Covid-NYC: Jae Lee of Nowon

By Jae Lee | Jaclyn Warren


Jae Lee
Jaclyn Warren
Chef Jae Lee of Nowon
Chef Jae Lee of Nowon


We got approved for a PPP loan the first week of May. We’ve brought back about eight employees so far. Everyone else either didn’t respond or declined the offer to return.

We’re trying to take advantage of this time to recipe test, restructure, and figure out ways to make this work. We also got approved for our beer and wine license, which was a huge relief. We don’t really see the sales yet, but maybe once more people start venturing out, we’ll see a little more from it. This block has good foot traffic, and all the bars and restaurants on the block are doing different things, trying to support each other [in the East Village]. 


We opened for takeout with a very limited menu in late April, and set up our own website ordering. I was able to hire one cook, and my cousin came on board to help. At that time, I didn’t know if I was going to get a PPP loan, and I wanted to try out [this new business model] first. I had some employees who were not getting any kind of unemployment, so I felt obligated to keep it going and provide jobs. We’ve been able to expand the menu a little more. I’m making homemade chile oil to sell and a Big Mac-inspired pork sandwich influenced by Cochon butchers’ “Le Pig Mac,” but mine will have some Korean touches. For Memorial Day weekend, we sold picnic packs with burgers, elote, potato salad, coleslaw, and a large format cocktail. It was very successful, so we’re considering doing that weekly. 


When I realized the mandatory shutdown wasn't going to end anytime soon (about two weeks in), I called my landlord. I was honest with him and told him I wasn’t going to be able to pay rent for a while. He was great. He couldn't forgive the rent, but was willing to defer. As soon as I got that PPP loan, I paid him outright. He was very thankful for that. This government loan does not mean its time to slack off. 


It’s time to really look at your pre-coronavirus business model and reevaluate what you’ve been doing. We were so packed every weekend, I didn't have time to think clearly before. It's a good time to refocus. I need to keep morale high. It’s the little things: letting staff play whatever music they want in the kitchen, recipe testing together, and working with different charities. We’re working with a charity called Heart of Dinner, providing meals to Asian senior citizens. To cook a meal for someone that really needs it, that makes us feel gratified. We look forward to it every week.

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