Local Business Update: Terroir

Terroir, the popular wine bar on Harrison opened a decade ago by Paul Grieco, has been closed save for three weeks in July since the pandemic began. And sadly for fans, it will stay that way until May 1, when Grieco hopes to open the doors once again. It’s a decision that did not come easily, but one that he seems to have made peace with, at least at certain moments of clarity.

Over the past months he’s been on an emotional roller coaster, and while we are using that metaphor, it’s safe to say he has come close to going off the rails a few times. And who in the hospitality industry hasn’t? There’s no precedent for what restaurants are experiencing right now, especially as we see winter arrive with gusto and indoor dining shut down once again.

“We have been whipsawed in a manner that is unparalleled,” said Grieco when we spoke one morning last week, as he sat in the window of Terroir with his coffee and paperwork. “I found myself in a psychic sinkhole at the beginning of the fall — it was hard to get out of. I kept asking myself, why are we putting our lives at risk to open up now? I saw no point in doing that. And I didn’t see an end to it then.”

When the restaurant closed on March 16, like everyone they thought it would just be for a couple weeks, and then maybe a couple months, and then the realization set in that this was a new normal. They gave it a shot in July (“that was a nightmare”) but all the joy of working a restaurant was gone, smothered by the burdens of regulation and the constant specter of the virus.

“The interaction with the guest is something we relish — we are in service! We love it! But that relationship — the gulf had just blow apart. The staff felt they were putting their lives on the line and every night one of my six staff members ended their shift in tears.”

A month later, on Sept. 1, Grieco was prepared to close Terroir permanently.

“I made plans internally and externally to shut the joint down,” he said. “I couldn’t see a way forward, my staff didn’t want to come back to work — they were scared — and I didn’t see the neighborhood returning to any semblance of what it was.”

But somehow he didn’t, or couldn’t, and then November happened, and without wanting to sound overtly political, he said, the election coupled with the approval of a vaccine gave him hope. He started to see a way through the haze. “I started to think there was a way through this. I felt there would be more support.”

I would never suggest there’s any kind of silver lining to the pandemic when it comes to restaurants, but Grieco hopes customers have a better sense of what it takes to keep a place alive in this town. It’s a lesson that several notable chefs, including Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune and our own Amanda Cohen from Lekka Burger (but really Dirt Candy), have expressed in eloquent and heartbreaking pieces this year. And Grieco sites them, noting that the economics of the restaurant industry are “atrocious” and this pandemic could lead to what he calls an extinction event.

He lays it out this way:

  • 80 to 85 cents on every dollar goes to labor, food and occupancy costs: rent, staffing, goods, with labor being the biggest line item.
  • Add in another 10 cents, give or take, for all the other stuff you need to run a restaurant — furniture, plates, napkins, glasses, etc.
  • That gets you to 95 cents spent just to open the door on a daily basis.

“Most restaurants are breaking even. That’s the fact. We can not afford to have a bad week. That can sink the whole thing.”

Grieco came from Gramercy Tavern, where he says he spent the best seven years of his life as manager of what he calls “a perfect joint.” It is part of Danny Meyers’ philosophy that the staff comes first, and the guest comes second, and that is precisely what keeps the guest happy.

It’s that idea that Grieco focuses on now, as he squints into the future with an eye to May 1.

“I will be a fool if I don’t take these next five months to rethink what Terroir does to create a better atmosphere for its staff. Our teams have no health insurance. Things like this have to change if we want to be an industry where people want to work again,” he says.

“When we are done, there will be well into the double digits of restaurants gone. And trust me, this is not what I want. It’s not what any of us want. As Danny Meyer has said — you want a harbor full of boats. You may want to have the highest mast, but you want a neighborhood full of places since that’s what pulls people in.

“I am in business to make money. Every day it’s a struggle. But restaurant people love what they do — it’s almost like a cult, and I mean that in both a negative and positive sense. And it’s not an obsession with food, it’s an obsession with service and with people. The most joyful part of the day is interacting with each other — the team and the guest.

“There’s a reason I am sitting in Terroir right now — sitting in an empty space staring out the window drinking my coffee by myself. I just need to be here. I want to be here.”


1 Comment

  1. We gotta support all our small local businesses and when they come back from being closed even more so