How I Built a Barbecue Restaurant in Brooklyn: Surviving the Off-Season

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

There's a quote attributed to John Maynard Keynes, a goliath in the field of macro-economics: "The market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent." Keynes' point is simple—it doesn't really matter how great your idea is, or how talented you are, or how correct your theories might be. If you are na├»ve enough to believe that being correct or having great ideas will make you successful, the ghost of John Maynard Keynes will be right there to slap you down. You might be on to something great, but can you keep your dream alive long enough for the world to give a fuck?

Every entrepreneur is haunted by the same ghost: Mr. Keynes. Success is bred not from great ideas, but from incubating and protecting them until they have a chance to be great. The tech giant Twitter was unprofitable for years, its leaders at a complete loss at how to make money from their platform. Hill Country Barbecue, a massively successful barbecue joint in New York, was financially supported by its CEO for years before it could stand on its own two feet. Most large restaurant groups can sustain losses for a long time before calling it quits. I, on the other hand, lack the massive piggy bank able to float the restaurant if things don't go my way. That makes protecting my dream a lot harder.

My barbecue restaurant, the Arrogant Swine, opened at the tail end of the fall, and as the holidays approached, I knew what I was in for. New York City winters are brutal, and for any restaurant, let alone one located in the middle of nowhere that thrived on outdoor seating, it was going to be rough. When the temperatures dip below zero and streets of industrial Bushwick are frozen solid, even our most ardent fans will pick a warm couch, pizza, and Netflix over braving the weather for whole hog.

As the temperature plummeted, so did my sales. There's always a dip after the holidays when people try to save money and prep their taxes, and though my business model doesn't rely on foot traffic, even hardcore regulars appeared less frequently. So there I was, sitting in the frozen Brooklyn tundra, playing a four-month chess match with Mr. Keynes.

I had one mission: survive the winter. Back in February, I wrote about what happens when a restaurant dies. Here's a look at a dream fighting for survival.

Strategic Downsizing

The first decision I made was to not lay off any of my full time employees. In any restaurant, the crew is divided between the soldiers, who work at my place full time, and mercenaries, like the many bartenders that pick up shifts at three restaurants at once. Mercenaries are handy, but you need soldiers, because once business picks up in the spring, their experience is priceless.

That meant a big strain on payroll, and when you're the boss, you're the last to get paid. I let my paychecks pile up for weeks, uncashed, keeping money in the accounts to pay my people.

My saving grace was the self-pruning nature of the restaurant industry. Alcohol and heroin seems to be the vice of choice among kitchen workers. People miss days of work because of binge drinking, and when I let them go, I didn't replace them. Each week after pay day I held my breath, wondering who wouldn't show up for work because they were high or got arrested.

I gave plenty of second chances, but eventually some folks just eliminated themselves from the pool, ashamed to face the team after leaving everyone high and dry because of the bottle. I had one guy come in at 4 p.m. so completely trashed that it took him 15 minutes to button his chef's coat.

Because I didn't refill certain positions, we ended up with the most shriveled of skeleton crews, members of the ships Double and Triple Duty. At the Swine, everyone washes dishes, sweeps the floor, and plates side dishes. Depending on what night you walked in, I could be mixing a Negroni, scrubbing pots, slicing meats, or running food.

But I didn't have to lay anyone off, and that's one of the ways you encourage loyalty among your soldiers, and their loyalty in turn is what allowed me to survive the winter.

Fighting for Survival

Even though our winter revenue-per-employee ratio was the envy of any company, that wasn't enough. Weekends still brought in decent business, but weekdays were endless struggles. Some nights we wondered why we bothered opening that night. We operated many nights at a loss.

Feeling under threat, I was constantly on the offensive. That meant lots of catering, which you can do in the barbecue business for low labor costs. Whether you're cooking seven pounds of meat or a hundred, the labor cost is exactly the same. And since we specialize in whole hog, we've become a massive draw for weddings.

Few restaurants in New York have the equipment or space to churn out 200-pound animals without completely crippling the rest of their operation. We can do four of those without breaking a sweat and still be able to meet our daily meat demands. Because weddings are done in the summer and need to be booked months in advance, I had $10,000 checks coming in as deposits. While clocking well over 115 hours a week for normal operations, I pushed hard for wedding caterings, in between juggling payroll, dropping off the linens, and loading my truck with supplies from the restaurant warehouses.

But it was still two steps forward and four steps back. Equipment breaks all the time, and after negotiating all the details to get a catering contract signed and receive a $3,000 desposit in my account, an electrical surge overwhelmed my antique fusebox, completely frying my heaters and my dishwasher. The price to fix? $2,000. Watching your financial cushion crumble in your hands, after nights of barely sleeping, working service, pitching, and pleading, is a constant punch to the gut.

I asked my landlord to give me a week and half extension on my rent so as to not leave us completely exposed to any sudden financial shock, like a compressor bursting, a lawsuit, or a government fine. I was considering lining up investors to ask for emergency cash.

Before any employee clocks in, there's a restaurant owner swallowing her pride and asking for more funding from investors. Before the lights go on for the evening, someone is negotiating for more time from creditors so that everyone can keep their jobs.

Tenebrae

Christians refer to the Hebrew poem Eikhah as the Book of Lamentations. At the end of Lent, the entire book is chanted in a 9th-century ceremony known as Tenebrae, the Latin for Darkness. The evening ceremony is lit by 15 candles, to be extinguished one by one as the congregation makes its way through each section. Eikhah's main themes are loss, abandonment, and an utter lack of hope, and as the ceremony continues, the room gets darker, until the final light goes out and the church is plunged into complete blackness.

A candle is then lit again. You can see the light, but it's so small, so frail, it barely illuminates anything. Hope works the same way: a tiny light so dim you don't even know if you're seeing it, but it refuses to be ignored.

I've often wondered what life was like for past entrepreneurs on the brink of failure. What went on in Elon Musk's head in 2008 as the clock ticked down and both his companies were about to run out of money and implode? Almost a billion dollars worth of private and public investments destroyed, hundreds of people left unemployed, proof once again that Icarus flew too close to the Sun. And this year I found my answer.

My world was dark. The winter chill refused to leave. On the first day of spring it snowed in New York; the season that was supposed to save us never came. Mr. Keynes whispered in my ear, the market can stay irrational longer than I can stay solvent.

My candles were running out.

Eventually, eternally later, the weather broke. Temperatures started to climb and we saw some light—not much, but some. March 31st ended with yet another winter day, but on April 1st, the floodgates opened. Our dried-up catering business roared back to life. Orders flooded in for 50, 120, 200, 455 people. Sales climbed back to fall levels, past fall levels, completely crushed fall levels. We made our usual Sunday revenue in the span of the first two hours. Our Friday bartender breathlessly thanked my floor manager for putting him on that schedule: "I paid all my bills tonight. All of them."

Local Bushwick business owners started stopping in again: the tattoo artist, the dude who owns the graffiti paint store, the Crossfit guy, all with the same look. Their businesses all picked up. I could see it in their eyes, that battle-worn look, those worried lines chiseled into their faces. I know they watched their candles slowly go out, and the refrain was always the same: "That was a hard winter."

That first weekend, I stayed late to lock up on Sunday. My bartender for the evening remarked that she had never seen me late on Sunday, as I usually let my partner close up. But there I stood, with my walk-in refrigerator completely bare because we sold out of everything, with eight empty keg lines because we had no more beer to put on. I wanted to see the day to the very end. For the first time in months, I looked to my left and Mr. Keynes wasn't there. He'll be back, but for now I get to live another day.

"I did it," I replied to her. "I survived the winter." She may not have understood how much that meant to me, but I felt it in my bones.