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“Business is coming back,”: chef on opening a fine dining restaurant during the pandemic

Daniel Boulud, Chef and Restaurateur joins to discuss covid-19’s impact on the hospitality industry and his restaurant reopening amid the pandemic.

Video Transcript

JARED BLIKRE: But we have the chef and restaurateur owner Daniel Boulud here with us to discuss all things fine dining in New York City. It's been quite a ride, and could you just--

DANIEL BOULUD: Thank you, [INAUDIBLE].

JARED BLIKRE: --us on the journey-- yes, thank you for coming here. Could you just take us on the ride? You had to close down for, what, a year, year and a half? You renovated, took that opportunity. Could you take us through the journey of this particular restaurant and maybe some of the others as you saw COVID unfolding?

DANIEL BOULUD: Of course. So of course Match 13 we closed down all our restaurants in New York and furloughed 150 people. And within a month and a half, we started to bring back people and cook meals for New Yorkers through a foundation created, Food First Foundation. And that was also going to Citymeals to help them giving the meals to all the community and first responders.

But then slowly reopening the restaurant, and Restaurant Daniel, which is the flagship of my group, we pivot during COVID and created a more casual approach to fine dining. And also we served outside on the sidewalk, which we never did that, and I built some bungalow outside.

And after a year and a half of trying to balance the fact that I wanted to bring back staff and take care of my customer and take care of my business and trying to stay afloat, we had planned-- in 2019 we had planned to do a renovation at Daniel, and we miss the opportunity of ordering everything to do that earlier enough. So we said, OK, we'll do it in '20. '20, COVID happened. We didn't do it. So '21, we felt after this long year and a half of pivoting right and left, we need to go back to what we are the best at, which is one of the best restaurants in New York.

JARED BLIKRE: Well, and I want to get your sense of the business since you reopened. I know it hasn't been a long period of time, but you have your finger on the pulse here. I'm down in the Financial District. I've seen tourists come back. I've seen some of the locals come back, but it's a different mix of people. I'm just wondering what your experience has been in your restaurants.

DANIEL BOULUD: Well, we had a lot of New Yorkers during the last year and a lot of small table as well. They were a table of two, sometimes four, but very, very small parties. And now we see it and the business is coming back by people having to entertain with larger party, and we also see people coming from all over the country back to either travel for business or travel for pleasure. We see also [INAUDIBLE] starting to come in.

So definitely we see the hotels as well. We know we speak a lot with the hotel, and they are also giving us a great barometer that the business is coming back. But yet it's still not perfect. I just reopened my second restaurant on the Upper West Side, Boulud Sud. And that because Lincoln Center came back on that corner of 64 and Broadway. And so Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud are reopened now. But it took me a year and a half to reopen that.

I have another restaurant on 44th Street and Sixth Avenue where I'm still not ready to reopen. But I opened a new restaurant this year, Le Pavillon, 42nd Street and Vanderbilt. And that was just amazing to be able to reopen-- to open this restaurant when the city of New York was reopening.

JARED BLIKRE: And I want to get your take on the labor market here because I know in the early summer and then into the midsummer it seemed like there were help wanted signs on just about every business, not only here in New York but across the US, and that has abated a bit. I'm just wondering what your-- with your eyes or your boots on the ground here what you're seeing in the labor market, how you're staffing your restaurant, and what you're having to pay people.

DANIEL BOULUD: Yes, I mean, it's a challenge, but I think the challenge is for everyone. And beside the labor is also the cost of food went up tremendously.

And the labor, we want to make sure that we pay people very well. And we also have the opportunity to train young people, and I see it, and there's been a fracture in the industry with labor shortage and people leaving New York. But we see also a lot of young people coming to New York and wanting to take the chance that there is an opportunity to come to New York, find a great job, and be part of this sort of revitalization of the city and the industry.

So it's exciting, and I think we are very competitive and very, very invested in making sure that we hire talent and we composite talent well.

JARED BLIKRE: We only have about 30 seconds here, but I want to get your quick reaction to this. Eleven Madison Park going vegan. Something you would ever consider? Pretty bold.

DANIEL BOULUD: I am vegetarian and seafood at Le Pavillon, and we always play a lot with vegetable. I love vegetable. And I grew up on a farm around vegetables, so I always have a lot of options about vegetarian dishes.

But one thing I want to say, to help our industry today, the government has to replenish the RRF, which is the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, as 20% of people got it in a very, very [? discriminating ?] way. I don't understand how. And I think that has to be-- they have to do something for the rest of the people who prior didn't get anything. And so I hope that this will come back soon and decisions will be made to take care of our industry who was a year and a half of loss.