SCHENECTADY — What do you do when you’ve spent years preparing to open a restaurant and a raging global health pandemic hits, wiping out the industry?
Answer: You keep going.
“It can’t get any worse, right?” said Chelsea Heilmann, who co-owns Square One Cafe on Jay Street, which will launch a new food menu on Monday.
Heilmann and Jack Kowalski purchased the cafe, formally known as Happy Cappuccino, last year and originally aimed to launch a vegan menu in late March after a quick makeover.
Then the virus hit, leaving the restaurant industry in shambles.
While remaining open for takeout coffee and pastries, Heilmann spent much of the early days in a holding pattern wondering if the $25,000 spent on renovations would be instantly evaporated.
“That’s a huge amount to invest in a restaurant, pandemic or not,” Heilmann said.
But after nearly eight weeks of waiting, it’s go-time.
Square One will use plant-based meat to put a new spin on mainstays like burgers, tacos, club sandwiches — even a reuben.
Think of it as vegan comfort food.
The dozen-or-so items on the lunch menu have names like “Brandywine BBQ Burger,” “Crane Street Supreme” and “Cheezy G.E. Crunch.”
The naming convention is a nod to Heilmann and Kowalski’s roots, both native Schenectadians who went to high school together.
With vegan culture growing increasingly mainstream, Heilmann saw the need for a full-service vegan restaurant in the city and believes the demand is here.
She also wanted more options, personally, and hopes the menu will dispel the myth that being a vegan means existing on a steady diet of hummus and eating kale out of a bag.
“Being a vegan 10 years ago and being a vegan now is very, very different,” Heilmann said.
Plant-based substitutes like Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger have grown increasingly sophisticated over the past two years.
Many products even behave like meat, oozing globules of white fat.
Vegans point to numerous reasons for eschewing animal products, including health and environmental benefits, as well as a desire to mitigate animal cruelty.
Heilmann subscribes to all three.
And with outbreaks now emerging at slaughterhouses and possible meat shortages, following a vegan diet is one even more salient than ever, she said.
But not everyone needs to totally shrug off animal products to lead more sustainable lives.
Even cutting out meat and dairy for one day a week has environmental and health benefits, Heilmnan said.
Restaurants in New York state are still limited to proving takeout and delivery-only.
With all-but essential businesses remaining closed at least until May 15 when the state’s executive order expires, Heilmann acknowledges many of the tools used by new restaurants — including providing catering samples to local office workers — remain out-of-reach.
And foot traffic is way down.
But Heilmann is optimistic life will snap back to normal, hopefully sooner rather than later.
The past week has been a whirlwind of activity as she sets up DoorDash and Grubhub accounts, finetunes food orders, tests the kitchen equipment and orders takeout supplies.
“I just want to do what I set out to do,” Heilmann said
Square One Cafe: 185 Jay Street, Schenectady, NY. Hours: Open 7 to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. To order, call 518-952-4466 or find them on Grubhub or DoorDash.