Maiko Kyogoku, left, and Emily Yuen, right | Dan Ahn
On Eater’s Digest this week, we talk to the team behind Bessou about their unusual pandemic journey
Restaurateur Maiko Kyogoku and chef Emily Yuen run a small Japanese restaurant in New York called Bessou. In April, right when the restaurant reopened after lockdown to serve relief meals, Yuen revealed that she was pregnant. So was Kyogoku. Now, seven months into their pregnancies and eight months into the pandemic, the two are running their restaurant through the latest pivot, planning for their January due dates, and praying the business can get through the winter.
This week on Eater’s Digest, Kyogoku and Yuen discuss what it’s been like to navigate the business through the pandemic while supporting one another through their pregnancies and the stress associated with both.
Then staff writer Jaya Saxena comes on the show to discuss the racist applications of restaurant and nightlife dress codes, and Dan and Amanda discuss new restrictions, Thanksgiving 2020, and more.
Listen and subscribe to Eater’s Digest on Apple Podcasts. And read below for the full transcript of our conversation with Kyogoku and Yuen.
Amanda Kludt: I don’t think we talk enough about parenthood on this show or in general, when it comes to restaurants, and we definitely don’t talk at all about pregnancy both in terms of what it means to be pregnant in such a physical role, but also discrimination people face where they’re working in front of house or back of house while pregnant. Now with COVID, I think there’s an extra layer of risk of being pregnant and being in a restaurant, especially if they’re working indoors and if there’s indoor dining. So today on the show, we are bringing on Maiko Kyogoku, the owner, and Emily Yuen the chef of a beautiful little Japanese restaurant that I love in New York called Bessou. They’re both seven months pregnant, both due in the depths of New York winter during a pandemic. So they’re the perfect people to talk to about all this stuff. Ladies, welcome to the show.
Emily Yuen: Thank you. We’re excited to be here.
AK: So first, can you give a little context for our listeners about Bessou. How big is it? How big is your staff, and also what state of reopening are you all in?
Maiko Kyogoku: Sure. So Bessou is a pretty small space, it’s a 700-square-foot restaurant in NoHo. We normally have about 50 seats, 54 seats, and right now we’re doing the outdoor dining and the indoor dining at 25% capacity. On a good day when the weather is cooperating, we’ll have about eight sets of tables outside and maybe about 15 to 20 seats inside..
AK: And how big is the team?
MK: The team is about 15 people right now, but that includes part-timers and also people who work at the market, we have a booth at time out market in Dumbo. So, maybe five of those employees are there. So it’s about ten people at the Bleecker street location.
AK: And what was it before March? Is it the same number of employees or did you have to let people go?
MK: No, we had about 25 employees before, so we’ve had to, some people just didn’t want to come back to work right now and other people are, they’ve found other positions that we couldn’t hire back everyone in time. So they found other jobs or they’ve moved.
AK: Can you talk about how you both found out you were pregnant?
EY: I think it was pretty early on. We had already decided to reopen for relief meals and do some sort of takeout. I think I was the first one who told Maiko when I was maybe about like five or six weeks in, and then Maiko said, “What? Me too.”
DG: Oh my God.
EY: So it was quite a shock, and then we were talking about, I think we were talking yesterday about all the emotions we were going through when we both found out we were pregnant.
MK: It was literally just myself and Emily, and it was just terrifying to be running the place just on our own and then on top of that, both being pregnant. Yeah. It was pretty scary.
AK: Beyond fear. What were the other emotions you guys were cycling through?
EY: Excited for each other.
MK: Yeah, and also just in disbelief that we’re both pregnant at the same time. What are the chances of that?
EY: Yeah, quarantine.
AK: A lot of pandemic babies are going to be born in this winter and spring. How has it changed your outlook on running this business, especially over the last six months? Have you been having to pivot and change every month?
MK: Yeah, initially I think we were both thinking out, maybe Emily a little more than me, like how to be working while pregnant and both of us being out of commission come January. At first we really didn’t know what to make of it or how to move forward. We didn’t have any staff at the time when we both found out and it really rested on finding our team and reaching out to our staff to make sure that they can come back, but also making sure things are safe. We did about 900 meals a week at some point in March and April and May. So we did have some staff that we brought on to help us, and then, now we’re back to about 10 employees and they’re all people who we’ve worked with before, who have been with us for at least a year or two. So, that’s really encouraging.
EY:. I think especially in the first three months of pregnancy, most people don’t know that’s when you’re really sick and you’re physically super tired, but you don’t really show that you’re pregnant. So I think for a lot of women who are pregnant, they can’t really tell their employers or they can’t eat, that’s the most tiring, and smelling, just making rice and smelling all the food was so gross to me.
I think me and Maiko were pretty lucky. She wasn’t as sick in the first three months and then in the second trimester, she had some carpal tunnel syndrome. So we kind of switched off where she was having a harder time in the second trimester and I was having a harder time than the first.
MK: Yeah. It’s great. It’s a unique situation, but we’ve been able to share our experiences and what we’re going through on a daily basis and that’s been really nice, we were just talking yesterday about how we both met at Dynex working for Daniel Boulud, and it’s a big company, a very male-dominated environment, especially in the kitchen, and we were both reflecting on how it’s hard to imagine us being pregnant in that environment and feeling the comfort level or the camaraderie that we feel just going through this together.
EY: Right. Sometimes one of us needs to go home a little bit earlier because we’re feeling not good that day, and I could never imagine going to, my [former] chef saying, ‘I’m not feeling well from pregnancy’ and take a break.
AK: I think that’s really important that you guys can recognize both the physical limitations and the strengths that you have. Sometimes people look at a pregnant woman and they’re like, ‘Oh, they can’t lift that, or they can’t do that,’ and, having living through it, there’s actually a lot that you can do. And then you also can be sensitive, ‘Oh, I’m exhausted. I’ve got to go home now,’ and since you’re both living through it, you get it.
MK: We had a cook who was pregnant and she worked like all the way up to, really close to her delivery day. And she had a lot of problems with her swollen ankles and feet, a lot of morning sickness initially, but she was like a warrior in the kitchen. I could not believe how strong she was throughout, and so we’ve been talking to each other just saying, ‘We need to be like Veronica.’
EY: And we had to make adjustments. She would have to sit down and pick herbs instead of standing up or some of the boys were really happy to help her lift things up the stairs, because it was really tiring, but she liked running the whole brunch, running it by herself I think at six or seven months pregnant, so she was really impressive and pretty much inspired us to know that we can definitely do it as well.
AK: With the pandemic still going on and with pregnant women being at increased risk of severe outcomes, has that changed your thinking, how are you guys assessing the risk and dealing with the stress of that?
MK: I think that we’ve been pretty careful throughout and have been following CDC guidelines and really trying to be as careful as possible and that’s pretty much all we can do right now.
I think initially it was a little more daunting when there wasn’t a lot known about the virus and the city was changing their minds about rules and other things like every other day, but now we have air filters in place. We have French doors that we can keep open so there’s more air coming through on warmer nights indoors and everyone wears gloves and masks. So I think I speak for the staff that they’ve been feeling pretty safe coming back to work and hopefully customers do too.
EY: I think our staff are taking it really seriously, making sure they are doing contact tracing and taking temperatures. So our staff has made us feel also very safe as well.
DG: So what’s the actual plan, I’m sure you, did you guys entertain the idea of just shutting down for a couple months or?
MK: Well, we’re just monitoring the situation by week. We will be closed for Thanksgiving. Usually we have some special event for Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, but I’m due on New Year’s day and Emily’s due shortly after, like 10 days after.
EY: We’ve never done special menus and events without us. So we are wondering how.
AK: But have you thought about closing or hibernating for the month of January or is that just not really an option?
MK: We have, thankfully, a great relationship with our landlord who also just became a grandma. So she is very sympathetic and actually gave us rent relief for January.
AK: That’s amazing
MK: So that’s incredible. So it is an option on the table, but our staff need to work, when we polled our staff, they were like, ‘We want to be here,’ and I think especially for our sous chef Tyler, he really wants to step up to the challenge and show us that he can take care of the place.
EY: So we took a little general survey asking, ‘Do you guys want to work? Do you guys want to stay open, even though we’re not going to be here, we’re not going to be available?’ and most of them said they wanted to work.
AK: There’s also this interesting factor here where you guys got to hire in a way from scratch this year. Was this in the back of your mind as you were deciding which roles to hire back and who to bring back?
MK: Oh yeah. Tyler, our sous chef especially was a key person to bring back. He moved back to Virginia and we spent months talking to him and seeing how he was feeling about moving back home, back to New York and he just moved back in September. So that really was the finishing piece of the puzzle for us.
Where we could have some relief. Everyone who’s come back has been really supportive of us and understands that they need to really step it up while we’re gone.
DG: And how are you guys feeling about the winter? Do you guys have heaters and things in place? Are you confident about it?
MK: No, not very confident about it. I just had to spend close to $4,000 just getting electricity outside and getting outlets because we didn’t have the capacity to do that and then just buying the heaters. So we’re in a situation where we can’t use propane or gas, so we have to use electric.. So we have two electric heaters and we have the tents and all the tarps up, but it’s hard, especially when it rains. Outdoor dining is a wash when it’s raining. We’ll see. I think there’s a possibility that we’ll just do the indoor, but we’re also on a special block where we can’t keep the outdoor dining setup outside all the time. We have to actually take it back in every day and set it up every morning. So it’s a huge pain.
It’s a crazy situation. The winter is going to be so hard to navigate.
EY: Yes, especially because this is our busiest season: October, November, December, January are the months where we make the most money, and this is the busiest season for us. We are more of a winter restaurant. So it’s going to really hurt us too this year.
MK: Yeah. I think the idea is that if we can somehow survive till March, then hopefully by then there’s some movement with the vaccine, and people will feel a little better about dining out and hopefully there’s no second wave, all these factors, but we’re just holding our breath.
AK: And going back to the pregnancies, have you thought about what your leave will look like and childcare and all of that with given the restaurant schedule?
MK: For myself, I think I won’t be taking a full leave. We’re such a small restaurant. We don’t have an HR department or accounting department. So I do the payroll, I do the hires so we’ll probably have to make adjustments.
EY: I’ll be taking three months and figure it out from there, but I think we’re just also talking. I’m Canadian, so there’s so much more support [there].
AK: We are behind every industrialized nation and most countries when it comes to parental leave.
EY: Yeah. I’m pretty lucky, my husband has a good income. He also owns a business so he can stay home and work from home and help take care of the baby, but I can’t imagine a single mother being pregnant in the restaurant industry, how would you have any support? It’s just not sustainable.
AK: It’s so funny on Eater this week, I read about a nonprofit that a chef in Chicago just started, Beverly Kim, to support new mothers in the Chicago restaurant industry because there is just no network and no resources.
EY: Right. Yeah. I think it’s just pretty sad.
MK: And my partner is a government worker who actually gets paternity leave. So we’re going to juggle him using paternity leave and then I’ll just have to strap the baby to me, take her to work sometimes, but it’s just echoing what Emily is saying. It’s just insane that restaurant owners have to carry the financial burden for employees’ full maternity leaves. It’s just a lot, especially for restaurants dealing with really thin margins and then, I mean now with COVID, it’s even harder.
AK: That’s impossible. I have interviewed a lot of new mothers in restaurants, and the big takeaway for me is the people with the most positive outcomes are the women who work for themselves or have a woman as a boss because you just have more control over it, being able to say, okay, I’m going to make my own hours and make this work.
MK: Yeah. Emily and I have discussed how it’ll be once we have the babies and we’re back at work and I think that flexibility is key, especially with our schedules and just trying to juggle, running a restaurant and taking care of a new baby it’s going to have to require a lot of teamwork between us.
EY: I also think we have a very unique partnership where, our roles are intertwined,
Maiko will be able to step into the kitchen and do certain things and and vice versa. So a lot of times at brunch time, I’ll be on the floor helping the service staff. So I think that’s very key, where we can not be to the full capacity, but still we can do each other’s work, or certain parts of each other’s roles to support in case one of us needed, not be there.
MK: Yeah. I knew some few people in the industry who had kids and they had very different situations from us where they had to go back into work a couple of weeks after they had their kid.
EY: I can’t imagine full capacity, 50, 60 hours after two weeks after giving birth.
AK: No one should have to go back after two weeks. Doing paperwork is one thing, but having to stand on a line all day.
Well if anything can train you for being a new parent, it’s running a restaurant during this pandemic. The flexibility involved, the needing to work on your feet.
Thank you so much for taking the time and for sharing this story. I think it’s really inspiring and beautiful, and the cliche thing is just, but I’ll say it anyway as a parent, it’s just that it goes by so fast. So I hope you get to really soak it up and enjoy it.