Our first Rethinking Restaurants webinar focuses on how to access government funding. During the latest challenging times for the restaurant industry, this question seems concerning many chefs like Amanda Cohen from Dirt Candy, who is also the founder of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, an association supporting restaurants nationwide.
Amanda Cohen is the chef & owner of Dirt Candy, the award-winning vegetable restaurant on New York City’s Lower East Side. The restaurant’s original location only had 18 seats and was open for six years. During this time, it became the first vegetarian restaurant in 17 years to receive two stars from the New York Times, was recognized by the Michelin Guide five years in a row, and won awards from Gourmet Magazine, the Village Voice, and many others. Amanda was the first vegetarian chef to compete on Iron Chef America and her comic-cookbook “Dirt Candy: A Cookbook” is the first graphic novel cookbook to be published in North America. The book is currently in its fourth printing. Amanda Cohen is also the founder of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, the organization fighting to save local restaurants in NYC affected by COVID-19 by providing information & tools for economic assistance.
What does the restaurant landscape in NYC look like at the moment?
According to chef Amanda Cohen, there are restaurants that are doing really well and restaurants that are doing…okay. Chef Amanda Cohen gave us an overview of the current restaurant scene in NYC and told us about the latest changes experienced at her restaurant Dirt Candy. The widespread community feeling in her neighborhood hasn’t stopped some restaurants to quit operations–as the chef comments, the streets were packed on Fridays and Saturdays. This situation made it instead harder for Dirt Candy to serve its customers on their patio due to COVID-19 restrictions and the crowded street where the restaurant is located.
What can restaurants do to attract a new clientele during these times?
I used to be this sort of “international chef” (…), so were my customers…and there are not tourists anymore. From this initial challenge, chef Amanda Cohen shifted her focus to attracting new clients around the neighborhood. This also affected the menu and business model of Dirt Candy; many chefs realized they were jerks and now they need to be nice; before I wasn’t necessarily serving the people that live here in my community. The pandemic days seem to have brought chef Amanda Cohen to open up to her neighborhood, as well as to revise her menu and make it somehow more accessible for families— which in most cases, it leads creative restaurants like Dirt Candy to revise their options or having to reassess restaurant operations— especially for a business model whose not designed to accept walk-ins.
What needs to change to make restaurants more sustainable?
Educating customers to pay more for food and working with governments are the steps towards a more sustainable restaurant scene, according to chef Amanda Cohen. More information on how to support local restaurants in New York can be found by signing up for the newsletter of the Independent Restaurant Coalition.
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