On the evening of Tuesday, December 8, Halsey Ale House owner Ricardo Velez was at his mother’s house around the corner from the beer-and-comfort-food-centric restaurant, when an on-duty server telephoned him to complain of smelling smoke in the dining room. A few minutes later, a frantic Velez arrived at his year-old business near the corner of Halsey and Wilson to see flames shooting out of the adjacent apartment building’s roof. The fire, during which no one was hurt, was brought under control and extinguished in short order, but not before the conflagration leapt next door to the building housing Halsey Ale House, severely damaging the residential third floor and resulting in devastating water damage to the restaurant.
As a result of the fire, Velez has had to temporarily close. It’s another blow to the fledgling business, which was only about six months old when, in March, coronavirus landed like a nuclear bomb on New York’s hospitality industry.
The few employees Velez had been able to keep on the payroll since the pandemic’s onset, now completely without work, are to be the beneficiaries of a Gofundme campaign, spear-headed by Velez and accessed via the Halsey Ale House Instagram account. Two of these include chef Jay Edwards, an Air Force veteran who like Velez is a native of Bushwick, and Vanessa Arevalo, Venezuelan-born but a longtime resident of the area.
Prior to the fire, Velez had already been forced by pitiless circumstance to play multiple roles at Halsey Ale House. As a longtime restaurant industry professional prior to opening his current venture, much of that extra workload wasn’t foreign to him – or his wife, who also worked long hours to keep the restaurant alive. Velez spent a lot of time in the kitchen with chef Edwards, cooking up hearty Halsey Ale House standards such as the Ale House Burger (given a shot in the arm via “spicy honey stout bacon”), Mexican-style street corn, bacon-wrapped dates, a sausage platter complete with sauerkraut and fries, and a succulent chicken sandwich. Post-fire damage control, however, has channeled his talent for multitasking in fresh directions, especially since professionals in many vital sectors have clocked out for the holidays.
“I’m wearing many hats,” Velez observed wryly, speaking by phone to Bushwick Daily. “Last night I was a plumber; I have water accumulated in the basement and I can’t wait [for the plumbers] to come – because it’s Christmas and no one is working. So I went and got a snake myself because I can’t let it sit there and create a bigger problem down the line. So, yeah, I’m like a chameleon now, morphing into whatever I need to be.”
According to Velez, the neighboring building’s conflagration began on the roof. He suspects it may have had something to do with the ongoing roofing operation preceding the incident, especially if contractors were using welding torches; their use on rooftops is highly restricted in New York City due to the fire danger they pose.
Hindering clarity in the matter, perhaps, is the fact that the adjacent building’s landlord has, according to Velez, evaporated into thin air. Velez is hoping he/she, once located, might provide sorely needed funds to get the restaurant back up and running – which would also take the onus off his own landlord, who Velez says proved to be financially flexible with Halsey Ale House while it persevered as best it could through the pandemic
“I’m working things out [with my landlord], but at the same time he’s in a bad position, too,” said Velez. “He has multiple tenants who are displaced [by the fire], and he’s recovering from an operation.”
Leading up to the fire, Velez and his wife were pulling 10-15 hour days to keep their fledgling enterprise moving forward with enough momentum to resist being pulled backward into Covid’s sucking economic maelstrom. And now this; “Sisyphean” is an understatement.
“[Adapting to Covid] was like opening a new place all over again,” said Velez. “And now we’re going to have to do another reopen.”
When exactly that will happen isn’t certain. Complicating matters are Cuomo’s recent edicts regarding indoor dining, coupled with the onset of what so far has been a fierce winter. But Velez, a seemingly tireless working class Bushwick boy to the core, waxes a similarly fierce optimism.
“I just need one fridge to be able to re-open,” avered Velez. “And I can be doing to-go and delivery while they work on the roof above me. I give it about a month [before reopening].”
Velez also projected positivity in regards to the Covid vaccine, which is slowly, slowly percolating through the United States as we speak. He’s received word from the city that, while not topping the list of vaccination priorities, hospitality workers are nevertheless well-positioned therein.
To contribute to the Gofundme campaign benefiting the employees at Halsey Ale House, click here.
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