Red Hook is a neighborhood that knows a thing or two about resilience, and in the face of the current pandemic, it’s spots like Fort Defiance (365 Van Brunt St.) that drive this notion home; as social distancing restrictions have thrown many venues for a (potentially permanent) loop, owner St. John Frizell has inventively turned Fort Defiance into Red Hook’s General Store, offering organic produce, well-sourced fish and meat, prepared foods, rotisserie chicken, cold wine, beer, cocktails and more. He was kind enough to hop on the phone to me last week to discuss the new business model, as well as his overall feelings about what the lasting effects of this unprecedented time may be:
First of all, how are things looking in Red Hook right now?
My best months of business are typically May and June. It’s been that way for eleven years. And it’s fun, because a lot of other neighborhoods kind of slow down in the summer, but Red Hook picks up. So May, June, July are kind of the best three months for me typically, but there’s nothing typical about this year. It is pretty quiet. We see a few people kind of wandering around tourist-style towards the evenings and on weekends, but yeah, it’s pretty quiet.
So when did you decide that a general store would be the right move for the foreseeable future?
That’s a good question, I’ve been trying to pinpoint that, too. We’ve kind of had this rolling decision. I was very encouraged, surprised and energized by the response that we got from selling groceries, especially the CSA farm boxes. I didn’t want to stop; I was really enjoying being a part of people’s lives, and connecting to my customers again. The feedback was great! People were not only loving the quality of the stuff, but they were also just so grateful. I’ve never dealt with restaurant customers like this before; it was like people would go out of their way to thank me personally in emails for selling them groceries. So crazy, but people were really into it, and I just never wanted to stop. And then I was thinking about sort of the future of the restaurant industry in general, the future of Fort Defiance specifically, and I guess about two, three weeks ago I made up my mind that we were going to forge ahead as a grocery.
It’s been interesting to see some places doing this. How did you feel at the beginning when people were starting to just shutter? Did you take a minute to be like, “I don’t know if we’re going to be able to do anything here…”?
Well, we never did to-go business, never did delivery…we kind of did to-go business reluctantly. We’d box up food for people that ordered it over the phone if the kitchen had the capacity to do it, but it was never a big part of our business at all. So to switch to a to-go only model…I think we tried that for about three or four days, and then we closed down. To have new features like that you really need to educate your customers about your new offerings, and there just wasn’t time, and it just wasn’t the right environment to do it in, and so we just closed.
Right. And how’d you go about the set-up? I also agree, I think people have really responded to having quality options available, because this time has really made you appreciate the foods you’re putting into your body, that you’re able to obtain, and just the community spirit, too…I think all of those things are valuable to people, and they want to support that. Especially local places, as opposed to big corporations.
Yeah, and here down in Red Hook you have a Fairway, and Fairway, even in early March, was the subject of a lot of news stories about how they sold out controlling shares to a venture capital firm who then went on to pillage the company and leave it saddled with a lot of debt, and just kind of walk away from it. And the family that started it is now wishing they’d never gotten involved with these people, and you can kind of feel it, you know? When you go into the store, it just doesn’t have the same energy that it did when it opened many years ago at this point. And Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods were also both embroiled in various scandals about how they were protecting their employees. Nobody was excited about going into supermarkets, and a lot of people still aren’t. So we just kind of filled the gap. We offer contactless, scheduled pick-ups of groceries. I mean, that was what everybody wanted; they didn’t necessarily need to have the groceries brought to their house, because they liked going outside for a minute, but to be able to walk up to a place and have your packages already be outside with your name on it was a thing that people were very grateful for.
Absolutely. And so this seems like it’s working for you for right now. Do you have any thoughts on where the restaurant/bar industry may be going from here? I know it depends on the place, but do you have specific feelings about it seeing what’s going on in New York City?
Well, I’ll say this – you read the papers, you know that what people were talking about in early March 2020 was not how fantastic a business it was or how great it was doing, and how it was a great idea to go into the restaurant business at that point. People were saying that it was a tough business, that the margins are very slim, that if a restaurant earns 10% of every dollar that walks in they’re doing amazingly well. That’s really bad. People weren’t being paid enough in the business, and not because of greedy owners, necessarily, but because there just wasn’t enough money to go around. The industry was increasingly policed and regulated by the city, especially here in New York. The rents were too high. All of this was bad about restaurants on March 1st, 2020, you know? And it just got phenomenally worse.
So I’m not sure how, taking these things into account, it makes sense to continue in this industry hoping things will improve, when in fact they could get much worse, you know? And now, we got the EIDL and the PPP loans, and I know a lot of other restaurants did. And that’s one thing that I’m actually surprised at, is how these payments actually did make their way to a lot of businesses. I think that’s amazing. But, to continue to use these loans, to continue down the same path, seems (to me, personally, in my business) very concerning. Because Fort Defiance broke even every year if you look at our tax returns; sometimes we lost a little, sometimes we earned a little, but we were always about the same. And every year our sales went up, and every year our expenses went up to match or more. So if I’m basically profiting 0% every year, and then suddenly there’s a 10% drop in my business, and my expenses stay the same, well, now I’m in trouble. Right? Now I’m losing money every day I’m open. And then what if the drop is more than 10%? What if it’s 15% or 20% or 30%? Which is honestly likely. Then I’m in huge trouble. Now we’re talking about something I can’t really dig myself out of. So just thinking about that, and not even getting into a deep analysis of the numbers, I’m just…for me, personally, I can’t see a way forward doing the same business model.
But, furthermore, there are two sides to the story. So that’s the negative side. The positive side is that, you know, I think people have really kind of reconnected with food in a way that they haven’t in a long time. When you can’t just grab lunch from a convenience store or a fast casual place on your way somewhere, and you can’t just easily grab something for dinner, and you have to put some thought into it, you’re cooking a lot at home…I think people are really excited to get something out to eat again, but in the meantime, they’ve started cooking. And a lot of people started cooking in ways that they never really did before, menu planning and thinking about ingredients, shopping ahead. And this is great to me, it’s really nice for people to slow down and think about what they’re eating, and really put some thought into it. I know I have. I’ve always loved to cook, but my cooking has gotten so much better in the past three months. It’s so instinctual now! It’s like, I still look at recipes for inspiration, but it depends on what’s in my fridge at the time. It’s just gotten so much easier and better, it’s hard to explain. It’s been a real joy. And I’ve been sharing recipes that I like with my customers in this email newsletter I’ve been doing, and they’ll make the stuff and we’ll talk about how it turned out. It’s really fun, and it’s connected me to my community that I haven’t felt in a while. It’s really positive.
I love that. So lastly, tell me what’s going on with the store right now, and what’s coming up?
We’re not allowing people in the building yet, so I just want to limit expectations for people. It’s definitely a work in progress, and we’ve been growing a little bit every week, adding more things to the inventory. I’m really excited about this Saturday, which is when we’re going to fire up the chicken rotisserie for the first time, and get out some rotisserie chickens and side dishes. This’ll be like you’ll be able to grab stuff and go picnic in the park, or at home, or even at one of our tables outside. (We’re not doing table service, but we do have outside tables.) Yeah, we’re going to make a lot of mistakes, but every week we’re going to add more features to the store, more offerings and more services to the neighborhood. It’s going to be a fun summer.