A staple on the Upper East Side for nearly 40 years, Kitchen Arts & Letters, like many other businesses, has struggled to survive COVID-19.
After being shuttered for a few months and reopening in June, things have not been the same, said Matt Sartwell, the store’s managing partner. They did not make rent for a few months, so in September the store started a GoFundMe, hoping to raise enough money to stay afloat.
Since launching, it has exceeded its goal of $100,000 and raised $103,775.
“We owed a lot of money and our landlord wasn’t being evil about it, but there was this amount we owed and it was really difficult to ever think about getting out from under it,” Sartwell said. “We were trying to do all that we could.”
Kitchen Arts & Letters, at 1435 Lexington Ave., opened in 1983 and has become a go to spot for food and drink lovers. Its customers include Michelin three-star chefs from around the world and neighborhood home cooks who want to put a good dinner on the table.
The store became the place where you can find passion projects written by authors who self-published because they couldn’t interest a big publishing house and books imported from England, France, Spain, Italy, Japan, Australia, Ecuador and Argentina.
“We’re one of the things that adds character to the neighborhood,” Sartwell explained. “I think we’re the oldest business on the block.”
Sartwell, who began working there in 1991, described the past few months as the toughest in his nearly 30-year career. He noted this has been harder than 9/11 because no one knows when things will return to normal.
There were a few orders online, but ultimately business was in the red, he explained. Finally, Sartwell and Nach Waxman, founding partner, realized they needed the public’s help.
Sartwell told Our Town the fact that they raised such a large sum of money in just a few weeks shows how much the community cares about them. Kitchen Arts & Letters is not just a place where New Yorkers frequent, but people from around the world.
“We’re a destination where people who worked in the industry would come,” Sartwell said.
Even as they dipped into their savings to keep the business afloat, they continued to pay their employees. However, with the lease ending in February 2021, Sartwell knew it was sink or swim.
“We’ve put a lot of ourselves into this store, financially, morally and spiritually,” he said.
Sartwell recalled when 2020 began he thought the worst problem would be charging people a nickel for a plastic bag. Never did he imagine a pandemic and struggling to stay open.
“Each of us has been healthy and our immediate families have been healthy,” he stated. “We’ve known people who have died. We’re in this for the people who wanted us to be here.”
“We’re one of the things that adds character to the neighborhood.” Managing partner Matt Sartwell