What It’s Like to Own Two of Brooklyn’s Best Bars During a Pandemic
Writer and bar-owner Natalka Burian on the shifting nature of pandemic hospitality
Brooklyn-based writer, activist and bar-owner Natalka Burian is the author of the new novel Daughters of the Wild. Co-owner of Cobble Hill cocktail bar Elsa and sister joint Ramona in Greenpoint, Burian has watched the hospitality industry and her role within it transform before her eyes since March. In the following essay, Burian explores the struggles and anxieties of working in hospitality amid a pandemic, as well as the continued and perhaps amplified need for the sense of community and connection neighborhood bars and restaurants have always fostered. But first, Burian spoke with InsideHook about her new book and how she’s keeping hope and creativity alive in strange times.
InsideHook: As a writer, activist and bar owner, you’re clearly a woman of many passions and pursuits. Do you view these various hats as separate paths and projects, or does your work in seemingly diverse fields overlap and influence your efforts and output in each?
Natalka Burian: I think they all overlap, sometimes in unexpected ways. Hospitality at its most successful relies upon a strong community and great storytelling. In my day job I get to create an immersive space, a place that people feel belongs to them — so much so that it can serve as a backdrop to their most important life events. The responsibility of small business ownership provides constant granular opportunities to make our community and our world better; we can bring attention to meaningful work by simply making a note on our menus or sharing the profits from a drink. I’m so grateful to feel like I have a little bit of power to facilitate positive change in periods of despair and disappointment. The same kind of community building and storytelling is at the heart of everything we do at the Freya Project, too.
Pre-pandemic, how did you balance these various time commitments, and how have those demands shifted in the time of COVID-19?
I like to be busy and engaged, and I thrive in collaborative environments. It is a unique privilege to work with my friends and family (my husband is my business partner!) so it never really seems like I’m clocking in or out. Writing has always provided a beautiful, solitary inverse to my other work. Having that contrast is grounding and balancing. Now, there is a great deal more downtime, and the joy I’ve experienced working with people I love has been turned on its head as we’ve had to lay off so many amazing and creative members of our teams. That has been incredibly painful and difficult.
How has the pandemic influenced your writing and creativity?
I’ve had a pretty hard time writing lately, to be honest. I’ve been reading and thinking a lot, so mostly gathering right now. There’s a project I’m actively thinking about, so trying to read and think in that direction.
When you first began working on Daughters of the Wild, I imagine the world looked a lot different than it does now. Has the pandemic shifted your hopes and expectations for this book and the role you imagine it filling in readers’ lives in any way?
Wow, YES. I think the themes in the book are still resonant, particularly anger amid hopelessness, and the struggle for bodily autonomy. I hope people escape into this world, but also find something more fortifying — the reminder that sometimes we are capable of things we can’t possibly fathom.
Are there any ways in which you’ve been able to maintain or replicate the sense of community and energy you fostered in your bars amid the pandemic? Do you think the spirit of bars can survive even when bars themselves are not?
This is such a good question and one that I’ve been thinking about endlessly. I believe some of that spirit has been captured in the social media engagement of our community. Our to-go program has been steady, and it has been a real source of joy to see people post about where and how they’ve included Elsa and Ramona in their more muted, COVID-era celebrations and socializing.
Have there been any surprising silver linings for you during this time? Any optimistic predictions for the future of bars and the communities they attract and foster post-COVID?
I’m trying not to set myself up for disappointment, but I am optimistic that, on the other side of this, people will not take human connection for granted. Will we be making up for this lost, lonely year in the way we celebrate? I sure hope so, and I will absolutely be there to help.
A Few Notes on Pandemic Hospitality, by Natalka Burian
In a time filled with all kinds of loss, it feels a little frivolous to fixate on the running list of NYC bars and restaurants that have permanently closed due to COVID-19. I feel the loss of some of these like the loss of a friend — Odessa in the East Village, for example, was one of my first NYC loves, a gritty, cozy place that always kind of felt like home. For others that have closed, I can only wince in sympathy and brace myself for the inevitable waves of anxiety to follow: Will my businesses be able to withstand another month like this? Another three? A year? It is unfathomable to me that we will endure for longer.
When I started my career in hospitality, a time like this never crossed my mind. It always seemed safe, a sure thing. Even in times of stress and tragedy, people will always need a place to commune outside of their homes. I remember, so clearly after September 11th, colleagues and customers repeating an adage about lipstick and beer. No matter how bad things got, they said, people would always splurge on lipstick and beer. Even when this all began, I was hopeful that our businesses could provide some measure of comfort and stability to our communities in a time of chaos. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Hospitality has always fascinated me. Even as a child, I remember the way the predictable, bright lights of a McDonald’s could shift my family’s entire mood. I remember that feeling of hunger and irritation shivering through our car, and then the resulting pleasure of having a need reliably met. The comfort and gratitude I felt in these spaces was almost religious.
As a young person living in New York, working in bars and restaurants was inevitable. I loved the guests, the people I worked with, the people I met, the ephemeral thing we all created together day after day. I’ve always thrilled to that rush of contributing to whatever makes it a perfect night for everyone in the room. It’s no surprise that I extrapolated that thrill into a real career — my husband and brother-in-law and I co-own two bars in Brooklyn, Elsa and Ramona. Well, we used to, because like many other non-essential small business owners, we are not able to do what we once did. We are not essential, none of us — not me, not my husband, not the dozens of talented and creative people that we employed.
In the early days of the pandemic, as the city bled outside my window, all I could do was the dishes. I felt the helplessness in that contrast so keenly: the contrast between the useful people outside saving lives, and the useless people like me, inside, not. The revelation was painful, and still is painful. My job is to create spaces for people to gather, and we can’t gather anymore. Worse, maybe all that gathering I enabled before we closed our doors spread the virus further. I wonder, in my darkest moments, how many lives I might have inadvertently ended.
These dark periods are often followed by flurries of virtuous planning — I’m going to go to nursing school, donate plasma, deliver groceries to neighbors, write out chalk messages to the heroes on the sidewalk with my kids. I want to do anything useful, anything good, anything other than wash the dishes.
The funny thing is, though, the longer our isolation continues, the more essential my job begins to seem. The longer we are all apart, the more we crave one another. And Zoom just doesn’t cut it. My grandmother did not speak much English, but she latched on to a few phrases that she really liked, and she would mix them into her own language — a patois of Czech and Ukrainian. These were phrases that expressed something none of the other languages she understood could. One of these phrases was “go between the people.” The English words would bubble up, unexpectedly, every once in a while: It’s good for your mother to leave the house. She needs to get out, to go between the people.
I keep thinking of that, of what it means for us to go between the people. I love the — likely unintended — sensuality implied, and the nimble, fluid ease of the sentiment. Just pop out and go between the people. I imagine wandering through a bustling, filled room, expanding and contracting with parties that come and go like a pair of lungs. I fantasize about winding through the voices, the scents, the physical heat of strangers; I imagine it like taking a special kind of breath. All of us, even the most introverted, need to go between the people or else something special inside of us begins to ossify.
I think about this and try to feel optimistic. We need this — human beings need to go between the people. I read articles about similar periods in history, trying to find answers; I read about the way the roaring twenties followed the Spanish Influenza outbreak, and I am momentarily reassured. Surely when we open our doors again, our guests will pour in, relieved, eased, comforted to be back.
But what if they won’t? How do you open the doors again when people are still afraid of each other? Can we keep them safe? Can we keep ourselves safe? How do you convince people to come inside? Can one do this without feeling like the witch from Hansel and Gretel? I wonder, in this new world, what will it look like to take care of people? What will a welcome look like in one month, six months, 20 months?
I watch how my industry has braced for the break in this epic pause, and it all seems so depressing and antithetical to what hospitality is all about. Spaces will be mostly empty, people will not touch. Our faces will all be obscured by masks, so there will be no smiling, no commiserating, all voices and laughter will be diminished. What kind of comfort can be found under these circumstances? I’ve been thinking about this a lot. How can I help? Can I help remake a space where you can go between the people and still feel easy, feel calmed, feel better?
The shifting foundations of regulations and laws that govern our small businesses doesn’t help. I hope that the State Liquor Authority will continue to allow to-go service long as this goes on because that is the only way we can bring something familiar back to our communities, guarantee everyone’s safety, and generate some crucially needed income. I am endlessly frustrated, and stay awake at night thinking about what we should do next. I pray for more economic relief, our PPP loan long gone.
The only solution I see is that there are no good solutions. I know there are much bigger problems, that there are people working around the clock in labs on vaccines and treatments and real answers. There are still those exhausted, selfless people saving lives in hospitals, in ambulances, and at bedsides. But we will need to be here when the city looms back into life because everyone needs to go between the people. Because comfort is important. Because remembering you are part of an enormous, joyous organism is as important as remembering you are part of a potentially deadly network of vectors. Being together, even just a little, can strengthen our empathy and help us stay focused on our paths forward.
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