The Restaurateur vs. Coronavirus: David Massoni's Fight to Stay Afloat
Navigating hand-sanitizer karaoke, sobbing employees and COVID-19 at The Fox & Falcon
If you’ve been to New York City in the last decade, there’s a good chance you’ve eaten at a David Massoni establishment. The 20-year-plus restaurateur was formerly part of the heralded Three Kings Restaurant Group alongside chef Dale Talde and partner John Bush, which shepherded eateries such as Talde, Massoni, Rice & Gold and Pork Slope onto best-of lists for years. But ever since Thanksgiving weekend 2018, he’s been captaining the ship at his own hometown joint: The Fox & Falcon in South Orange, New Jersey.
We’ve been covering how restaurants like Massoni’s are faring during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the data keeps looking worse. But the charts, graphs and projections don’t offer a full picture of either the hardships or the hope that can be found during this unimaginable time. In an effort to bring you those firsthand accounts, we got in touch with Massoni for a wide-ranging conversation about how The Fox & Falcon is riding out the coronavirus storm. The story below is told in his own words. It has been edited for length and clarity.
The Beginning of The Fox & Falcon
About five years ago, my wife, my two kids and I moved to South Orange, New Jersey from Brooklyn. We never thought we would do a restaurant here until the company that I’d started in New York was coming to an end. My wife and I started to have some long talks about what we felt was going to be important to us, and we started to ask around. I reached out to the realtor who had helped us with our home, who had become a friend, and said, “Do you know any restaurants that might be coming available or that are on the market?” Within a week she was walking us through the space that is now The Fox & Falcon.
One of the reasons we wanted to do The Fox & Falcon and scale down a bit, if you will, was because I think what I’m best at and what I enjoy the most about the world of restaurants is having one-on-one connections with guests, and also being a hands-on team leader. In the company that I had with my friends, I’d gotten away from that. I was not connected with our guests. I was not connected with our staff. I felt like I was just going from meeting to meeting to meeting and not doing what I actually love, which is to be a host and to welcome people into what is our home away from home.
One of the shows that I grew up watching, to the point where I think it worried my parents a little bit, was Cheers. I loved the idea of that place where everybody knows your name, the idea of the hangout, the idea of camaraderie. That’s what we tried to create.
The Fox & Falcon is this great big sprawling gastropub place. We have three bars, three dining rooms, a really talented chef, a woman by the name of Ruby Felix-Curtis, who has worked for David Chang, worked at The Standard Grill, and does amazing, delicious, super approachable food. My partner and beverage director Billy Koester has worked at some of the best bars in the city.
If you were to come off of a New Jersey Transit train, you’d walk across the parking lot and see our lower-level bar and dining room, The Snug. It’s reminiscent of an old Irish pub. There’s a gas fireplace roaring at all times. Past that, you come up a large staircase that brings you to the main floor. There’s the maître d’ stand where I’m standing most nights, and we have a big 35-seat marble bar. Off of that, we have a very small stage. The main dining room is a little more airy, but still an old-world feel. There are exposed wood beams. My wife always does a beautiful fresh-cut flower arrangement in the middle of the room, and it’s encircled by artwork that I’ve collected over the years from both my mom, who owns a small contemporary art gallery, to antique pieces that I’ve found.
The Restaurateur vs. Coronavirus
We all started to become aware that this could be bad on March 5 or 6 going into the weekend. On what level, though? I don’t think anybody was really sure. Myself and my partner Billy weren’t aware of it from the standpoint of it affecting business. In fact, quite the opposite. The week of March 2 going into March 8, we were having the busiest week the restaurant had ever seen. It wasn’t some drastic amount, but I remember that week really sticking out — wow, we just had our busiest week ever! We’re only about a year-and-a-half old, so we really mark those moments.
At that point, my wife and I were at the very least asking ourselves, what could we do on our end to show the public that we’re doing our best? We started looking for hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes as early as the last week of February. There’s a lot of news about grocery shelves being emptied of toilet paper and the silliness behind that right now, but even then, everywhere we would go they were out. Everywhere.
We even thought we were being smart some days. We’d be out driving around and I’d say, “Let’s go to a dollar store! I bet no one’s thought of going to the dollar store yet.” Nope, nothing. One morning my wife woke up and she was like, “Let’s go to the mall and hit Bath & Body Works, they always have hand sanitizer.” Nope. The lady working there said that every week when they would get their shipment, it would be gone in 15 minutes.
At work, coronavirus was on everybody’s tongue, but it didn’t hit right away. On that Monday, March 9, I was like, “It’s probably going to be a little bit slow.” We had a hugely busy Monday. Tuesday rolled around and I was like, “OK, today it’s going to be slow. I think people are going to start to get nervous.” I was watching MSNBC on constantly. Tuesday wasn’t slow either. Wednesday rolled around — still we’re busy. There really wasn’t a lot of worry amongst our regular clientele up until then. There was still a lot of joking with the elbow salutation, or the toe-tap salutation. I don’t think anybody was taking it that seriously.
Wednesday night ended and there was a new tone amongst everybody. I remember turning to Billy and saying, “We’ve got to batten down the hatches for tomorrow, I think it’s going to fall off bad.” And Thursday the 12th, it did. From the previous week we saw maybe 40 percent of what our normal business would have been.
A business like ours can deal with a dud Thursday, but when you start talking about a dud Friday night or a dud Saturday night, that’s when it becomes really tight. The restaurant business lives on very small margins and we really count on our busy days. You can manage your costs during the early part of the week, but Fridays and Saturday nights, you go at them with everything. Friday night hit and it was dead, I mean super dead.
We do karaoke every Saturday night. You never could have sold me on the fact that us doing karaoke a year ago would be the huge hit that it is, but so many members of the community come out on Saturday nights. It’s definitely the big to-do. Even though warnings were coming at that point, we still went ahead with karaoke because, to be honest, as a business owner, I was desperate. I talked to the host about it and I said, “Look, we’ve got some extra wipes. We’ve got some extra hand sanitizer. Let’s just wipe down the microphone between every song.”
That night was just a minute by minute struggle to keep a straight face and not crumble under what I knew was coming the next day. I think the staff could pick up on something. They were definitely getting different energy from us, something that none of them were used to. They were asking question: What did I think the next week looked like? The week after that? I was doing my absolute damnedest to stay positive.
When Monday came around, all the closings started happening. We were told we would have a curfew set by the town and by the state of 8 p.m. that night. There was a lot of confusion during the day. Was it going to be an 8 p.m curfew every day? But it only took about an hour or two of that before we realized, no, it was a curfew on Monday and then we were not to reopen — we would have to move to a takeout or delivery business model going forward.
One of the biggest things that will leave a mark on me for months and years to come was the kindness and support that started immediately. Old regular customers were coming in and buying $300 worth of takeout food and leaving $150 tips on their bill. We had people coming in and buying gift cards, people posting online, people telling us to keep up our spirits.
We’re a big space, as I’ve painted the picture already. We’re a big staff. We moved into takeout and delivery, but with the idea that we would only do that until our resources that we already had in-house ran out. We made that decision that we couldn’t go any further past Wednesday the 18th. At which point, on Wednesday at 8 p.m., we finally closed the door. Over those last three days, my wife, myself, my partner Billy and his wife, our chef Ruby, her team, we all just spent every single extra minute cleaning, disinfecting and organizing for the building being temporarily shuttered for the foreseeable future.
There’s a joke that the restaurant industry is filled with a bunch of misfits and pirates and people who need social interaction as part of our DNA. I’m trying not to get choked up talking about this, but there was a moment on our last day on Wednesday when those of us who have become family to each other realized we weren’t going to see each other for a while, and there’s not going to be that daily coming together. I think one of the hardest parts in all of this is they all look to me to be their leader and I couldn’t give them any answers. I couldn’t tell them, “Two weeks. That’s all you’ve got to do.” I couldn’t tell them, “I know what it’s going to look like on the other side.”
I don’t want to name names because it’s personal, but during those last days I had multiple, multiple members of staff sobbing in front of me. Forget just the HR ramifications of giving somebody a hug, but because of the coronavirus, I couldn’t reach out and give somebody a hug who was sobbing in front of me. Somebody who I care about. I couldn’t help them wipe away the tears. I’ll never forget that feeling.
How Do You Rebuild During a Pandemic?
I moved to New York city in ’97. I lived through 9/11. I had friends that worked in the Twin Towers who died. I remember my brother and I standing at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge trying to give out water, all of us rushing to first-aid centers trying to donate blood only to be turned away because there were no survivors to give blood to. I lived through that. Then I lived through Hurricane Sandy as a business owner in Brooklyn, a neighborhood that had terrible blackouts and gas freezes, and I dealt with making our way through that.
Both of those scenarios, something tragic, horrible, awful happened. But then there was a starting point of how you build back that was able to start immediately. Everyone could come together, everyone could start working on the next step forward together. The hardest thing about this has been: we don’t even know if we’re at the beginning of it.
That said, almost instantly on Monday and Tuesday we were having people reach out, “What can we do?” And suggestions like, “Why don’t you put together family meal packets?” I know some restaurants are doing that, but knowing my own business, I knew that there are certain elements that just wouldn’t work for us. But it also got to a point where I was having even my top-level people turning to me and saying, “When does my safety get taken into consideration?”
Our landlords, I already knew they were good guys, but they are literally angels. I didn’t ask them for what they ended up offering, but the offer that they gave us — and I don’t want to get into the details of it — will be what allows us to reopen when this is all over. They’ve come through in the greatest way possible.
The other thing that allowed that to happen was two friends in the community both needed something to dig their teeth into. Benny Campa and Sarah Klein started working right away on getting a GoFundMe started. It’s not a donation scenario, it was selling gift cards. [Editor’s note: You can find that GoFundMe here.] They had me do a video, they had me type out my thoughts, all of which while I’m knee-deep in sanitizer and gloves while we’re scrubbing and cleaning. We’re all burning the midnight oil, we’re all exhausted and scared, but Benny and Sarah just kept pushing me like, “If we do this right, it can be a real success.” We launched it on a Tuesday night at 6 p.m. On Wednesday at 6 p.m., it had raised $17,000.
I felt weird about it at first, but people were like, “Stop feeling weird about it. This is your community telling you how much your place and you guys mean to them.” But that money is going to allow us to get the doors reopened when we’re given the green light. We’ll need to be able to buy food, start paying staff, deal with any other problems that come up over the next … I don’t even want to say because nobody knows.
Today, I feel very much like one of the lucky ones. One of the hard parts that my family and I are dealing with is that, as the owner, I don’t get to file for unemployment. But that’s a small cross to bear for right now.
Now it’s just, what else can I do for my community here in SOMA? My worry goes out to some of the retail people that I’ve become friends with, places like bottle refilling businesses where they’re trying to do something better for the environment. Friends of mine did that in Maplewood. I worry about the little cafes that have opened, gyms and people that are personal trainers, and even the lady who owns the nail salon around the corner from us.
I think one of the important things right now is storytelling. My family all started laughing last night when I got a book off the bookshelf and sat down on the couch and started reading, because I don’t think since my son was born 11 year ago that I’ve done much reading, at least for pleasure anyway. My daughter, she’s eight, laughed and said, “I didn’t know daddy knew how to read!” I’m a little embarrassed to say, but I pulled an old Anne Rice novel off the shelf called The Witching Hour. It’s one of hers that’s not about vampires. It’s set in New Orleans. I love that city so much. So it’s a little escapism.