Chef Burke on

As his restaurants scaled back or shut down for the pandemic, a chef discovers a new affection for teaching.

David Burke is a chef, founder, operator of numerous restaurants, mostly in New York and New Jersey. With several of his restaurants closed or limited during the pandemic, he has begun creating videos and cooking classes in his home studio for CocuSocial and Instagram.

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When we decided to close down the New York City restaurants, it was pretty devastating. March through April—the uncertainty, the lack of hope, the lack of direction, and the fear of not getting the loan from the government. That was what really got us. We all thought it was going to be two weeks. After three weeks, it started to really climb on top of me. The uncertainty about my career and my business, my employees, my landlords, my partners, all that. It became a little bit tense.

Then once we received some money from the government, it put us a little bit at ease and we could start to bring some people back. We started something called Feed the Heroes, and we started feeding hospital workers and homeless shelters, and that kept us quite busy. We did that at David Burke Orange Lawn. We did it at all of our Jersey restaurants, and at David Burke Tavern

That kept some of our employees busy. It gave us some hope. There was a little bit of cash flow, not a lot. It was still a losing proposition. But we’re adrenaline junkies anyway. We need to work.

We tried outdoor dining in New York. At David Burke Tavern on the Upper East Side, it cost me more money than I could make there. I’m on the side street. I don’t have that many tables, and you’ve got to bring the tables in and out every day. The waiters don’t want to do that work. That’s not part of their job, even in a pandemic. So then you’ve got to hire more people to do that. You need a chef who cooks, a dishwasher, a manager, a bartender, and two waiters. Plus you’ve got utilities, you’ve got to pay for garbage again now. Then it rains, or you get 95 degree days, there’s no wind flow. The Upper East Side is traditionally dead in August anyway. I don’t know why we expected it to be busier.

Woodpecker, on the other hand, and Mr. Frenchare now giving outdoor dining a try. They have nice platforms outside. It’s uncomfortable unless you invest ten grand in a sexy outdoor platform. Maybe that neighborhood downtown is a little different than the Upper East Side. We invested $15,000 on the interiors to put the plastic walls up for social distancing, and we’re not allowed to use them. We spent money we don’t have just to accommodate the rules. It doesn’t make sense. 

We also did the takeout and delivery. But takeout and delivery does not work for certain styles of restaurants. Our food is not takeout and delivery food. It was a waste of our time. We lost more money doing that, because labor in New York is so high. If it’s pizza or to-go Chinese food or things that people think about for delivery, you’ve got a much better chance. It’s less expensive, and it’s okay to eat that out of a cardboard box. When you take a branzino or an octopus and sea scallop dish and you put it in a container, it just doesn’t fit the brand so well. Even a steak doesn’t travel well. It’s not hot. At least that’s how I feel.

My landlord for David Burke Tavern could not be more accommodating. We’ve had a very good relationship. She’s struggling, too. She has a mortgage. She needs the income. We came up with a deal where I give her a percentage based on my sales, with a minimum guarantee. I said, “If you can find someone else to pay you more rent than that at this time, I’m glad to step aside.” But I don’t think she can. And our landlord down at Woodpecker, he’s one of my partners, so he’s the owner, too. So we’re okay there. If you have a good relationship with landlords, and they see that you’re working hard to get something done, they don’t want to see it go away. Of course, I don’t know what’s going to happen. New York might be on its knees right now, but I don’t think it’s going to lay down.

Luckily, we have five spots in Jersey that are currently open. We’re doing really well there because, number one, we have a lot of seats, and number two, the competition is closed. We’re not getting rich, we’re not making a lot of money. We certainly aren’t hitting our budget. But to hell with the budget this year. The fact that our employees are back to work and we’re making new friends and feeding people is excellent.

Feed the Heroes kind of fizzled out in the last six weeks. We’re still doing 300 meals a day. Eventually we laid most of our people off. Some of our employees can’t feed their families on unemployment, so there’s a platform for that, and also to pay for food that we can send to the other shelters and hospitals that can’t afford to pay for it either. We’re looking for corporate dollars or donations of food that we could convert into meals.

After all that, I started working from home in Atlantic County, New Jersey. I bought it a year ago, and I’ve never really used it. I was using it for the weekends. When the pandemic hit, I decided to stay here instead of high-rise living in Fort Lee. I got settled in and we started making videos.

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