How long has the issue of childcare for restaurant workers been on your radar?
I’d say probably within the first two or three months of opening West-Bourne [in January 2018], we had a number of total all-star team members who started having major childcare issues. Most were relying on informal networks, which is, for better or worse, the norm.
Obviously, there’s no choice; no one should ever be forced between their child and their job. So, we started doing a lot of things creatively: creating different shifts and putting people on flex schedules for short periods of time. But what we kept coming back to was that our industry just doesn’t have 9-to-5 jobs the way that corporate America does.
After talking to a very large swath of restaurateurs in New York, it became clear that everyone faces this issue with their teams. And then we started thinking, “OK, there has to be a solution. I mean, we’re in New York City of all places.” And lo and behold, nothing in the market existed. We called several large, established childcare businesses, but they had no interest in flexible or extended hours.
And then you found the Vivvi Early Learning team?
I decided to start talking to, frankly, anyone and everyone who would listen. One of these people was Dana Cowin, a close friend of mine. She had this contact who worked on parental programs and that person put me in touch with Vivvi, which was in the process of negotiating its first lease. Founders, Charlie Bonello and Ben Newton, and I are of the same generation. We saw the opportunity and challenges of traditional childcare, and we’re all so passionate and committed to rewriting that narrative. Hopefully that’s a first step toward a new normal.
How did you all first get the project off the ground?
I came in really at stage zero of their business. I said, “What would it look like if we could do something like this? Here’s what I know about our industry and the needs that we have that are vastly unmet. Can we work it into your business model?” And so, it took about a year, as they built out their business, to adjust it and open it up to this new business plan.
Vivvi’s model is unique in that it’s employer-sponsored. The premise is that this is really a work-life integration issue. It shouldn’t just be on the parent; it should be a mutual conversation with an employer. We’ve chosen to be 100 percent subsidized, especially at the start. Our goal is to make it totally friction-free and allow our team to not even think twice about advancing their career and showing up for work.
What has the initial feedback been like?
Really positive. Again, this is something that has never been offered before. Vivvi will keep this model as they go forward. They similarly believe that this is a national issue, not just a SoHo, one-restaurant problem that they’re trying to solve.
Hospitality is among the top 3–5 employers in the entire country. When you think about that level of scale—how many people fall into that bucket that the current traditional childcare model does not fit—it’s a pretty big opportunity. This is a much more important benefit to be giving teams than a lot of the perks that companies are looking at giving. It’s so much more critical.