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Historic Brooklyn Diner Struggles to Survive Another Shutdown
Irene Siderakis, owner of Brooklyn’s iconic Kellogg’s Diner is tired. She might even say fed up, but she continues to persevere despite the hardships her business is facing. She didn’t sign up for this business. Her husband Chris did, back in 2013. Irene was a stay-at-home mom. Two years later, her husband died unexpectedly, and she was left to take over a business she knew nothing about.
It hasn’t been an easy road for Irene. Alone, faced with bills, four children, and a business she inherited, she did what any strong woman would do. She picked herself up by her bootstraps and learned the ropes through trial and error. She may have, at first, been very green at this once well-greased machine, but she learned the hard way, which is often fast and furious. She has been taken advantage of and swindled by others looking for control and an opportunity through her inexperience, whether it’s a fixer upper or buying something for the diner. It cost her thousands of dollars. With tears in her eyes and her voice shaking, she tells me the truth: “You name it. It’s happened to me, because when you are so vulnerable, and at your darkest moment, there are very few good people who won’t take advantage of you, but there are many that come here that will take advantage you and act as if they are helping you, but in reality they are not. They helped me become stronger and learn. Even though it’s been painful, I am grateful to them because I learned the hard way.” She managed to learn and run ship like a pro, so to fail now would be a big tragedy.
Irene is the owner of Brooklyn’s iconic Kellogg’s Diner on Metropolitan Avenue in Williamsburg. The diner has been around since 1928, and now, because of the Covid 19 pandemic, has been operating on a limited schedule, after having been shut down in March. The diner is known for its overnight business, as a 24/7 dining operation. After having been pressured by others to sell, Irene decided firsthand to ride out the storm and see for herself what it’s worth, but she’s struggling, like many small business owners and restaurants right now.
Diners, especially New York City diners, are known for their round the clock business – breakfast, dinner, lunch, and all that’s in between – including business deals over cups of coffee where you can sit in booths with plenty of refills and privacy. Then there’s the overnight crowd, the throngs of twenty somethings pouring in from the bars and clubs for that hangover prevention breakfast or very late night three course dinner. You name it. You can get it at the diner any time, any day, any hour. Seeing Irene in action I could see she is a woman for all hours.
With all the determination that gives her that Brooklyn sass, she poured out all her struggles, in between getting up and greeting customers, and making sure everyone was being compliant with health guidelines. She was courteous and hospitable. Her customers know her. It’s like a home away from home for many people in a big city that can often lend itself to loneliness. Where are you going to go if not the 24-hour diner for company or a bite to eat at 3am after slaving away for hours composing your Broadway masterpiece? At no time did she allow more than the 25% capacity in what is a very big diner, with plenty of space for social distancing. If you were picking up food to go, you had to wait in the vestibule area, behind a partition of glass doors, at the entrance of the diner. Everything felt safe and well-managed. Irene is taking this virus seriously. What she doesn’t understand, like many of us, is the hypocrisy and lack of support for small businesses. Her grueling question remains: “Why must we have a time limit on how late or early businesses can stay open?” Taking half of her day away creates crowds that want to come in all at once. She questions why the lockdown isn’t fair all across the board.
Food is an essential business. Supermarkets and other big retail chains are seemingly not bound to a 25% capacity rule, but yet her restaurant is not only compliant, but could use the extra hours under her efforts of compliancy. It still won’t be near enough to cover her losses. It won’t offer a guarantee that there is no turning off of electricity at 25% capacity round the clock, but round the clock is better than watching the clock and shutting down when you could be generating the needed income to help sustain your business.
Irene already suffered a loss when she had to shut down in March. The initial plan was to shut down for two weeks, but then she contracted Covid. She shut down her business for 7 weeks for the safety of her employees, all of whom were grateful for the decision she made. She is also a mom, and runs her business like a mom. There was no compromising their safety, but with promise to give them their jobs back as things return to normal. Things did not return to normal. She eventually had to let many of her employees go with heavy heart. When she reopened on May 1st, she couldn’t hire much of her staff back because business has been further compromised.
With her PPP loan, she was able to re-open right away. It was her priority to pay her employees, but that PPP lasted only eight weeks. She still lost 75-80% of business, even with an increase in take-out and delivery. Her rents and notes are all based on a 24-hour business. All she can she can pay right now is payroll and food vendors, and is behind schedule. Her debts are piling up and she is trying to catch up. For the government to shut her down like this, after all the work she put in to save the diner, seems egregiously unfair. She’s not just advocating for herself but for all small business owners. She continued to site the many inconsistencies that she considers to be small business discrimination.
Her greatest frustration is that they send guidelines, but they give you no real plan. She shows me the NY Food Safety Plan Template. In essence, you have to come up with the plan. She has PPE everywhere, from hand sanitizers to signage, to employees wearing masks and wiping down tables and seats constantly. She has to pay for any additional PPE or other needed upgrades mandated by the city as a result of a global pandemic.
The government can’t go to Plan A without a Plan B, according to Irene. She pointed out that Long Island was able to open up at 50% in the summer, but New York City was still shut down: “There were no border controls or temperature checks, so how did Covid not spread there? We don’t have a problem listening to certain rules that they think are good for the public, but they can’t just shut down a whole economy without helping us first. Things are still running, bills are still running, people’s lives are still going on. They need to come up with a plan first. All they know how to do is shut us down. This is a domino effect that hurts everybody, not just me. Landlords need the revenue to pay their real estate and property taxes. They have to give a break to everyone. We need relief. This was not done because didn’t pay bills. I feel like I am getting punished for something that was put upon us. The diner cannot sustain another shutdown. My workers can’t afford it. I can’t afford it. It’s not just me. It’s all of us who depend on the businesses that are getting shut down for our livelihood.”
On Monday, December 14 New York shut down again…