Heritage Bakers rode out the worst of the pandemic, returning after a brief hiatus to keep Glen Cove supplied with fresh popovers, pastries and more. But at the end of September, owner David Shalam made the painful decision to close the bakery he opened four years ago.
"It wasn’t so much the pandemic as the fallout from the pandemic," he said. "For so long it was ‘Let’s hunker down and we’ll get through this. We’ll do takeout. We’ll reduce our hours.’" In Shalam’s case it was also manning his kitchen pretty much single-handedly.
But, he said, you can’t "put a Band-Aid" on a business indefinitely. "After months of making do, you just want to go back to being normal. But today, normal, is no more rent relief, no people to hire and crazy ingredients prices."
Shalam had been baking popovers in the Stony Brook University Incubator kitchen in Calverton for three years before he leased the 2,700-square-foot space in Glen Cove in 2017. At the time, the waterfront Garvies Point neighborhood had a gritty, industrial vibe that made the bakery a destination. But thanks to RXR Realty’s development of the area (which, when complete, will comprise more than 1,000 condos and rental units), his customer base has been steadily growing.
"I have people out the door," he said, "I just can’t keep up."
Shalam has always struggled to hire people, but now, he said, "it’s not $15 or $18 an hour, people want $24 to start, with benefits." He doesn’t begrudge workers a living wage but his business model simply doesn’t allow it. "I don’t own this building," he said. "I don’t have my family working with me. You want to pay people well but the truth is that I have to compensate myself too — and I have never really drawn a salary."
He held out a little hope that when enhanced unemployment benefits ran out at the end of the summer, he might see an uptick in applicants but that hasn’t been the case. "I think people who went back to work chose a better-quality job than in the restaurant industry. And I get it, it’s hard for an employee to be passionate about this work if they don't have equity or some kind of financial bonus."
And, he added, customer-facing positions have only gotten tougher. "During the pandemic, people were patient with staff that was young or inexperienced, but that’s out the window," he said. "Now people are hypersensitive and if they aren’t satisfied, they go home and put it on Facebook."
The constant increase in the cost of ingredients, he said, has just added insult to injury. "Flour, sugar, eggs, butter — it’s all up 30 or 40 percent," he lamented. "To make it up I’d have to double or triple the price of my products but how much more than $5 is someone going to pay for an almond croissant?"
Earlier this year, Shalam had closed the bakery temporarily while he contemplated his next steps. In the end, he decided to reopen with shorter hours and a shorter menu in an effort to carry on with no help in the kitchen. But, as his wife and his doctor observed, this was not a sustainable plan. "It kills me to have to close the business," he said, "but I have no more gas in the tank."