We recently had a chat with Joost, the general manager of The Heights Bar & Grill, a local bar and restaurant located in Broadway and 111th street. The Heights has a beautiful rooftop as well as a cozy indoor restaurant space. Joost had the courtesy to share his experience operating The HEIGHTS during these crazy times, and we were glad to hear his story.
When things got crazy mid-March we had to close for all indoor dining, and were forced to operate solely on pickup and delivery. About a month into the pandemic, we were fortunate enough to receive a PPP loan from the government which gave us some room to breathe.
I had to let our employees go; it actually benefited them since they received the unemployment compensation which was higher than the wage from our very low-capacity operations.
In April we were ready to launch our own delivery services, which enabled us to have a higher profit margin which is crucial at such times. We still do operate on Grubhub and other services, but we encourage our customers and website visitors to order through our own service.
April to June were interesting months; due to most employees leaving the city and the rest understandably self-quarantining, there was a 3 week period in April where I was the only person working. I was able to bring back one of our bartenders and 2 other managers returned once it became safer in the city. By the end of May, 75% of our sales were Frozen Margaritas. One of our loyal patrons used to come every day, grab a Margarita, go to buy some groceries for his family, and come back for another Margarita on his way home. We became good friends. And he’s not the only one - we are a local bar with a strong community and regular customers - but this time gave me the opportunity to get even closer to our community and friends.
Because of the way in which The Heights is built, our customers have to enter the place if they wish to order; this challenged us because most other bars and restaurants around us had easy access from the street’s front. But we handled it, kept high-sanitation standards indoors, allowing only a limited number of people to enter at any given time. Once the city allowed us to open our outdoor dining, we've been able to open our rooftop for dinner every night and brunch on Saturday and Sunday for dine-in. The regulations enabled us to have only a few tables, which gave us the opportunity to provide our customers with additional care and high-quality service; they were happy about that.
These past few months were crazy; there's no way to prepare for this type of scenario, but we handled it, managed to keep our head above water, and I can’t emphasize enough the strength of our community at such times. It really does show how important and heart-warming it is to have these personal connections and this amazing sense of solidarity. During this entire time, I was in close contact with the other bars around, especially Mel’s, Lionshead, and Community Food & Juice. During regular times we are friends but also business opponents, but at these times we really helped each other; we all stayed open during this entire time, we all let go of all our employees and managed the entire businesses by ourselves, and we were very empathic towards each other’s needs. When someone ran out of plastic cups, the others lent some - an act that seems easy enough but not always done between competing businesses.
Recently we brought back our full dinner menu after two months in which we shrank it to include only 10 items. We are waiting for Columbia University students to return to campus and come back to The Heights. We have close relationships with students and faculty; in fact, I was born and raised here, my father worked at Columbia University for many years, and we’ve been coming to The Heights all my life.
These times require us to be flexible and optimistic; at regular times I used to plan our operations a few months in advance. Usually, April through June would be our time to shine, with all Columbia students excited to finish their school year, especially the ones graduating (on that note - congrats to the class of 2020!). But this year is obviously very different, and will require us to re-think our strategy and plans for the rest of this year and the beginning of 2021. We are optimistic that things will be better; we hope that the coronavirus pandemic will be mitigated in the near future, enabling us to host 100% of our capacity, but we are also ready for the situation of coronavirus staying for longer. We recently heard that Columbia University will enable its students to return to campus for the Fall semester, and we’re really excited to have them back with us.
We feel lucky to still be able to operate; so many of our neighboring restaurants and bars are still closed, and some had to shut down completely. Our hearts are with those who had to close their doors forever, but we support them, and we know that things will be better. Because our community is stronger than ever.