ON A BUSY FRIDAY NIGHT IN ONE OF PLATTSBURGH’S MOST BUSTLING RESTAURANTS, THE HOSTESS AT IRISES TYPICALLY HAS A LINE OF GUESTS WAITING TO BE SEATED. THE KITCHEN HAS BEEN PREPPING FOR WHAT THEY KNOW WILL BE A BUSY NIGHT; SPECIALS ARE LINED UP AND THE BAR IS CROWDED. MOST PEOPLE REMEMBER WHAT THIS WAS LIKE.
Owned and operated by Carol McLean, Irises Cafe and Wine Bar has been in business in downtown Plattsburgh for over 23 years. In March of 2020 McLean and her team would be challenged in ways they never could have imagined.
“I remember the night in March when they told us the State would be shutting down SUNY Plattsburgh because of COVID-19. All I could think was, ‘Well there goes graduation weekend.’” This would have been a major blow to the restaurant, as Irises’ profit margin is dependent on those extra holiday/special events and offsite catering income. McLean began running numbers with the assumption that they would at least have Mother’s Day to look forward to. She said, “We all thought that this couldn’t possibly last until May.” McLean laughed behind her mask and reflected on what has transpired since then.
“The first week they made the announcement that restaurants needed to close with the exception of take-out, our food sales dropped by 50 percent and bar sales 100%,” said McLean. Irises felt the impact deeply since many people look to Irises for a complete dining experience.
McLean explained that people understand the hospitality industry and have clear expectations when it comes to dining. “We are so used to our system. The majority of people order drinks, maybe get an appetizer, then they have entrees and desserts and then more drinks. Typically, you have time for all of that.” She said that this timing creates a natural buffer in the kitchen when it comes to the chef and their ability to turn out quality meals in a timely fashion. When 100% of the orders coming in are take-out, the picture shifts dramatically.
For several weeks in March and early April, Irises’ chef, Tyler Puchrick began to experience what he called in good humor, “Take Out Hell”. Considering how important timing is to a good dining experience, the rush of take-out orders required a complete shift in the back of the house.
Puchrick explained, “We would get thirty tickets all at once and naturally people are ordering apps, entrees and desserts all at the same time. It was crazy,” he said. They had to make some key shifts in order to keep up. “It gave us an opportunity to trim our menu to make it more manageable and streamline the restaurant in new ways.”
The impact on the restaurant industry has left many without jobs and owners are looking for changes in guidelines and assistance from the state and federal government. McLean acknowledged that the CARES Act and the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP Loan) got her through the summer. There were increased opportunities for unemployment and all of those factors helped to stabilize Irises’ workforce. She said, “Once I felt like the staff would be ok, I needed some time to regroup. I had a lot of financial obligations and not enough coming in from take-out to support them. We then made the difficult decision to temporarily close in April until inside dining resumed.” McLean leaned on her longstanding relationships with vendors during that time, and the tremendous support from the community helped put the pieces back together when Irises reopened in mid-June.
As New York begins to reopen in stages, restaurants continue to face challenges. McLean spoke to the seasonal shift with apprehension. “This summer we were grateful to be open to serve people within the limited capacity. We saw sixty percent of our business with outside diners, twenty percent inside, and twenty percent take-out. That’s really scary when you think about the cold weather we’re going to see very soon.”
Despite this, McLean is hopeful to see more relief from the Federal Government. She feels this is ultimately the only measure that will keep restaurants operating within these new imposed COVID guidelines or future outbreaks. The Restaurant Act of 2020 was introduced in the House in June of this year and the bill offers assistance targeting small businesses and restaurants whose annual revenues are less than $1.5 million. Importantly, the bill would prioritize underrepresented communities and women and minority-owned businesses such as Irises. As is now normal, one must simply wait on a decision to be made by the government.
McLean and her team have a surprisingly optimistic attitude and are quick to point out the silver linings. The pandemic created an opportunity for changes that arguably needed to happen anyway. Puchrick said, “In this business you get used to things changing unexpectedly. Transitioning to handling more take-out volume was a challenge at first.” He referenced the new website and take-out software McLean purchased that has since streamlined online orders, making it easier to order for customers while freeing up staff to serve in-house patrons.
In terms of cutting losses, McLean made additional changes. She said, “I knew I couldn’t afford to reopen and lose money, so we shifted our hours of operation to days that saw the most business. We’re now open Wednesday to Saturday.” With fewer days to produce revenue, the team has spent time refining their more limited menu, putting attention to detail, and reducing inventory to minimize costs. They have also invested and implemented in COVID- 19 safety measures for a new HEPA Merv 13 filtration system for the restaurant’s central HVAC, plus have added custom plexi-glass barriers made to allow for full seating at the bar.
Additionally, McLean is finding creative ways to give people more dining opportunities. She said, “We added a Saturday Brunch and that has been very successful.” According to McLean brunch is typically a social, relaxing meal. People had been isolated for so long that coming together for brunch has been something many have looked forward to and are enjoying.
Thanksgiving will be different this year as well, as Irises usually serves over 400 people for their annual dinner, but now that self-serve buffets are prohibited, Irises will switch to a pre-packaged Thanksgiving Family Meal that may be picked up for those who want to enjoy the holiday at home with less work. McLean would like to remind people that Irises’ Brick Room is still open for private parties and can seat up to 30 people with a maximum of ten people per table, spaced of course, six feet apart.
Before heading back to the kitchen to prepare for the pandemic’s version of a Thursday night “rush”, Puchrick shared thoughts about how COVID-19 has changed Irises. “We have been given an opportunity to see where we can grow. It’s not just about growing as a business but growing as individuals. We work like machines but we’re still human. And the best part about being human is that we always have opportunities to do something new by working together.”
With a lot of perseverance and even more patience, Carol McLean will keep Irises open for years to come. “I am so grateful to the North Country Chamber of Commerce that really stepped up as a source of information and leadership,” she said, “and, of course, we couldn’t have done any of this without the amazing support of the community.”
Irises Café & Wine Bar
20 City Hall Place