June 30, 2021

Back to business: Pandemic influences Essie’s menu

Essie’s Brandon Walker says the staffing shortage is causing him to turn some customers away at peak times so staff can handle volume and maintain high quality service.

Executive Chef Brandon Walker, owner of Essie’s, Poughkeepsie, N.Y., is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. In 2016, the Brooklyn native opened his dream restaurant—which he named for his grandmother—in the heart of his city’s Little Italy neighborhood.

What menu inspirations came out of the pandemic?
Essie’s menu is grounded in global flavors and influenced by my family’s Caribbean roots as well as traditions of American Southern cooking. You’ll see that in many of our best sellers—crispy plantains, chicken and dumplings, and jerk ribs. We use seasonal ingredients to support the local food economy.

Our food especially hit the mark with customers’ increased desire for comfort food during the pandemic. We’ve had a lot of success with our Waffles & Wedges Wednesdays. You can order from a variety of homemade Belgian waffles, potato wedges and crispy buttermilk fried chicken (regular and hot), ordering them separately, in combination plates or in fried chicken sandwiches. We foresee keeping these Wednesday specials going for the long haul.

We also started doing virtual cooking demos for companies as a treat for their homebound employees. We will continue offer these and have more lined up for this summer and into the fall.

How is hiring going? What are some of your struggles and strategies?
It’s so challenging. We had to furlough most of our employees last year. We wanted to hire them all back; some returned, and some didn’t.

We’ve been placing ads for help on Instagram, Indeed and Craigslist. We get people inquiring about employment, but we’re finding that only a few follow through. It seems to me that every restaurant in our area is fighting for the same people to be on their teams.

It’s getting tough because people are so happy to be out, and they’re so happy that restaurants are open, but due to our staffing shortage, we have to continue to control our volume. We might have to turn some customers away at peak times, to make it manageable for our staff and to avoid any decline in our service and quality.

Our customers are very understanding. We work hard to create a unique experience, it’s elegant but casual—the atmosphere is designed to make you feel like you’ve come to my home to have a meal. Essie’s is my dream, I enjoy taking care of people through food.

Looking forward to a post-pandemic climate, what practices will you continue?
We have always enforced good sanitation protocols but now we have two Sanitation Stations, one indoors and one out, and those are here to stay.

They each carry hand sanitizer, paper towels and a bottle of cleaning solution for the tables. In addition to frequent hand washing, staffers use hand sanitizer after touching the POS.

For now, we are still asking that customers wear a mask while moving around indoors, in our main areas. There is gentle language about it on the door and throughout the restaurant, but we do not ask about vaccination status. We’re looking forward to getting back to normal with a full staff. Hopefully that’s soon.