Letters from the Industry
Editor’s Note: In our Letters from the Industry series, we invite culinary industry professionals to share thoughts regarding topics on their minds and close to their hearts. In today’s entry, General Manager Katie Bell, of Michelin-starred Chef Gunnar Gìslasen’s Agern restaurant in Grand Central Terminal in New York City, shares the experience of an unexpected and disastrous flood—and how the restaurant is in recovery, with support from the restaurant community around it. Agern is expected to reopen in July of 2017.
There is a framed piece of burnt wood hanging in the hallway at Per Se, where I worked when I first arrived in New York. It’s not on the kitchen tour route, but on the way to the offices. A conscious placement, it is a remnant and reminder from a fire in the kitchen six days after Per Se opened, one which closed it again for a few weeks.
Walking past the charred wood day after day, I took it to be a symbol of the importance of details—a lesson reiterated all over that restaurant. That a single, small oversight by the construction team as they put the finishing touches on the restaurant resulted in fire.
That details matter, organization matters, and when ignored, they can lead to disaster.
Years later, it was a Tuesday and my only day off. It had been a long stretch since my last one, so I knew something was off when our daytime Maître D called me and said there was a leak in the dining room. He began with a long preamble about not wanting to bother me but wanting to make sure I knew. I told him to have one of the managers call me as soon as they could; I was already on my way into the city from my Brooklyn apartment and made the call to change trains so that if I needed to go in I would be closer. When I got reception at the next stop, I got a call from the daytime manager. With a similar preamble, she started to explain. I interrupted her to ask if I needed to come in.
There was a sigh. “I think you should.”
Ten minutes later, I walked in right as the power shut down and the dining room filled with inefficient emergency spotlights. My team was already soaked through their shirts. There were already full lexans on all the surfaces, despite water pouring from the ceiling on either side of them. The staff was in full brigade mode, removing everything from the dining room. We pulled tables, chairs, cushions, leather banquettes, all the spirits from our back bar—which had become a Vegas-style water feature, pouring down the glass and over the bottles. We squeegeed water off our Danish white oak floors over and over again. The same floors I had spent the last year chiding anyone for spilling anything on at all.
It took me far too long to make the call to cancel dinner service and set in motion the maître ds next task: to call reservations and offer rebookings. But once we did, what had happened started to sink in, and we set to work canceling the following day as well.
I don’t take lightly to canceling reservations. Restaurants to me are meant to be like lighthouses and the last to close in a storm or disaster. Even if we’re serving warm rosé by candlelight, we make our name by being there, especially in New York City. This was a particularly hard call (as if there was a call to make) because I knew that if we weren’t opening that night, we were probably not opening again for quite some time.
I have never so clearly understood the concept of ownership until I saw the team cleaning, taping up tarps, emptying the wine room, and squeegeeing the floors. They hauled tables and chairs out of the dining room, wiped them down, and then moved them again. It was hard work, in conditions that were—for lack of a better word—disgusting. They moved purposefully from task to task on their own. Looking for what needed to be done, assessing, cleaning, fixing, and then looking for the next thing they could do. We cleaned with dogged belief that if we could just keep cleaning, we could fix this thing. This was our home and we were doing everything we could to save her. But stepping back finally and seeing the full state of the dining room, she seemed to sigh back at us an apology from her water-soaked bones.
As staff left one by one and the cleanup crew dwindled down to just a few of us, we continued to find new issues—a closet door no one had opened yet that held four inches of standing water, a Micros terminal sitting in a pool, expensive speakers everywhere filled to the brim. We brought in emergency cleaners who set to work with fans and dehumidifiers. Workers who have seen just about everything, who—without emotion—took little electrical saws and made swiss cheese of the ceiling and walls of the restaurant. The same restaurant where, just the day before, I had spent 20 minutes with a porter and another manager obsessing over a lamp that had a missing screw and so sat at a slightly different angle than the other lamps on the wall. It had been deeply troubling. And now they were cutting long, uneven rectangular holes in my ceilings with rough, torn edges to release water that hadn’t been invited in. I considered asking them to at least make them nice holes, with clean edges, before instead silently laying tablecloths to protect the floor from the tools they slammed down. In a matter of hours, our dining room had reverted back to a construction site.
Someone picked up burgers from Shake Shack and we sat on the bar eating them in half-dark silence. A representative from our insurance company came by and I realized none of us offered him food. I felt bad about that.
What happened after that first day was a two-pronged proceeding: on one hand was the beginning of the process known thereafter simply as “Insurance.” This included setting meetings with people who seemed to be in no rush and have nowhere to be—who would be available “later in the week” and were perpetually 30 to 60 minutes late to those meetings. We just wanted the restaurant open again (something I repeated regularly and at an increasing volume and pitch), but it was becoming apparent, this process wasn’t going anywhere fast.
On the other hand, the needs of the restaurant moved forward at a New York City speed walk. The first order of business was to address reservations—in groups of days, followed by weeks. We called everyone individually to explain, to cancel, and to offer to rebook their reservations elsewhere. We reached out to restaurants in the neighborhood to let them know we’d be sending reservations their way, and to gauge their availability as we went into the weekend and stared down the barrel of potentially leaving guests without tables for birthdays, anniversaries, and important business meetings. We would confidently smile into the phone telling them not to worry, that we would make sure their XX occasion would be wonderful, then hang up and begin begging other restaurants to take them in at prime times. These were favors I would never normally ask, that I was now asking in multiple consecutive phone calls, for guests who had never even eaten at Agern but had trusted us with a special meal.
Quickly, we heard back from head reservationists and managers, followed by owners and executive teams, offering more efficient ways to make reservations with them (that didn’t include begging). The Agern office became a concierge epicenter—with constant conversations beginning with, “Hey, who do we know at…?” Or “Remember so-and-so? Who can ask him for a favor? It’s a big one.” Guests unanimously responded kindly and with concern. It was beautiful, and a wonderful nod to the care our team gives guests when they are with us. There was no anger, no frustration—and so many guests said they just wanted to join us when we reopened. It gave us energy. Inevitably, we did receive some more ambitious requests:
“Oh no! That’s terrible. Our other option was Eleven Madison Park. Do you think you could get us in?”
“I’m so sorry to hear that! We just need something for the 15 of us this Saturday within four blocks of Agern, with a tasting menu, but we’ve already been to Gabriel Kreuther and Aureole. You all are so wonderful for making this happen!”
Thankfully, the only thing we love more than making people happy is a good challenge.
From the moment the staff left that Tuesday in soaking wet clothing, touching the walls affectionately and headed toward well deserved beers, I knew the clock was ticking. Everything was hard and scary. It was hard and scary for the owners and investors. It was hard and scary for the management team. But for the hourly staff, it meant they were unpaid as soon as the emergency lights went on. Some had paid time off to utilize, but not all—and that wasn’t enough to live off for more than a week, realistically.
I pushed and pushed, but the semicircle of small talk around the insurance process had no real timeline, and restaurants of any kind don’t have the money to fund payroll indefinitely without revenue, without any idea when money might return. So, on Friday, we took another scary step; I began reaching out to ask friends if their restaurants needed temporary help. The team had gone almost a week without pay, and was going to go into training rates for another week. I knew that they would all be financially stressed and wanted to make the process as quick and easy as possible.
I’m not sure anyone outside of the restaurant world can understand the gravity of that moment for me. In a well documented staffing crisis, we were finding homes for my whip-smart, talented and well trained staff. And we were sending them to the best dining rooms and kitchens in the city to work for the best people. I knew the moment they stepped away, began training somewhere, started receiving a steady a paycheck—the odds of each and every person returning were impossibly slim. We are blessed to have a very loyal team, but the situation also called for realism.
I was blown away to receive the same sentiment from each restaurant we spoke with. As if they had coordinated, each GM, each chef, repeated the same: “Send them straight to me. I want to make sure your team is taken care of.”
I wrote an email to the staff, listing out the opportunities that beginning to pour in. I made the introductions myself so no one slipped through the cracks or had to wait too long for a response, and so I could highlight what I loved about each individual—something that suddenly gave me an aggressively tactile feeling of unraveling a sweater I loved and had knit myself. We were consciously deconstructing the last years work of building this incredible team.
At the end of that first week, we were sitting back at a table in the dining room that had been my desk a year earlier during construction, looking out at an almost identical view. Our wine director spoke up and said, “Tomorrow’s Sunday. Should we have wine class like normal?” We all smiled as a group and nodded. So we had wine class—and almost all of the staff came. There was less class and more wine, and also more hugs.
The following day, we finally had the beginnings of movement from the insurance company, and the decision was made to pay the full staff for the remainder of the week after the flood, and the full week following. It was an important and generous choice that helped to smooth a couple of rough weeks for the team.
Those first two weeks found me constantly speechless.
It was hard explaining to people what had happened as the word “flood”—as reported in the press and echoed on our answering machine—sounded like we should have already cleaned it up with some towels and a mop. We received call after call saying, “You’re not open yet?” Or, “No, no, I know you had a flood—we want a reservation for next week.”
But even with the challenges, I also constantly had trouble finding big enough thank yous. Big enough for the emails, the phone calls, the care that people took of our guests, for those sending champagne on our behalf, squeezing in private events they really couldn’t fit, for just being so warm and kind. We couldn’t figure out how to express gratitude for the care that people took of our staff and the care they took to keep us updated. I didn’t know how to say thank you to the owners and restaurateurs who were obviously so busy, but found the time to reach out to say they just wanted to send support. We didn’t know how to say thank you for the bottled cocktails and bottles of champagne sent with handwritten notes that just said, “I figured you all needed this.”
We also learned over and over again that we weren’t alone. Everyone had stories of their own flood they had gone through, the fire in their hood system, the hurricane or earthquake, a triggered sprinkler system causing half a million in damages. Some I had heard of, others were people and restaurants I knew well, but had never known what they’d gone through.
Now we are just beginning reconstruction, beginning to talk about a reopening schedule, and working on training and marketing plans. We are getting updates from our staff around the city, hearing about their adventures and what they are learning from some of the best in the industry. One of my servers took a prep cook role (and was immediately promoted to line cook, which I must add). A couple of our cooks are working as kitchen servers and learning to “walk nice and talk nice” in the dining room. One of our bartenders is working at a local distillery helping make the restaurant’s favorite gin, and one of our servers is bottling with a winemaker in the Finger Lakes, learning firsthand what we’ve spoken about in line-up for the last year.
We are battling for the silver lining, and we’re so grateful for a community that has provided a shining one.
When I think about that burnt piece of wood on the wall now, I think that while it’s about the details, it’s also about remembering that, well, shit happens. It can be a split second that brings a huge, multi-million-dollar restaurant to its knees. The only armor we have is one another, and our community. The way we react is the way we counteract.
It’s a lesson that is rooted in our daily service. Whether someone is celebrating a birthday, exhausted after a long day, breaking up, or on a first date—what we as restaurants and people in hospitality do is to be there. We offer what we can to help. Our awareness, our community, and our instincts—in the dining room and in the kitchen—are the reason the food tastes so good, the reason guests return, and the reason our profession continues to evolve.