.”
Valentine and her Kokomo cohorts had a major question: were they in it for the long haul or were they closing up shop before they even had a chance to prove themselves? Valentine thought about it for two weeks after her initial shock wore off before making a decision. “We realized we were too heavily invested to back away.”
With that, Kokomo had its grand opening in June, mere weeks after New York City allowed restaurants to begin outdoor service. “First we reconfigured our business model to open as a delivery, pick up option instead of upscale dining, but that lasted one week before the city allowed outdoor dining,” says Valentine who had to be quick on her feet. Luckily, it just so happened that their building (located along a wide avenue in the borough’s Williamsburg neighborhood) provided a copious amount of outdoor space. “We were blessed thanks to our building’s footprint. We have one of the largest outdoor patio dining spaces in the city with 200 feet of sidewalk and roadway that we converted into a Caribbean oasis.”
The concept immediately became a draw thanks to a unique Caribbean menu of food and libations that is few and far between in trendy Williamsburg. It’s also one of the few Black-owned restaurants in the neighborhood and garnered wide publicity during the Black Lives Matter movement and national push to support Black-owned businesses.
Aside from its menu of regional favorites (think: braised oxtail and jerk fries), Kokomo’s burgeoning cocktail program, still in the works, is masterminded by the acclaimed mixologist Rael Petit of the bar consulting company Rebel Disco, and is showing promise despite the fact that Valentine is still waiting for the approval of their liquor license.
While they wait (the team applied for a liquor license last winter), Kokomo’s beverage offerings currently boast a sweet ginger juice, as well as various frozen fruit punches, and house made syrups, all of which will soon be incorporated into various boozy libations. Grenadian spices are also a star component.
Even in a pandemic, Valentine says the business is a “runaway success. We have wait times of up to two hours for a table,” she says, musing as to why they are so busy. “We understand that people want to feel normal and enjoy the simple pleasures in life.”
The ironies are plentiful, from their original opening derailed by the shutdown, to their eventual thriving in the midst of a pandemic. For Valentine, it came down to a simple quality.
“It takes bravery and the ability to act in spite of your fears,” she says. “The community support for restaurants during a pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement have changed people’s mindsets. It’s great for restaurants that focus on serving patron’s needs during these times.”