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A Kosher Restaurant in Queens Fights to Stay Afloat in a Pandemic
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A Kosher Restaurant in Queens Fights to Stay Afloat in a Pandemic

Marani serves authentic Georgian cuisine -- when it isn't forced to close or adapt to ever-changing regulations.

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

Marani in Rego Park is among the thousands of small, non-"essential" businesses across New York City struggling to survive as the pandemic metastasizes and perseveres. (Courtesy)
Marani in Rego Park is among the thousands of small, non-"essential" businesses across New York City struggling to survive as the pandemic metastasizes and perseveres. (Courtesy)

Ana Epremashvili, owner of the kosher Georgian restaurant Marani in Rego Park, Queens, does not want to be profiled. 

“If you want to write something, write about my food,” the 35-year-old entrepreneur said. She brushed off personal inquiries about her immigration to the United States from the former Soviet Union at the age of 16 and subsequent acculturation with a flick of the wrist. Born in what used to be Georgia and raised in Moscow, she referred to herself jokingly as “a person without a motherland.”

Indeed, the food she serves deserves profiling. Opened by Epremashvili in 2013, the sit-down eatery serves authentic, uncompromising cuisine in what she describes as “a Georgian restaurant that happens to be kosher.”

Marani serves authentic Georgian cuisine. Via TripAdvisor

Diners are introduced to beef-filled khinkali, a traditional Georgian dumpling, and ojakhuri, a roasted shank of lamb served alongside onions, apricots and prunes. Beverages include golden pear or green tarragon soda and a generous variety of wines from the “old country.” (Marani means “wine cellar” in Georgian.)

Though Epremashvili would have preferred our conversation to begin and end with the menu, something has shifted for her over the past few months.

“If there’s a dish we would have to modify to make it kosher, it’s not on the menu,” said Epremashvili. The two-level restaurant — one floor for dairy, one for meat — has become a destination spot for kosher foodies across the New York Metropolitan area.

Though Epremashvili would have preferred our conversation to begin and end with the menu, something has shifted for her over the past few months.

“This time is different,” she told me, referring to the long, uncertain months that stretch back to early March, when Covid-19 first flared in New York City and her restaurant, like so many others, was forced to close.

“These last few months I’ve come to realize how personal this business is to me — it’s my home,” she told me. “And it’s not only my home — it’s a home for the staff who have been with me since we began. That’s why it’s worth the fight.”

Never-ending Battles

The fight to keep her doors open provides an eye into the struggle faced by small, non-“essential” businesses across New York City as the pandemic metastasizes and perseveres.

Since March, Epremashvili has faced repeated closures; battles over rent abatement; staff cuts and rehires and cuts again; construction and reconstruction of an outdoor dining structure that adheres to the city’s rapidly changing guidelines, and daily inspections from city officials (who she referred to as “Cuomo and de Blasio’s minions”).

Most recently, she was unexpectedly forced to close: In October, Marani fell within one of the nine “red-zone” zip-codes singled out by the mayor and governor for a second lockdown to mitigate an uptick in positive Covid-19 cases. 

Beef-filled khinkali, a traditional dumpling, are among the examples of traditional Geogian cuisine served at Marani. (Courtesy)

“I didn’t sleep for a month after the first shutdown,” said Epremashvili, describing the difficulty of letting her entire staff go to weather the first several weeks without income. At the time, the business could not “stay afloat on takeout.”

“Our only option to stay open was to stay shut down. When you have 23 people working for you who are waiting to hear back from you if they will have a job — these are adults with families and kids and wives,” she said. “I have a dishwasher who has two kids with disabilities.” She choked up for the first and only time during our hour-long interview. “He was the last one to get his unemployment.” 

Marani is not alone. According to data collected by The New York Times,  as of Aug. 31 over 32,000 restaurants and 6,400 bars and nightspots that had been open on March 1 were marked closed on Yelp. A survey by the Hospitality Alliance found that 87 percent of the city’s restaurants were not able to pay all of their August rent; in September, the New York state comptroller estimated that one-third to one-half of the 24,000 restaurants in the city could close permanently over the next six months.

“The shutdowns, the constantly changing guidelines, the daily inspections and fines and tickets for infractions we didn’t even know existed — this is the price you pay to be a small mom-and-pop business today,” said Epremashvili. “It’s not the Costcos and the Home Depots and the Trader Joe’s who are suffering.”

To date, her restaurant has received no violations from inspectors deployed by the city and state to ensure that businesses — especially those within “red zones” — are complying with changing regulations.

The goal is to operate just enough to pass through the wave with the hope to get things back to normal one day, somehow.

Still, the inspections can be unnerving. In one incident, an inspector demanded the “log for how many times we cleaned the bathroom door handle,” a rule Epremashvili had not known existed. In another incident, an inspector informed her that the barrier between her outdoor seating arrangement and the street “had to be taller and can’t have a gap.” The entire structure — “which I already spent thousands of dollars to build,” she said — had to be reassembled.

If they say rebuild it, I rebuild it.

“I feel harassed,” said Epremashvili. “Instead of first coming and educating businesses about what the guidelines are, they [city inspectors] come and threaten to fine you thousands of dollars when you’re just trying to keep your place open. But I shut up and go on. If they say rebuild it, I rebuild it.”

(A kosher cafe on Coney Island Ave. in Brooklyn had similar complaints last month. When the the restaurant manager posted a video about an alleged violation of the lockdown rules, community members rallied on behalf of the cafe. The violation was subsequently removed.)

Over the last few months, Epremashvili has seriously considered closing her business several times.

“I say to myself ‘why not leave it to the history books?'” she said. “I’m young. Why not just move on to the next project?”

She answered her own question: “I come back because my restaurant is personal.”

Back to Work

In June, she was able to rehire most of her staff. “I had to cut their hours because now we are only open for dinner. But my staff persevered — they came back to work,” she said. “But it’s a different industry than the one they left. Restaurants used to be a place for celebration — birthdays, sheva brachot, graduations, catered Shabbat events. And dating — people are not dating like they used to date. There is no more coming to just sit and talk and relax.”

Where she once felt like a hostess to her customers, today she often feels like a “bouncer,” policing for masks, checking temperatures and breaking up groups (currently, a maximum of four people can sit at a single table, an amount that “doesn’t go far with big Jewish families”).

“If I’m constantly in an altercation with a customer I can’t provide hospitality,” she said. (Mask disputes are a daily occurrence.)

Georgian bread is a staple at the kosher restaurant. (Courtesy)

She’s tired. But Epremashvili keeps taking one step after another. When she first closed in March, she had paid back all her loans from the restaurant’s initial launch. Now, she has plunged “headfirst” back into debt, taking on PPE loans, disaster relief loans and back pay on rent.

“We’re not making any money right now,” she said. “The goal is to operate just enough to pass through the wave with the hope to get things back to normal one day, somehow.”

Motivating herself to keep going in is becoming more difficult, she told me. “It’s hard, but I go. If you don’t keep swimming, you’ll sink.”

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