Proprietor: Mike Cioffi
Live: Kingston, NY
Previous Life: Viking
Activities: Color Correlation, Recipe Hoarding, Dog Mom
Side Gig: Keyboardist in Tsunami Bomb
When did you open the Diner, tell us a little bit about your journey?
Mike and his family have had a second home in Margaretville for about 20 years. The diner sits on the route they take to get to their place. Mike always admired the building and was inspired by it, often thinking of it’s potential. What started as just a stop in to check it out ending in him stepping into the restaurant business.
Tell us about Phoenicia and where you are located?
Phoenicia is a small hamlet in the Catskills. By small, I mean the main street is only a few blocks long. Those few blocks are filled with wonderful and unique local businesses. We are located just about a mile southeast of the center of town right across the street from the Esopus Creek with some of the best trout fishing around.
Have you pivoted your business during this pandemic? How have you pivoted?
The day before the announcement was made that we would have to close our dining rooms, we had a pretty serious discussion about how we should plan to stay open going forward and decided that we wouldn’t offer indoor seating anymore. We closed down for a day to get ready to reopen for take-out. I updated our website and POS system for online ordering and we sat down with our menu and started making necessary changes to offer more easy to eat on the go options. Take-out is a whole different game. You have to think about food sitting in a box for 15-30 minutes before it gets eaten and what might happen to the food in that time.
What was the first change you made? And when was that?
During the Summer, we have a vintage Airstream that services our pavilion area that we call The LOT at Phoenicia Diner. We usually cook a smaller food truck style menu out there for people who want a quick bite or to bring their dogs with them. We are so lucky because we already had a pos system, coolers, and espresso machine set up out there. This made the transition into takeout far more seamless than it would have been otherwise.
The first changes were getting the Airstream ready to act as the main point of customer interaction upon arrival and making sure the transactions were as l as contactless and safe as possible. We started working on the pavilion immediately. The whole thing was terrifying and we were constantly just trying to make the right move in a situation with too many unknowns.
F&B is taking a hit from this pandemic like no other, give us your perspective of this industry’s resilience and perseverance during these times, and how you see all of this unfolding?
This whole experience, despite all of the blows, has really set the stage for so many people in our industry to shine. I’ve developed more new relationships with people in my field during this pandemic than the last 5 years combined. From watching restaurants come together with the community to get meals to people in need, to taking the time to make videos on how to cook their food or make their cocktails at home, there has been so much good in all of this. One local restaurant completely ceased for-profit operations in order to expand their cost free prepared food delivery, The Table at Woodstock.
I think the majority of us who make a career in this industry do so because they love feeding people and they know the importance of the feeling you get during and after a good meal. With the lock down and people feeling trapped, worried, angry, sad, depressed, I think the public really started to realize how essential our industry is. Being able to have a comforting meal or a meal that makes life feel normal for one moment is really important, it’s medicine of the best kind. Knowing we can have a part in that is what keeps us going, it’s what we live for.
As Restrictions begin to lift, how does that make you feel as a business manager?
It’s terrifying. We want to create a safe environment but also an inviting one. Without knowing the regulations that will be part of Phase 3 (which includes restaurants) here in NY, we can only speculate. I’ve been reading on every state’s rules and check the NY site first thing in the morning to see any specifics have been announced. Now, we have a whole new layer added onto our business. We need to make sure that everyone is mature enough to make any of our other guests or our staff feel unsafe.
I just hope customers are empathetic to staff who have been working with many people every day and take that into consideration when they visit. If our staff is put into a position where they don’t feel safe at work, then we have a big problem.
Do you plan to fully re-open, if so when is that?
Right now we are watching the daily briefings and staying on top of the rollout rules for our area. We are about a month away from anything changing and aren’t quite sure what the initial changes will be. We won’t reopen dining rooms or offer outdoor seating until we feel it’s safe to do so.
What precautions are you taking/ will have to take to make customers feel more comfortable moving forward?
Right now, if you order online, our operations are completely contactless. All of our staff, front and back have been required to wear masks and glovesWe have sanitizer stations set up for the customers wherever money would be exchanged, if paying in person. We have 6 foot spaced markers where the line to the Airstream forms and have placed menus spread out through our lot area. Servsafe has added some Covid training videos and we required all staff to complete them.
What has been the hardest struggle about this pandemic?
The unknown and just having to accept that you don’t have all of the answers. There is so much information coming from everywhere. By the second week I just had to make myself stop reading the news. Now, I watch townhalls, Cuomo’s briefings, look at our local statistic dashboard, and read industry related articles.
On a personal note what new habits from this time will you take with you into the future?
Walking away to somewhere quiet and just taking a deep breath.
Are you doing anything right now just for you?
I’ll be transplanting all of my seedlings into my garden tomorrow. My vegetable and herb garden is something I look forward to every year. It’s been a struggle this year to stay motivated with it, but tomorrow is the day.
What have you been cooking a lot lately?
I wish. I’ve been working later and cooking less. Luckily my husband has been wonderful in picking up the slack.
What are you most excited about this summer?
Getting out in that sunshine.
Have your customers changed at all during this Pandemic?
Yes, of course. Mostly good change. Everyone has been so outwardly thankful towards us. It’s been really touching.
Community is very important to all small businesses —how has your community played a part in your business during this time?
Man, they get all the gold stars. Our local County Executive put together Project Resilience which partnered with restaurants to feed the community almost instantly. They paid restaurants $10 a meal and orders could be for 250+ people. This income, I have no doubt, was the push some businesses needed to weather the storm. We were part of the project and I cannot express enough how much it helped us and how gratifying it was to be a part of.
The local Chamber of Commerce set up a Facebook page called ‘Ulster Eateries United’ where restaurants could post their menus and daily specials. They already have 10k followers. At the Diner, and especially, our new place, Dixon Roadside, we have had so many new customers that had never heard of us until that page.
We have been floored by the support of our community.