How 2 Brooklyn restaurants are creatively adapting during the pandemic

Kerry Breen
·3 min read

The coronavirus pandemic has been devastating to many businesses — especially in the restaurant industry. With most health experts still advising against indoor dining and restrictions still in place in many areas, it's been difficult for restaurants to stay afloat, with one-in-five restaurants closing for good in the past year.

In Brooklyn, New York, two restaurants are making massive changes in order to keep their doors open.

For Olmsted owner Greg Baxtrom, that meant transitioning from a standard restaurant to a setup he describes as "part grocery store, part food bank" while "part of it's still a restaurant." In the past year, Baxtrom and his staff have worked with World Central Kitchen to pass out food to those in need and turned the dining room into a makeshift market known as the Olmsted Trading Post, while still offering outdoor dining.

"For months, we were operating a food bank that was giving away free baguettes out of one door, and we were selling $7 baguettes out of the other door," Baxtrom, who is also the chef at the upscale Brooklyn restaurant, told TODAY.

Related: Just as Liz and Brian Yee were celebrating the expansion of their family business, the pandemic hit — causing them to face new challenges they had never before considered.

Each day looks different for the independent restaurant.

"Every time there's a snowstorm or someone gets COVID-19, you know, those obstacles are, 'Are we closing the restaurant?' And then, 'Are we contemplating layoffs again?'" said Baxtrom, who also owns the restaurant Maison Yaki.

Mayfield, another restaurant in Brooklyn, said it was doing everything it could to "survive right now" after it stopped offering outdoor dining in December.

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"We don't have more money to make it warmer for our customers, for our guests," Carlos Cruz, Mayfield's general manager, told TODAY. "We don't have enough money to continue updating, to keep it up-to-par, to make it warm for people. This is beyond our hands. We cannot control the weather."

To keep afloat amid the pandemic, Mayfield created the Tamale Outpost, where it sells handmade tamales out of a storefront window three days a week. While the fare very different from what the restaurant normally offers, it keeps two chefs employed at the establishment, and the money made from the tamales goes back to a relief fund that helps the business' other employees.

"We are trying to come back, and we will come back," said Cruz. "We'll bring business to the neighborhood and we are giving jobs to the neighborhood."

The Tamale Outpost closed in late February, but according to Mayfield's website, it hopes to open the restaurant again "sometime in mid-March" for dining, takeout and delivery.

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Baxtrom said that he also felt a responsibility to keep Olmsted open and keep paying employees.

"I'm not a saint. I'm not a hero. It's mutually beneficial," he said. "I worked my tail off to be able to have these two businesses that I have, and now, 60 people work their tail off to help me keep it, and so without them, I don't have this. We have to get through it together."

Baxtrom said that he and several other chefs have just one mantra: "Get to April," when they hope the weather will be more conducive to outdoor dining. They also hope that as more people get vaccinated, they will return to restaurants. Until then, restaurants will stay on their feet by whatever means possible.

"It's saving the business," Baxtrom said. "It quite literally is saving the business by having this."