Loycent Gordon, owner of Neir’s Tavern, on providing genuine hospitality in challenging times.
When Loycent Gordon heard about the potential closing of Neirs Tavern on 78th Street in Woodhaven, NY in 2009, he knew someone should do something to keep the space open. “It’s a historic place that’s part of the fabric of New York City history,” he says of the restaurant and bar. Open since 1829, Neirs Tavern had become a neighborhood fixture and landmark where locals could stop by for a drink or dinner with their family. As the closing date inched closer and closer, Gordon determined there wasn’t someone who was going to step in and save this bar.“Three days before it closed, I was like, ‘well, who's going to do something’,” he remembers asking himself. “So I said, ‘you know what, I'm gonna do something’.” Now, 11 years later Gordon is the owner of this casual, neighborhood bar, serving a menu of comforting dishes like burgers, fish and chips and beef stew.
Owning a bar has come with its share of challenges that have put his “feet in the fire”, as he says. “I got into this with no experience,” he says of the early days of owning the restaurant. He’s made plenty of mistakes, he says, but he’s gotten one thing right since day one: providing hospitality from the heart.“When I’m looking back and thinking about how I was able to succeed, I’ve realized it was creating strong customer relationships,” he says.
Gordon moved to the United States at ten years old, from Jamaica and saw first hand how neighbors and community can come together to provide support for his family who was new to the United States. “I wanted to give back to this country as an immigrant because they gave me so much,” he says. That community has supported him and Neirs through tough times.
In 2019, Neirs Tavern was nearly shut down by a rent increase and was able to stay open thanks to a grant from a local small business association and then, earlier this year as a pandemic ravaged the restaurant industry nationwide, the restaurant shut down and customers created a GoFundMe to support Neirs’ workers. Then over the summer the restaurant was hit by burglars. Amidst wave after wave of challenges, the community stepped in to help. Gordon started a virtual show and people contributed ideas, buying gift cards and even helped set up outdoor dining, bringing by picnic tables and setting up tents. “This year, the constant changes and uncertainty of where things are going,we were just kind of lost,” Gordon says of running a restaurant in this challenging year. “For me personally one thing that's certain in this business is people still crave connection and people still want to get together somehow.”
Providing hospitality to someone is to see them and what you can do for them in a way that’s empowering to both parties, Gordon says. Looking at his neighborhood and his bar as a place where that neighborhood can come together and relax over good food and a drink enables him to think about how he can best provide space for them and foster those connections with the community. “I call it empowered contributions, and they can be both large and small,” he says. “You don't get anything out of life by thinking what can I get for it, you gotta start out by asking questions like, ‘what can I give? What can I offer? Who can I help?” He says that’s ultimately why he stepped up to keep Neirs open back in 2009. “People have a generational history of knowledge and memories in this restaurant. It's almost like a people's museum and I figure the average person can have their memories at a place that means a lot to them.” Being “responsible for people’s memories” keeps him going.
And he says his guests can see that when they come into the restaurant. “Your customer community and having a strong relationship with them is the key to weathering any storm,” he says. But there’s something else too that makes Neirs a special place to be. “When you have passion and you believe in something you can do anything,” Gordon adds. At the end of a challenging year, with twists and turns, providing hospitality for his customers keeps him going and shows him the way forward. “There’s no other way to create value.”
Images credit: Anastasia Rusetskaya