How a restaurant in Brooklyn is surviving the pandemic while feeding hospital workers
Brooklyn’s Sea Wolf restaurant finds connection by going online to serve its customers.
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It’s the refrigerated trailers parked along the street in front of Wyckoff Heights Medical Center that gets to him.
That’s where they put the victims of COVID-19, the highly infectious respiratory disease that has killed thousands in NYC.
Dan Cipriani passes this grim scene each day on the bike ride home from his restaurant, Sea Wolf, that sits in the heart of industrial Brooklyn.
“It’s something that I will never forget or ever get used to,” says the popular restauranteur.
His bustling corner, across from a subway station, was known for its artists, musicians and performers. Sea Wolf was a spot once described by Vogue magazine as the “epicenter of the hipster universe.” The street is now chillingly empty and quiet, save for the ambulance sirens.
“Our NYC is now a ghost town,” Cipriani says.
But this USMC veteran is handling it in the way that he was trained to handle crises: improvise, adapt and overcome. His time in the first Gulf War taught him how to quickly assess a situation.
“This is what we are doing now, adapting our operations and strategy every day as new challenges arise,” he says.
Weathering the storm while paying it forward
Sea Wolf has a surf shack vibe in the heart of a metropolitan city. It was an eclectic neighborhood spot that drew young families and professionals eager to cap their workday with $1 happy hour oysters and drink specials.
Wyckoff hospital staff were also regulars. It was so successful that Cipriani was on the verge of opening a second location on the waterfront, with a view of Manhattan. But that’s on hold now, and the existing Sea Wolf operates as a takeout and delivery restaurant. Customers can order premade family meals online.
There’s more to his efforts than trying to keep one of his businesses afloat and maintain his loyal customer base. Cipriani also established a GoFundMe campaign to help feed Wyckoff Medical staff and first responders, his former employees and others in the service industry who are out of work. He uses social media, like the Sea Wolf’s Instagram, to promote what he’s serving and raise awareness about the campaign.
Staying connected helps people do good
“Connectivity is our lifeline right now,” he says. “We used to be all about human interaction. My favorite thing used to be to greet people at the door.”
Now that he can’t do that, he relies on connectivity to communicate with his customers and rally support for his former employees. Once his businesses were shuttered, he was forced to lay off most of the employees from his two restaurants and two bars.
“The ability to communicate is now key to help us pay them,” he says.
Cipriani used to complain about social media because so many people used it self-indulgently. But since the pandemic, he sees it being used to help share information about people trying to help others.
“That’s where this connectivity is great. As the virus spreads, I think the good in people is going to spread too,” he says.
Examples of this are recent donations from local companies that were delivered to his restaurant. One company donated 10 cases of sparkling water. A distillery mailed a case of hand sanitizer. A bakery delivered packaged pastries and cookies. An NYC electric scooter company gave Sea Wolf staff three free memberships.
He finds hope in family
Cipriani is the father of seven children, including two sets of twins. His oldest is a 24-year-old daughter in Miami. The rest are ages 3 to 13. Like most of his fellow New Yorkers, they have been quarantined at home for weeks. He remembers another dark time in his city’s history. Coronavirus deaths in NYC have now outnumbered those on 9/11.
“I was here for 9/11, so I’ve seen NYC at its darkest hour and its brightest moments. The days after, I witnessed some of the best in people and businesses coming together and helping,” he says.
The neighborhood that Sea Wolf serves is one inhabited by young artists and families, like his, with children. By using what’s available and supporting the restaurant family and the community around him, he’s keeping those bright lights of hope on at his surf shack oasis.
“Anything that I can do to help make these people’s lives better is so important to me,” Cipriani says.