When New York City chef and bistro co-owner Laurence Edelman started an in-restaurant side project in late 2018 offering ready-to-eat rotisserie chickens and sides for delivery, he had no idea that less than two years later a pandemic would render the service as the only functioning part of the enterprise.
"We set it up as an answer to the emergence of so much business being generated by online delivery orders. There is no way we could have known it would be critical to our survival," said Edelman of Poulet Sans Tête, or chicken without a head, launched in late 2018 with his business partner Micheline Gaulin.
The chicken-on-the-run service has expanded as all but essential businesses closed to curb the spread of the coronavirus, while the pair's main venture — a casual fine-dining restaurant called Left Bank operating in the city's West Village neighborhood for nine years — quickly went into lockdown. "We had a really big dip in revenue the week before the citywide closures— about 95%," Edelman explained.
Edelman and Gaulin had employed around two dozen people as servers and cooks, and are now down to themselves and two others, who prepare and sell about 40 chickens on busy days, along with sides, sauces and sandwiches. That's up from the pre-pandemic volume of between 12 and 20 of the cooked birds.
What started as a popup venture "became something that can grow, in a very twisted and ironic sense," Edelman said. "We were really lucky to have a delivery-only concept ready to go. Now that we're a month in, that 's all we do now."
The business upheaval amid the respiratory disease that's killed more than 50,000 Americans as of Friday morning has also led Edelman to pitch in by delivering meals to feed doctors and nurses and other workers at New York City hospitals, funded by donations made by those ordering his chicken online.
"We're giving our customers the opportunity to donate a meal to a hospital worker for $10," he said, noting that the idea was inspired by a Poulet Sans Tête customer who made a catering order for $350 to be delivered to nearby Lenox Hill Hospital, "out of the goodness of his heart."
In five weeks, Edelman has raised more than $10,000 in donations and so far delivered more than 800 meals to hospital workers.
"At first I was just showing up with food, now I have a contact and things are more organized," he said of his twice-weekly trips to medical centers.
Hospital workers don't always have the chance to grab a meal during the day, "so it's better for them to know food is on the way," he added. "We're not stopping the campaign, ever."
"We're making enough money to buy the food, and keep a couple of people paid a little bit," Edelman said of Poulet Sans Tête, noting the delivery business would not be enough to pay the West Village rent under normal conditions.
The small business owner said he tried to come to an arrangement with his landlord, offering to pay half the usual rent for the next three months, with the total deferred until October. "They said no one is paying rent, and they are not really in a position to be cutting deals right now."
Edelman and Gaulin are busy filling out paperwork for financial help in the form of grants and federal and city loans to keep their options open and in the hopes of eventually rehiring the bistro workers they had to let go.
"Left Bank is closed but Poulet Sans Tête is up and running and keeping people employed, which is so important," he said. "So much of the competition has shuttered, including ourselves, that it really gives Poulet Sans Tête a chance to shine."
This story has been updated with sales and donations information.