Inside the Final Hours of One of New York’s Best Restaurants
During the last week of service at Betony, the staff realized something that had been there all along.
It's four days until closing, and more than 30 of Betony's front-of-house staff and managers have gathered for their pre-dinner service meeting.
General manager Eamon Rockey takes command in the center of the large circle, as service notes and menu changes for the evening are reviewed in detail. A considerable remainder of time is then devoted to analyzing the meeting's daily inspirational quote, which for that day happened to be from Mahatma Gandhi. As staff members share their interpretations, everyone considers how Gandhi's words might help them to improve their customers' dining experience. Soon after, the staff disperses to finish preparations for one of their final shifts together.
On December 1, the sudden announcement came: Betony would permanently close at the end of 2016. It sent shockwaves not only through the restaurant industry, which held the restaurant in high regard since it opened in 2013, but to Betony's employees as well.
"Betony is owned by a gentleman that has an international restaurant group," says Rockey. "He's made the decision to close the restaurant and it's his to do so."
Disbelief and frustration were just a few of the emotions that reverberated throughout the restaurant and its staff when the news was made public. But that soon gave way to a collective resilience and determination to celebrate Betony's life during its final days, rather than using the precious time to mourn its end.
With executive chef Bryce Shuman absent during the restaurant's final week, executive sous chef Jack Logue, who has been with Betony since its inception, is at the helm of the kitchen.
"It was very important when we found out [that Betony was closing] to make sure we're all pushing hard to the end," says Logue. "There's something so much more tangible in getting people on board and excited. To lament the closing would not be fair to them."
Finishing strong is a huge priority for both Logue and Rockey as they write the final chapter of the restaurant's story.
"So many people have in a hushed, sideways voice said, 'I'm so sorry.' But we're not dying," says Rockey. "We're the best restaurant we've ever been. We're the best team we've ever had. The cuisine, service, hospitality, wine, spirits—they are the best they've ever been in the course of Betony's life."
That tenacity has now become the driving force for the entire team. Instead of the F-word so ubiquitous to restaurant staff everywhere, the hallways and rooms of Betony echo a different expression in its last days: family.
It is this word that animates the 85-plus members of the staff. Whether it's during quiet moments of sweeping the dining room or while the kitchen staff busily preps for service, "family" is what simultaneously encourages and comforts. Former employees have even returned to ask to be a part of the closing team.
"We're really a family here," says dining room supervisor Liz Johnson. "And we don't just say that to grab drinks together after our shifts. This period right now is not hard because we're thinking, Oh, I have to find a new job. It's more about how we're going to miss each other because we all truly care about one another."
For cleaner Antonio Ramos, a conversation with his mom earlier in the week sparked emotions that made him realize how much he appreciated Betony's culture.
"It's not like any other job because at other places, you might have to hide your character," Ramos says. "But here at Betony, everyone accepts you for who you are, so fitting in comes easily."
"We're here so much. This is our lives," adds executive assistant Cecilia Busick. "Every day is a miracle that everything was pulled off so flawlessly. And for that to happen, you have to know where everyone you work with stands."
With the end quickly approaching, Chef Logue hopes that the food served at Betony leaves a sense of "challenging diners without having made it challenging to eat." But he also notes, "Hopefully, it's a hospitality-first legacy."
For his part, Rockey also hopes that Betony's legacy will not only center on its fine-dining cuisine, but on the countless staff members who will bring their passion and experience to new places of work.
"I've been contacted by no fewer than 20 of the best restaurants in New York," says Rockey. "They've asked and implored me to send my staff to them because they know they're some of the best out there."
As the first reservations for the evening begin to check in with the host, Rockey and wine director Dean Fuerth have secluded themselves inside the large private dining room. They both hover over Fuerth's phone to watch a video he's produced, featuring a montage of staff members answering the question: What does Betony mean to you?
The two of them watch with strong emotions and overflowing pride, and Fuerth recalls a quote he imparted to the staff during the day's pre-lunch service meeting.
"Bring the attitude of everyday being like the last day you're working here," says Fuerth, "just as if you're living life every day like it's your last."