Since opening in December 2021, Bonnie’s has been one of the hottest tickets in town. Reviews for the Cantonese American restaurant have been overwhelmingly positive and reservations are completely snapped up within minutes of being made available.
When the restaurant launched Saturday and Sunday brunch in January, owner and head chef Calvin Eng riffed on classics from Hong Kong’s cha chaan tengs with dishes like a Spam and egg sandwich to the more familiar rice noodles slathered in hoisin sauce. It was bound to be a hit, right?
“It was a logistical nightmare,” Eng says of his brunch program that he had to end after just eight weeks. “I wish it worked because there were a lot of dishes that I was hyped to showcase and share.”
There are no shortage of popular restaurants across the five boroughs that have found success with brunch. But unlike the Manhattan cathedrals to mimosas and bloody marys that run up a tidy profit with drink sales alongside bacon and eggs, Bonnie’s brunch might be a victim of Eng’s success: Having been nominated for one accolade after another, including the James Beard awards and Star Chefs, the reservations are filled by people mostly there for the cooking, not the drinks. With low check averages during the daytime — a problem that plagues similar restaurants in the area — and a small space that prevents him from scaling up without adding undue stress to his team, Bonnie’s brunch was unsustainable.
Clearly demand was not the issue: As a long line of people stretched down Manhattan Avenue in the below-freezing temperatures this past weekend — with one comical duo rolling suitcases along as if they had flown in just to eat at the restaurant — Eng broke down the logistics and stresses of running brunch at one of the most popular restaurants in New York City, and why it ultimately didn’t work.
“Every day, somebody calls out no matter what,” says Eng. “If people call out when you’re doing brunch, it makes it really hard because you’re forcing people to do doubles just to make it work.”
In the winter of the COVID-influenza-rhinovirus triple threat, Eng says that staffing is the biggest reason why he decided to end brunch at Bonnie’s. While there’s normally a pool of workers on their off days ready to fill in for a sick co-worker, that gets trickier with the inclusion of a brunch service as it creates the possibility of a dreaded clopen, in which a staffer works a closing shift one day followed by the opening shift the day after.
“Cooks hate it, obviously,” says Eng. “If you’re working dinner, you’re never going to close and then open. Right now you leave at 1 a.m. and you gotta show up at 9 a.m. That’s just miserable.”
An alternative is the double shift, which is still a grueling 16-hour day that can wear down a staff. “I’m happy to pay the overtime,” says Eng. “But I don’t want people to work more than 12 hours.”
A new menu demands different ingredients and a place to store it all. That’s a challenge for a small restaurant like Bonnie’s, where refrigerators are stuffed to capacity by Friday evening to accommodate the prepped food for the entire weekend. There’s not enough room to store and prep for brunch services.
Then there’s the dance of changing out the ingredients midday at a restaurant that doesn’t even have an internal staircase to the basement prep area. “Everything has to come out, and all new product has to go in, versus when we do dinner, we just restock at the end of the night,” says Eng. “Everyone needs to be so organized just to keep it tight.”
That means even while the last brunch customers are Instagramming their golden lava french toast, a parade of cooks are up against the clock, running the remaining brunch ingredients out the door into 29-degree weather, down the steep cellar stairs, and returning with enough food to serve dinner to almost 200 people.
“The flip times are so tight,” says Eng. “We open at 5:00 p.m. for dinner, so we want everyone [from brunch] out of the kitchen and cleaned by 4:00 p.m., the latest. That way the p.m. crew can finish setting up and tidying up and getting ready for dinner.”
The rule of thumb for full-service restaurants is that you make at least a third of profits with drink sales — alcoholic drinks, that is. “People get two cups of coffee instead of two cocktails,” says Eng. “I just did not think people would not drink like that.”
With brunch food prices that are comparable to dinner, and a packed house all day long, the only major difference is the margin on drinks, which were so pitiful that the profits could be measured in the hundreds of dollars.
“The check average is $30 for brunch. Dinnertime, my check average is almost $70. So it’s less than 50 percent,” says Eng. “I never lost money, but it’s not worth doing, to put everyone through that for the reward that comes out of it.”
Low check averages means lower tips, so Eng can’t staff up for brunch, since nobody would work just those shifts. And he can’t scale it up, because the restaurant is so small that there’s no room to store the extra food — or add seats. With an already successful program during dinner — when people are more likely to drink — and a desire to preserve the health of the team, there was only one option: to end Bonnie’s brunch.
“You’ll never see these items ever again,” says Eng. “At least, not here.”