In pre-COVID times each transaction at Cafe de Novo (94½ Greenwich St) took about 10 seconds. “We really had a ‘New York minute’ mentality,” general manager David An told the Downtown Alliance. “We’re one of those delis that sells a little bit of everything: American, Japanese, Italian, Korean. A one-stop shop for convenience in the neighborhood.”
Speed was the priority, and An and his employees rarely had time to chat with their regulars, primarily blue-collar workers and locals. But, as the pandemic slowed business in Lower Manhattan to a trickle and required An to shift from doing paperwork behind the scenes into a more hands-on role, he found one significant silver lining.
“You have more time to converse, to get to know people when you’re at the cash register,” he said. “You can learn their names, find out more about them, you can have 20- or 30- minute conversations.” Amid the pandemic and shelter-in-place regulations, customers told him, these exchanges felt special. It was sometimes the only opportunity that they had to talk with someone. “It was good to hear that,” An continued. “It means our store has become more than a deli, it’s like a hangout place. That’s a breath of fresh air, for the customers as well as for me.”
Of course, Cafe de Novo follows regulations and prioritizes safety, and he expressed gratitude for the patience and generosity of customers as everyone adjusted. “From a business standpoint,” he said, “this was the most serious impact we’ve ever had.” At the worst point, revenue plummeted to 10% of the usual take and the deli had to close in April. After reopening, revenue is still low: about 40%. “We used to work for financial reward and profit,” An said. “Now we’re just trying to keep the store open for payroll for employees.”
This shift is why Cafe de Novo remains open 24/7, even though An says the money isn’t worth it. He and the owners (his parents) made the choice so they could offer hours to their staff. Also, much of the customer base is made up of overnight workers: security guards, EMTs, police officers, MTA and hotel staff. Cafe de Novo is one of the only businesses open during their work shift.
“We thought it made sense to be open for the neighborhood, to show everyone that we wanted to stand strong,” An said. “So much has changed, but as a provider of food, we want people to know that we’re here for them 24 hours, for whatever they need.”