On a Saturday in mid-May, Veselka’s Jason Birchard carries out the same pre-shift routine that so many other restaurateurs have adopted during the COVID-19 era. He points an infrared thermometer at his staffers to check for fevers. Every result falls within normal ranges — not something that would’ve been true two months prior. Today, everyone gets to stay. And so at 10 a.m., the third-generation owner opens the front door and awaits his customers. They come, eventually.
Photographer Gary He and I spend the entire day, from opening to closing, at the 66-year-old restaurant. This is a story of the hard work, studied precautions, and drudgery involved in running a venue before the advent of indoor dining, set to return in July, or before the debut of al fresco eating, which Veselka launched this past Monday.
On a normal weekend, before the novel coronavirus ground the city’s hospitality industry to a standstill, this East Village Ukrainian diner would buzz and hum at all hours. Neighborhood denizens would drop by 24/7 for a quick egg cream, a cheap breakfast sandwich, or a hearty platter of stuffed cabbage slathered in mushroom gravy. Staffers would joke with one another in Ukrainian while a small printer spit out endless orders of short-rib pierogies and bacon burgers. But on this Saturday in May, when the pandemic is still killing over 100 New Yorkers a day, Veselka was only open for a single 10-hour stretch. Just one patron is allowed inside at a time, which isn’t too much of a hassle because there’s never more than two people queuing up.
A table of iced watermelon juice and Ukrainian beers (Obolon, lvivske 1715) stands near the cashier, offering refreshment but also preventing patrons from advancing more than a few feet inside. Behind that table lies an empty and disheveled dining room. Chairs are stacked upside down in a corner to make way for Goldbelly mail-order boxes, ready to be filled with $120 orders of stroganoff. “FedEx doesn’t pick up on Saturday,” Birchard says. There is no sizzle of the grill, only the whir of an HVAC system. This morning, Veselka — renowned nationally for its appearances on Gossip Girl and in Ocean’s 8, and famous among locals for being an affordable and lively 4 a.m. haunt — feels like an empty Knights of Columbus.
On a typical pre-pandemic day, 50 people would be working at Veselka, many of whom regularly send money back home to Ukraine. Today, there are just eight or so staffers, all wearing face masks. No one is cut if things are slow. Everyone works their full shift.
Patrons trickle in as the morning goes on. At 11:27 a.m., a tall guy with an S.P.Q.R. tattoo asks if hot dogs are available. They are not. He hesitates for a minute, as if about to leave, then orders one dozen meat pierogi and a fried chicken schnitzel sandwich. A minute later, a woman orders 12 boiled breakfast pierogi, which are pretty much the dumpling equivalent of a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich (they are better fried). Then she orders two dozen more, frozen.
At noon, the 53-year-old Birchard changes into a vyshyvanka — a collarless folk shirt with decorative embroidery — for a laptop interview with Ukrainian television.
Downstairs, crimson borscht bubbles in giant cauldrons. Nataliya*, who’s from Ternopil — closer to Poland than Russia — fries up golden latkes the size of designer clutch purses. She says her son lives in Ukraine and that she still hopes to visit him in October. Two other women make pierogies at a speed that would make assembly-line robots jealous. One of them, Oksana, says through a translator that she won’t be able to visit her family this year due to the pandemic; she had been planning on a two-month trip. They make the dumplings next to a photo calendar depicting a blonde Ukrainian woman in a more stylized vyshyvanka than the owner’s. Chef Dmytro Martseniuk, an ex-banker who might be the only Midtown resident who insists on commuting to the East Village in his own car, tells me the pierogi crew can make 5,000 per day.
At 1:36 p.m., the S.P.Q.R. guy comes back with a friend and asks for a burger and an “anniversary bowl” (six pierogies — two meat, two potato, two mushroom — along with kielbasa and slab bacon). Before today, he had never been to Veselka.
Birchard spends much of the shift working the register and chatting with fellow staffers in both English and Ukrainian. He says he’s doing 250 to 300 daily orders, compared with 1,000 before the pandemic. On a typical Saturday in the past, Veselka would hit 2,000 orders. And yet halfway through today’s shift, there have been just 92 patrons.
At 1:42 p.m. Birchard tells me he just received a call from the doctor’s office. His COVID-19 antibody test had come back positive.
When Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the sit-down dining ban three months ago, Birchard converted to takeout for just two days, primarily to sell, freeze, or give away any remaining product. He then shuttered the restaurant, explaining that he didn’t want the staff relying on mass transportation. That was on Wednesday, March 18. By Thursday, he was sick.
“You have to assume that you have it,” Birchard says his doctor told him. His symptoms included mild fever and a cough. Testing was not readily available in March. He recovered at his home in Riverdale, in the Bronx, and then looked after his wife, who had a more aggressive form of COVID-19. Both temporarily lost their sense of taste and smell, a common symptom of the virus.
“It was disconcerting, of course,” he says of the anosmia, adding that he regained his senses a few days later while cooking hard-shell tacos for his daughter. “I could taste the guacamole and the spices in the taco meat.”
Veselka stayed closed through the rest of March and all of April. Birchard was particularly concerned about a group of employees living in Elmhurst, Queens, which was the epicenter of the pandemic at the time.
Birchard reopened on May 1, inspired in part by the takeout success of Blend, a collection of Latin restaurants that his Ecuadorian-American brother-in-law helps run in Queens. He says he agreed with his managers to keep a “tight team” who could get to work safely by carpool instead of via the subway. Birchard also had a favorable landlord situation. “The most important thing to me and this organization is your health and your family’s health,” he recounts the longtime building owner, a Ukrainian nonprofit, as saying. Indeed, Birchard is one of the few restaurant owners that has managed to negotiate forgiveness, with no rent charged for April or May.
Veselka benefited from other assistance too. The business received a substantial federal loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, which could convert into a grant if certain conditions are met. New York also refunded the venue’s sidewalk cafe fees — a new citywide policy — to the tune of about $15,000.
The day rolls along slowly at Veselka. At 2:01 p.m. business is light enough that one of the counter workers watches Instagram videos for at least three minutes. Shortly after, I tell Birchard that I’ve heard rumors of cold borscht and blueberry pierogies being on track for a Memorial Day debut. He confirms those rumors. At one point another counter worker crouches down near the register and eats a brownie.
By 4:57 p.m. a guy comes in from East Village Meat Market, a Ukrainian butcher across the street that supplies the kielbasa. He asks if one of the cashiers is ready to go home. She is not. Then Vitallii, who works the grill, asks if I have a wine key to open up a beer bottle. I don’t, which doesn’t seem to be a problem since he cracks it open with a chef’s knife. I try to repeat this feat later on at home and it goes about as well as one might expect.
Vitallii tells me it’s been two years since he last visited Ukraine, and that he’ll likely have to skip his trip this year.
At least two patrons ask for bigos. The takeout menu, at three-quarters the size of the pre-pandemic menu, is still long, with about 50 items, but patrons are unusually adept at finding what’s absent and asking for an order of just that. Bigos is one of those missing items. After the second bigos request, I ask Birchard whether he’ll reconsider. “It’s more of a winter dish,” he replies, in a voice that suggests one of those upside-down smiley emojis. Indeed, bigos is not light; the Polish-Ukrainian hunter’s stew consists of stewed sauerkraut, kielbasa, roast pork, and onions.
Birchard says he could temporarily survive on 50 percent dining room capacity for some time, while adding that it will take 75 percent capacity to actually make a living. He describes the day’s lunch service as “brisk” and dinner as “very busy,” but around 6:30 p.m., he says he’s only on track to do 15 percent of a normal Saturday’s worth of business. “And my back hurts. It’s a labor of love,” he says. He continues to make monthly payments to his father, Tom, whom he bought out to become the sole owner this past year.
Birchard, who started working at Veselka when he was 13, says he’s still scared about the health crisis. “I worry about the staff. I’m worried about my wife; she’s worried she’ll die if she gets [COVID-19] again.” Birchard says he strips his clothes at the door when he gets home and showers immediately. In the first two weeks of service, not a single staffer has tested positive or shown symptoms, he says.
At 7:30 p.m. “Despacito” plays on the radio. Staffers start cleaning up and breaking down their stations. Around 7:45 p.m. Vitallii tells me he’ll walk home — he lives a few blocks away — and that he’ll be back to work at 8 a.m. I observe that that’s not a lot of down time and he replies that work is his life. He is here seven days a week.
A few minutes later Birchard skips out, about 15 minutes before the rest of the staff locks up. He walks to a nearby garage, hops into his 10-year-old Acura MDX, and drives home to the Bronx.
Epilogue: Birchard reports, during a follow-up phone interview on June 25, that he’s worked at the restaurant almost every day since reopening. He says none of his staffers have fallen ill. He now has 25 people regularly working most days, and says that there’s been a “big improvement” in business since outdoor dining began. Vitallii is now working just six days every week, sometimes as a waiter, and hopes to visit Ukraine in November.
*At the request of Veselka, Eater is only publishing the first names of certain staffers.