“The Ups and Downs Are Just Incredibly Extreme”

Photo: Jonathan Bourland

What are your biggest financial concerns today?
SHARON: We don’t want to lay off anybody. When you find good people, you want to hang on to them, they’re like gold.
CHARLES: We’ve started thinking, to what degree do we want to change who we are and what we do? You want to be flexible, but you don’t want to dumb down everything or do the same kind of food that everybody else is doing.

When did you start noticing a slowdown?
CHARLES: November was aggressively noticeable. I just remember feeling, when I closed the gate before Thanksgiving and we were going to be gone for a week, Thank God. I don’t want to look at this place.

You survived September 11 and the subsequent recession. How is this different?
CHARLES: I noticed that after September 11, when everyone was saying that people weren’t going out to eat as much, people weren’t going to the city, so we turned into a special-occasion restaurant for Brooklyn.

Are you more negatively affected now because you’re more expensive?
SHARON: Relative to the neighborhood, we’re a higher price point. Relative to comparable restaurants in Manhattan, we’re a better value.
CHARLES: There are some professional industry people that think it’s the neighborhood restaurant that people are going to cut out. The restaurants that are a little higher priced are still going to do the same because they’re going to save up for that. We fall somewhere in between.

Is there a sense that people are cutting back on wine or not ordering desserts?
SHARON: It’s the fickle dining public. One week you’ll think, Nobody’s ordering any wine. And then the next week people will order $200 bottles. It’s a complete crapshoot. Thursday we had thirteen people here, the worst since our first week in business. And then last night felt so normal. The ups and downs are just incredibly extreme.

How are you changing the menu?
CHARLES: More vegetables. For many reasons—our health, availability, sustainability—we’re even more vegetable-centric.

So you’re moving away from proteins?
SHARON: We had a beautiful loin rack chop on the menu for a $28 entrée. Now we’re buying the same really good pig, but a pork shoulder. We can offer it at a lesser price point.
CHARLES: We don’t want to drop our prices across the board. We know it’s going to be a hard year; we just have to be smart about it and things will be fine.

How many seatings do you do a night?
CHARLES: It’s 12 tables, 30 chairs. Back in the day, we’d try to get two seatings during the week, and push for three on the weekend. If you wanted an 8 p.m. table, I’d push them to 8:30 or 9. Now I take what I can get.
SHARON: Volume of calls for reservations is way down. Walk-ins are up.

What encourages you in this climate?
CHARLES: We bought the building in 2003, so we have longevity. We can adapt if we have to. The Grocery has a reputation of being high-end and attention-to-detail, quality cooking. But if nobody wants that, I’m happy to flip burgers.

“The Ups and Downs Are Just Incredibly Extreme”