Apr 29, 2021
For some restaurants, the pandemic pivot may become permanent
Red Hook’s Fort Defiance and Guevara’s in Clinton Hill are among a wave of innovative spots that may hint at a post-Covid trend
The front window of Guevara’s in Clinton Hill advertises “café, plantas y más”—coffee, plants and more, in Spanish. It’s a promise of vegan Cuban dishes inside, and a nod to the hybrid cafe, grocery, home goods and plant store model the location has embraced since opening in September 2020.
It is also, perhaps, a preview of more things to come as the borough begins to open up in earnest: Just Thursday morning Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city will be ready to get back to pre-pandemic business—allowing restaurants and stadiums and businesses to operate at full capacity by July. The plan, he said, is to “fully reopen New York City on July 1.”
Guevara’s and other local businesses like it may offer a few clues as to what a newer New York might look like.
Co-owner Alicia Guevara had long been disappointed by the lack of vegan Cuban food in the city. When the space became available last year, Guevara filled the gap herself by opening a new cafe where she could create vegan versions of her grandmother’s recipes. Even though that meant taking the risk of opening a new business during a pandemic.
“Opening during the pandemic gave people a new thing that they could do in their daily lives during a time when nothing new was happening,” says cafe manager (and Guevera confidante) Theresa Lehnen. But starting a new business in such an unstable time was also frightening: “Not knowing what could happen or how people will receive it. Or even,what would our company look like? Would we do just delivery? Would we do no food at all, and just sell plants?”
Guevara and her husband Daniel Mekelburg were already successful restaurateurs when they opened Guevara’s. The pair own neighborhood favorite Mekelburg’s, a grocery and cafe with locations in Williamsburg and across the street from Guevara’s in Clinton Hill. Already experienced in a now-familiar hybrid business model many restaurants have adopted in response to pandemic restrictions, Guevara was well prepared to make the new cafe a success.
Opening with a flexible business model meant they could fail—and change course—quickly, but so far, that hasn’t happened, Lehnen says.
Guevara’s sunny corner location is one part of its success. “It can be a Hunger Games situation getting a table on nice days,” says Christina Casillo, a BedStuy resident who visits Guevara’s at least once a week.
The menu at Guevara’s has steadily expanded. By fall, Guevara and Lehnen hope to offer a dinner menu and cocktails or Cuban beer, but Lehnen expects to continue selling plants and other items, even after Guevara’s becomes a full-fledged restaurant, because “people are spending so much time indoors and in their spaces that maybe they didn’t take as much care of before. And now they are seeing such a need to have some reminder of the outdoors in their indoor space.”
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Guevara’s is indicative of a broader trend. Nearby vegan bakery Clementine also offers some provisions and has kept shelves of potted plants for sale during the pandemic. The owner’s newest business venture, Le Petit Monstre, has filled a space near the Brooklyn Navy Yard with a menu of vegan baked goods, as well as grocery items and houseplants. Restaurants across the borough have begun selling branded provisions, dry goods and offering up their spaces for pop-up kitchens by other chefs.
Even more traditional restaurants have used the pandemic to experiment with Guevara and Mekelburg’s hybrid business model. In early 2020 Fort Defiance, a favorite local bar and restaurant in Red Hook, made the impromptu pivot from restaurant to grocery store.
“It started off as us getting the basics for our neighbors who were either unwilling or unable to go into grocery stores back at the beginning of the pandemic,” says owner St. John Frizell. “And then it grew from there.”
Fort Defiance started offering CSA farm boxes and kitchen staples, and eventually added more and more specialty items. “And then it got fun,” says Frizell. “We were adding things that we really liked, but had been unable to find locally. It grew into a little gourmet grocery, the kind of place that I always wished the neighborhood had.”
The Fort Defiance General Store has been such a popular addition to the neighborhood that Frizell is expanding to a new, larger space to allow room for a permanent grocery alongside a bakery, bar and dining area. He’s also funding the expansion with a crowdfunding campaign, which met its $100,000 goal within 72 hours.
Fort Defiance is promising a 125 percent return on the investment community members made through funding platform Wefunder, with 2.5 percent of revenue from future sales going toward servicing this group loan. Frizell had a hunch he could rely on community support because it was community funding that helped Fort Defiance recover from Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
“The community was our biggest source of funds after Hurricane Sandy,” Frizell said. “Bigger than any government loan, bigger than any relief fund.”
Fort Defiance was unable to obtain a bank loan for its new expansion because banks wanted to see better cash flow than a restaurant was likely to enjoy during an unprecedented threat to its business. The PPP loan for which Frizell applied took months to process.
“The support that we have from the community is the best,” Frizell said.
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Fort Defiance plans to open in its new location in June. Guevara’s is open at 39 Clifton Place, on the border of Bed-Stuy and Clinton Hill.
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