How a revered vegetarian restaurant barely avoided disaster to do better than ever, despite everything
Bloomberg Businessweek|December 20, 2021
Dirt Candy’s pandemic survival story
Joshua Brustein

The outdoor dining shed in front of Dirt Candy, one of New York City’s best vegetarian restaurants, has been mostly empty since November. After relying on the structure to get through the pandemic to that point, Amanda Cohen, the restaurant’s chef and owner, decided to stop serving food outside. She briefly entertained the idea of continuing to use the shed to serve drinks. Then the weather got cold, and nobody seemed interested in shivering over a $17 mezcal with cucumber. “Outside bar is not a thing,” she texted me a week into the experiment. She noted that a passerby carrying his own beer had sat and made himself at home. Here, at least, was a satisfied guest—even if he wasn’t, in the formal sense, a customer.

Even so, Cohen couldn’t bring herself to tear the shed down. “What if we get a fourth, fifth wave? I’ve lost count,” she said. In December, as if on cue, omicron appeared, and a few people started taking those drinks outside after all.

Alfresco dining had never been in Cohen’s long-term plan. “This is not as nice as our dining room, and I can never make it as nice,” she’d told me in early June, as we sat at an outdoor table during a lunch rush. I’d just completed my vaccination regimen and was planning a summer-long restaurant binge. I also wanted to understand what recovery in the restaurant industry might look like, especially for someone such as Cohen, a chef with an extensive history of making unique food and speaking her mind on business matters.

It was a beautiful day on the Lower East Side, sunny but cool, and the city still seemed to be floating on the feeling that we might really be nearing the pandemic’s end. The day prior, New York’s then-governor, Andrew Cuomo, had lifted most Covid-19 restrictions. “Delta” at the time still primarily meant the airline, and people were having entire conversations without mentioning the supply chain. Cohen told me she expected to remove the shed by September, a time far enough in the future, it seemed to us, that Covid would likely have run its course.

The outdoor space had its charms, despite Cohen’s misgivings. The three-sided enclosure made of wooden slats was lined with plants and flowers, illuminated by white pendant lights in the evenings. But it was loud. Cohen’s voice disappeared for a few sentences when a bulldozer crawled by, then again when a truck stopped to unload supplies. The shed had already been clipped twice by city buses, though neither accident had caused much damage.

There were other drawbacks, namely the challenge of transporting plates of carrot gnocchi, which Cohen prepares floating in pesto sauce, past the joggers, stroller pilots, and joint smokers sharing the sidewalk with Dirt Candy’s servers. “It’s a long way to carry something that has a broth that’s maybe sloshy,” she said. “Our food’s pretty finicky.”

Cohen understood these were good problems to have; Dirt Candy had been lucky to survive at all. Some 90,000 food and drinking establishments in the U.S. closed during the first 13 months of the pandemic, according to the National Restaurant Association. This was a crushing blow to a major economic sector that has yet to fully recover. Dine-in visits to restaurants in the 12 months ended in September were down 48% from the same period ended in September 2019, according to research from NPD Group Inc. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics counted 11.6 million jobs in the industry in November, 756,600 fewer than before Covid.

For Cohen and restaurateurs like her, surviving the pandemic meant making once-unimaginable compromises. She was forced to lay off almost all of her staff. She offered delivery (then gave up on it), built the shed (then pretty much gave up on that, too), navigated massive new government aid programs, and raised prices and wages. In the process, she reexamined almost every part of her operation.

The experience was brutal, a case study in entrepreneurial adaptation during a crisis. It was also a revelation. There have been points during the pandemic when Cohen considered closing altogether, but eventually, slowly, the business started working. The late2021 version of Dirt Candy is more profitable than it’s been at any point in its 13-year history, she says, suggesting that the future for restaurants—at least some restaurants—might not be as grim as conventional wisdom would suggest. “I know numbers aren’t magic, right?” Cohen says. “But this feels a little magical.”

Vegetarians can object to the reputation all we want, but the general view of meatless cuisine is that it’s joyless and generally attracts only those willing to tolerate a steady diet of lentils because we care about the feelings of pigs, because it’s cheaper, or because we simply like to lord it over people. Cohen, who isn’t a strict vegetarian herself, had something else in mind when she started Dirt Candy: a restaurant based on the idea that the cuisine’s limitations offered opportunities for humor and even swagger. Dirt Candy has served “hot dogs” made of smoked broccoli, cauliflower florets that look like chicken wings, and other whimsical dishes. “Anyone can cook meat,” Cohen boasts on the restaurant’s website. “Leave the vegetables to the professionals.”

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