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Article by Matej Silecky

Photography by Matej Silecky

There is no question that restaurants, especially neighborhood restaurants, have struggled mightily throughout the pandemic. Those of us who love our neighborhoods have done our best to help keep them in business during this time, while they have ricocheted among closures, partial reopenings, occupancy limits and more in an effort to stay in business. Now that we are hoping for light at the end of the tunnel, with Valentine’s Day upon us, it’s time to show some love to the fine eateries we are eager to enjoy.

A New Neighbor Leads the Way in Showing Us How to Stay Inspired

Bloom Restaurant in Verona, New Jersey was barely open one year when the pandemic forced it to close. In March 2019, Chef Woo and Chef Joann opened their first restaurant together, choosing Verona, New Jersey, which borders Montclair, colloquially known as the Brooklyn of New Jersey for its thriving foodie scene and artist’s community. 

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In a town with many Italian and well-established restaurants, Bloom’s creative fusion of Korean, French and American techniques stood out from the beginning. But, a year is not much time to establish a reliable base in the restaurant business, and Bloom was forced to close, along with most everything else, in mid-March 2020. Bloom stayed closed a bit longer than some other local eateries, presumable deciding what to do in response to the global disaster we are all living with, but in July 2020, Chef Woo returned, ready and willing to share his amazing cooking in whatever way he could in response to the ever-evolving restrictions.

His willingness and ability to adjust and pivot is an inspiration to us all!

Six Ways the New Kid in Town Taught Us to Keep Moving Forward

  1.      Create A Plan

In this case, create a takeout menu! No doubt about it, Bloom is designed for a cozy, dine-in experience. “Cozy” and “dine-in” are concepts we are only dreaming of now. So, when Chef Woo reopened, he did so with a takeout menu ready to go, initially offering curbside pickup and later delivery through various services. Sure, lots of restaurants offer takeout, but it is more challenging to adjust a true dine-in menu to take out, and have the presentation and taste be just as good as in restaurant, than it is to deliver pizza or burgers. That takeout menu is just a step on the path of adjusting to the “new normal.”

My life changed a lot during this past year, and not in the ways I was hoping. I am sure yours likely did too. Chef Woo’s positive attitude and willingness to try new things is a great example to us all. When things get rough, do your best to make a plan to respond to it and be prepared to adjust (see number 4, below).

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2.      Help Your Neighbors

During the Summer, Bloom provided some meals to the local police department, in appreciation for their hard work.

We have all been reminded to check in on our neighbors and help them during this time. It is special to see a relative newcomer be part of the local community. It is also another reminder that we should reach out a helping hand to others even as the current social limits make it easier and easier to live in a smaller and smaller world.

3.      Embrace the Outdoors In All Kinds of Weather

My customers can’t dine inside, you say? Bloom joined the restaurants erecting large outdoor tents to offer socially-distanced outdoor dining. As the weather got colder, Chef Woo offered igloo tents for private groups. As I write this, it is frankly too cold to eat outside unless dressed to stay in an Ice Hotel but, as we are unable to travel now, replicating this experience might not be a bad idea! Still, Spring is coming, and we will soon be outside again.

Watching Bloom and other restaurants adjust their tables with the seasons gives us more opportunities to experience the outdoors. Fresh air is always good, and no location is the same as the seasons change. Embrace it!

4.      Adjust Your Plans in Response to New Developments

Remember how I said that it is difficult to adjust a dine-in menu to take out? Well, Bloom has done a great job of changing the takeout menu based on what was and wasn’t working. Now, there are special rotisserie chickens on the menu, Family Packs and there has even been a Football Package that may soon transition to something else as the football season soon comes to an end. 

The lesson here: adjust and pivot. Look at what is working and move on from what isn’t. This applies to such much more than a menu, doesn’t it?

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5.      Don’t Forget the Basics

There are certain items on Chef Woo’s menu that I savor. A few of them are his slow cooked, crispy pork belly topped with jalapeño miso glaze, the Spanish grilled octopus paired w/ salsa verde, black-inked quinoa, and cauliflower puree and his amazing bulgogi with kimchi fried rice. Throughout all the changes of 2020, these items remained on the menu. Yum…I’m getting hungry now!

Not only are these dishes popular, but if you look back on the founding ethos of Bloom, you’ll see that each of these dishes has elements of the creative fusion of Korean, French and American techniques that is Bloom’s raison d’ entre. 

As I adjusted to my changed lifestyle, unable to travel as I normally did, Chef Woo’s approach reminded me that if we stay true to ourselves, the rest will follow. In fact, Bloom is one of the neighborhood locations that encouraged me to take my camera out after weeks of feeling there was nothing new to shoot because what could be “new” in the small town I was born and raised in? Thus, these photos are a very different style for me, but I hope you have enjoyed the story they led to. I’m looking forward to finding more local stories – the background to the sign on the front door.

6.      Celebrate Special Events, Big and Small

Finally, as in any restaurant, Bloom makes holidays and personal milestones special events, adjusted as they may be in the last year or so. If we have learned anything in the past year, I hope it includes an understanding that we should cherish the special events and holidays with those we care most about. As Valentine’s Day approaches, followed by Spring, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and hopefully many brighter days to come, I encourage you to share some of those times at Bloom and other local eateries who are a unique and vital part of our neighborhood.