Home Business Brooklyn eatery, shuttered by COVID-19 just 8 days after opening, bounces back

Brooklyn eatery, shuttered by COVID-19 just 8 days after opening, bounces back

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On March 7, Romeo and Milka Regalli hosted a grand opening for Ras, their new Ethiopian restaurant in Crown Heights.

Just eight days later, they had a not-so-grand closing.

The husband-and-wife pair, who already operate three Awash Ethiopian restaurants in Manhattan and Brooklyn, had been plotting Ras for four years. The couple dreamed of serving vegan versions and modern interpretations of their native cuisine’s famous dishes: Platters with scoops of farm-to-table vegetables like beets, cabbage and lentils infused with fragrant spices and meant to be scooped with the traditional spongy bread, injera, made in house.

They’d gut-renovated a former sports bar, then hired and trained 28 employees, from line cooks to bartenders. Everything was going according to plan. Even brunch at the 68-seat culinary upstart was bustling. But then foot traffic on their block, main drag Franklin Avenue, started to disappear.

“Literally a day before the city shut down, we were telling our staff, ‘It’s probably going to be closed for a week. It’ll be a good rest for all of us. We’ll see you next week,’ ” Romeo, 33, said. “We didn’t know.”

Milka and Romeo had to adjust after the coronavirus closed Ras, figuring out how to pack and transport their delicate Ethiopian dishes and handling 200 orders a night by themselves.
Milka and Romeo had to adjust quickly after the virus shuttered Ras in March, figuring out how to pack and transport their delicate Ethiopian dishes and handling 200 orders a night by themselves.Annie Wermiel/NY Post

So the Ethiopia-born couple — who met when Romeo arrived in New York in 2013 as an aspiring filmmaker and applied for a job at the Upper West Side outpost of Awash, which Milka managed at the time — shut their doors and waited.

Denied a Paycheck Protection Program loan because they could not produce documentation of a 2019 payroll, they decided to try takeout and delivery to bring in a little income. They hadn’t plan to offer the service, at least at first.

“Ethiopian food doesn’t travel well,” said Romeo, who added that it took several tries to find compostable, non-plastic containers that would allow the dishes to be packaged separately for diners to plate at home. “Packing food takes longer than serving it on a plate.”

“New Yorkers are resilient,” added Milka, 39, who came to the city with her mom at age 3. “It was just a matter of working around the circumstances, creating a new business model and just facing challenges head on. And seeing them as challenges, but seeing them as an opportunity to work around whatever was happening.”

Romeo and Milka — who married in 2014, just seven months after meeting — overhauled the just-redone kitchen and handled all orders by themselves to save on costs. The lovebirds prepped as many as 200 meals a night, just enough to cover the cost of ingredients and their $7,000 monthly rent.

For Phase Two, the couple hastily bought planters from Home Depot and set up outdoor seating for 20 on the sidewalk and in the street of Crown Heights' main drag, Franklin Avenue.
The couple bought planters from Home Depot and set up outdoor seating for 20 in front of their restaurant on Crown Heights’ main drag, Franklin Avenue.Annie Wermiel/NY Post

“When we reopened for takeout and delivery, it was just me and Milka, preparing the food, packing the food, running to the door to pass orders,” Romeo said. Unfortunately, it meant keeping the 28 staffers out of work. “That was the only way to save the business. Closing was not an option.”

On June 3, Black-Owned Brooklyn, an Instagram account with almost 85,000 followers run by Kings County couple Cynthia Gordy Giwa and Tayo Giws, spotlighted Romeo, Milka and Ras. The number of nightly orders skyrocketed.

“After that, we got so many people back,” Romeo said. “We were just so happy. We were just overwhelmed.”

When New York entered Phase 2 on June 22, Romeo and Milka repurposed tables from the back of the restaurant to accommodate 20 people on the sidewalk and in the street. They hastily bought planters to add greenery and separate customers, adding candles for atmosphere.

Ahead of Phase Two, Romeo and Milka were able to hire back 11 workers out of their pre-pandemic payroll of 28.
Ahead of Phase Two, Romeo and Milka were able to hire back 11 workers out of their pre-pandemic payroll of 28.Annie Wermiel/NY Post

They hired back four front-of-house workers and seven to staff the kitchen. On a typical night, the couple tries to chat at a distance with every patron; they are encouraging discussions about the Black Lives Matter movement and plan to add live music soon.

“It’s definitely about uplifting each other,” Romeo said. “The whole concept of a restaurant is that it’s not just a business. We have to give back to the community. We definitely want to stand in solidarity.”



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