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Three pieces of golden, crusty fried chicken sit in a paper to-go box lined with red and white checkered paper
Peaches Hot House’s fried chicken packaged to-go

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A Hot Day in July

15 gallons of cocktails. 180 ramekins of aioli. How one Brooklyn hotspot has turned itself into a successful fast-casual restaurant during the pandemic

Before the pandemic, eating dinner at Brooklyn restaurant Peaches Hot House meant writing a name on a whiteboard in the vestibule and waiting to be called for a table in a packed dining room. The staff would point guests to the bar while they waited, and despite the fact that it takes up about a third of the room, it was almost as difficult to snag a seat there as it was at a table.

Today the seatless bar has a few menus strewn across it, the whiteboard reads “takeout and delivery,” and the furniture is stacked to one side of the dining room. A bench that used to provide seating for four people now serves as a barrier between the six-foot square of masking tape on the floor — the designated ordering zone — and the bar and kitchen. But despite of all of this, Peaches Hot House is busier than ever. On Thursday, July 2, the day’s sales are 64 percent higher than they were a year ago around this time.

“Even if it’s a busy night, you can only seat so many people,” says Damian Laverty-McDowell, the company chef for B + C Restaurants, the group that owns Peaches Hot House. Since the pandemic began, B + C added Grubhub and Door Dash delivery services on top of its existing relationship with Caviar. “There was a finite ceiling. When you add three new delivery service revenue streams, and you compound that by the fact that nobody can go out to eat, it flips all that right on its head. Now it is infinite.”

As the pandemic took hold, restaurateurs scrambled to figure out how to adapt their businesses to an industry that was being dealt unprecedented changes on a daily basis. “At that point, we didn’t know how many people we were going to be able to keep on,” Craig Samuel, one of the owners, says. “We didn’t know if [a Payment Protection Program loan] was going to be available, or if it was going to be available to us.” The owners of B + C devised a plan to furlough the majority of their staff, temporarily closing the other Hot House location, in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood, and funneling business and the remaining employees to the location in Bed-Stuy. “It was a decision that was made based on trying to remain a viable business,” Samuel says. “When [New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio] said that delivery and takeout were still available, we figured we’d be able to make it at at least some of the locations with that.”

The plan worked, but required restructuring Hot House into a fast-casual version of itself. The transformation is evident from before the restaurant opens at 11 on July 2. Norma Hunt, the restaurant’s operations manager, tells the staff to scale up their side work of portioning barbecue aioli and pre-batching cocktails. “Triple-batch everything,” she instructs. “So the work flow isn’t so bad tomorrow.” Claudia, a bartender who has worked at the restaurant for a week, mixes the restaurant’s four cocktails in buckets usually used to ship and store pickles. By the time the gate is rolled up, she has mixed 15 gallons of tequila, fresh watermelon, and lime juices, which will go into the frozen drink machine and become the Back Up Dancer cocktail. The Peaches Hot House beverage program has always focused on cocktails, according to Hunt, but since the shift to delivery and takeout, it has been streamlined to essentials: three drinks, bottled in three sizes, plus the Back Up Dancer (which is only available for pickup because it doesn’t travel well).

A woman in a restaurant kitchen reaches across the pass
Staff who used to wait tables, now help package delivery and takeout orders.

The food has been pared down to the most resilient essentials. The updated menu, which Hot House has been serving since April, is two-thirds the size of the one before the pandemic. “I looked at all the numbers of what we were selling through each platform, and we narrowed down what people were actually eating,” Laverty-McDowell says. The burger and grilled broccoli are now the only items cooked to order. Everything else is made in larger quantities, with tweaks like replacing sauteed kale with braised collard greens, which can stay warm in a steam table without falling apart. The restaurant’s best-sellers, its Nashville-style hot chicken plate and fried chicken sandwich, are still there, and it sells a lot more of them.

The front-of-house staff, who used to ping-pong across the floor during service, are much more stationary now. Christina, who worked as a server and bartender at Hot House before the pandemic, spends the morning working the expediter position in the kitchen. When guests sat at tables in the dining room, an expediter worked with cooks to ensure that food coming off the line made it to tables at the right pace, tidying plates and occasionally running them out to the dining room. Today, her shift mostly consists of packing food into paper bags, bringing them out to what used to be the service bar, and stocking up for the dinner rush.

As she fills sleeves of to-go ramekins of barbecue aioli, she tells me how she has used her new position wrangling nearly 100 orders at a time as a means to also work on a personal goal that she set after being furloughed. “When I got let go, I was like, okay, I’m going to take this time to see if I can try to make myself better,” she explains. She says coming back to work the expo station has instead forced her to be more comfortable asking for help, which she didn’t ever do while working behind the bar in the old days. The new work has also resulted in physical changes: “I definitely dropped 20 pounds since coming back to work,” she says. “I used to struggle with one of [the cocktail] buckets; now I can hold two with no issues.” But she misses her old job and likens her new one to working in fast food, before adding that here at least she still gets to talk to guests when they pick up their orders. After 15 minutes, she has filled one fish tub full of about 60 ramekins. She needs to fill three more before the dinner crew gets in, but first she places an order of fried green tomatoes and a shrimp sandwich into a bag, staples the ticket to the front, and brings it to the dining room.

The lion’s share of Hot House’s orders come from delivery apps, and the combined sales from all three services — Grubhub, Door Dash, and Caviar — are 12 times what the restaurant sold on delivery apps on the Thursday before the Fourth of July in 2019.

Each app operates from its own tablet and interface, and prints its own order tickets (all of which look different from the tickets the restaurant’s point-of-sale system prints out for orders). Hunt notes that while the transition from table service to takeout has required adjustment for the staff, she has also noticed the impact on regulars, who have called the restaurant feeling frazzled after trying to order delivery from apps. “On day two [of the city on pause], I was helping someone set up an account,” Hunt says. “I’ve also been emotional support — I’ll stay on the phone while they place the order and confirm that they got it.”

Because 80 percent of the staff were laid off at the start of the pandemic, Hunt frequently worked as the only front-of-house employee while also ordering all the food, alcohol, and to-go boxes, as well as writing the schedule. The restaurant received a Paycheck Protection Program loan, allowing it to start to rehire employees in mid-May, and providing Hunt some reprieve from 70-hour work weeks.

As lunch dies down past 3 p.m., the dinner cooks, Ruben and Antonio, arrive. Chicken fries from before the restaurant opens at noon until just shy of 9 p.m., and hotel pans of cornbread laid out to cool on kitchen shelves are replaced with bundt cakes throughout the day. Yarel, who works the dinner expo shift, displays laser focus in organizing her station before the rush starts. It doesn’t take long for the printers to start churning, filling the pass in front of her with tickets, and the bartop with bagged orders.

Chicken frying
Peaches Hot House is selling more fried chicken these days.

On the sidewalk out front, couriers wait on electric bikes, glued to their phones. One, holding the collar of his shirt over his mouth, walks past the sign on the door asking everyone to wear a mask. He is one of 26 people who come in flagrantly disregarding the sign that day. After a handful of confrontations with guests and couriers over mask use, Hunt approaches each instance on a case-by-case basis. “I try to figure out the safest way to handle a situation so that I’m not putting any of my staff at risk,” she says. For some regulars, that means ribbing them into wearing one. For others, it can mean simply trying to get them out as quickly as possible, or offering them disposable masks. “I acknowledge the privilege in access to PPE,” Hunt says, “and this neighborhood has a dramatic schism there.”

Hot House’s role as a neighborhood mainstay has worked to its benefit, according to Samuel. With the pandemic disrupting professional and personal routines, the residents of Bed-Stuy found themselves at home, not taking Ubers or dining out. Many sought to soothe themselves with comfort food from a neighborhood staple. The murder of George Floyd and ensuing civil unrest also contributed to an uptick in business. “We definitely had a huge bump because of it,” he says. “We were on everyone’s list of Black-owned businesses in Brooklyn.”

Much of Hunt’s night is spent bouncing between greeting regulars and answering questions about the menu. This isn’t unlike her role in the pre-pandemic days, except now she is also making sure the space doesn’t become overcrowded. She occasionally clears the room, raising her voice and asking everyone who isn’t placing an order to please wait outside.

Toward the end of the night, a man with a 5-month-old parrot on his shoulder yells an order for fried chicken and fried catfish through the open door. The parrot’s name is Leila, and her owner goes by Hot Sauce Mike. Neither entree is for the bird, who mostly eats seeds, but enjoys sugar as a treat.

By Hunt’s assessment, it was a moderately busy service, but much more tranquil than some of the days she has worked in the past few months. Samuel is quick to point out that the boost in sales notwithstanding, Hot House is far from financial security. The increase in business is offset by delivery fees from apps, extra paper goods to facilitate serving all orders to go, and other increases in the cost of doing business that the restaurant has absorbed without raising prices. It also contends with struggles the industry has faced since before the pandemic, like rent hikes and increased labor costs.

In mid-July, Hot House added tables in front of the restaurant and started full-service outdoor dining, offering the closest thing it can to the pre-pandemic experience (as well as an extra revenue stream). Still, Samuel says that delivery orders are sustaining the business, and having weathered the first few months of the pandemic likely bodes well for the future of Hot House.

The worst is almost certainly behind Samuel. As the city and state governments were ramping up to ban indoor dining in mid-March, and he and his partners were trying to decide how to navigate the situation, he was also sick with COVID-19. His condition rapidly worsened, putting him in the hospital. “The next thing I know, I’m in a coma. I woke up, and found out that 410,000 people died. I was in a hospital without my phone, without contact, and [I] couldn’t call anyone. I was lying there thinking we’re dead. My career is over,” he says. “Later, I got in contact with my wife and talked to my partner. I realized that the way that everything had shifted actually ended up benefiting us.”

Ian Browning is a writer, skateboarder, and occasional bartender based in New York City.
Clay Williams is a Brooklyn-based photographer.

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