SCHENECTADY — What a time to open a restaurant.
With their industry still heavily impacted by limitations imposed to control the spread of COVID-19, a Guilderland couple are making final preparations to open the doors to their new establishment in downtown Schenectady.
The Nest occupies the two-story storefront of the old Schenectady Railway headquarters at 512 State St., formerly home to Slidin’ Dirty. Owners Devin and Kaytrin Ziemann will begin serving the public Oct. 16.
The timing is far from ideal, given how hard the restaurant industry has been hit this year, but the Ziemanns have been able to keep their two Albany restaurants — Crave and Cuckoo’s Nest — running and profitable with a nearly full staff all through the pandemic and think they can make this one fly as well.
With a takeout operation running with assembly line precision and a strong social media push, they say they’ve been able to increase their profile with the dining public, even as they’ve kept their dining room closed or limited.
The Ziemanns spoke with The Daily Gazette on Tuesday about their decision to make the leap and open a third restaurant amid one of the worst crises their industry has ever known.
A critical detail: The plan to open the Nest was hatched more than a year ago. The Ziemanns already had done (and paid for) most of the work needed to renovate 512 State St. when the first COVID case was detected in New York on March 1, triggering a series of events that led to a statewide ban on sitdown dining 15 days later.
“We were essentially a month away from opening when COVID hit,” Devin said. “It was a decision on our part to wait. Our property owners were extremely gracious to us.”
The space is owned by Redburn Development, which maintains its headquarters in the top floor of the old Railway Building.
The Ziemanns flirted with the idea of just giving up on The Nest, and losing the $100,000 invested to that point.
“We were definitely on the fence for a while,” Devin said.
Back in Albany, their two restaurants had transitioned right into takeout mode without even a day’s pause when their dining rooms were ordered shut down March 16.
“It was definitely not business as usual,” Kaytrin said. “We did all of our promotion on social media.”
They gained 3,000 Instagram followers in three months through the effort, and they managed to keep everyone employed at Crave. There were a few layoffs at Cuckoo’s Nest, which had a larger wait staff than Crave, with more people than could be reassigned to other duties.
Was there a bit of shellshock from the sudden turn of events?
“It definitely was,” Kaytrin said.
But it never came near the point of paralysis or despair.
“I think we had the mindset that we had to make this work,” she said. “We don’t have a Plan B right now, this is our plan.”
The young parents of a toddler son had no other option, really.
“We’re lucky — trust me, I know,” Kaytrin said. “There’s other places that tried to make it work and didn’t, [or else] closed and are having a hard time reopening. It obviously helps that Devin and I are both so involved. We’re in the space every single day and I think that makes a huge difference. Also, we’re young.”
Once sit-down dining became legal again, in June, they briefly resumed it at Crave, then reverted it to takeout-only when they concluded the staffing structure wasn’t able to deal with the anti-mask customers who were coming in. Sitdown dining at Cuckoo’s Nest worked out safely and has continued.
It was important, Katyrin said, to get the Albany locations up to speed in their new operating mode and keep them running before turning their attention to Schenectady.
But Schenectady wasn’t far from their minds — The Ziemanns built a following there through the summer with food drops in the city. About 20 customers would place their orders and submit payment by phone, online or even by text, then wait at the drop spot at the prearranged hour. The handoff took just seconds each.
The Nest is mostly booked Oct. 16 and fully booked Oct. 17, its first Saturday night. Lunchtime dining will begin the following week and brunch the following weekend.
Downtown Schenectady is quieter now, with diminished pedestrian traffic and more plentiful open parking spaces. Ribbon-cuttings and grand openings are few and far between compared with pre-COVID times, both here and in other markets.
But the Ziemanns believe they’ve built enough of a customer base for their Southern-style cooking to make The Nest a success, and believe the model they developed at the Albany restaurants will sustain the Nest even if indoor sit-down dining is banned again.
“We know eventually life will come back, Proctors will reopen,” Kaytrin said. “After going from March through June doing takeout only at the Cuckoo’s Nest, we decided if we have to close our doors and do takeout again, we know how to do it. And we will, no matter what, make things work here.”
As the restaurant industry was damaged and disrupted by the pandemic, much of the dining public was impacted as well, either in health, wealth or psyche. Some people simply aren’t ready to eat at a sitdown restaurant, and that is as serious a threat to the industry as the government mandate that 50 percent of tables remain empty.
For them, the Ziemann’s three restaurants will continue to offer takeout.
“A lot of people still don’t want to come out and we’re totally understanding about that,” Kaytrin said.