By Steve Seepersaud
As an attorney, Frank Vellucci '94 can't help the COVID-19 crisis by putting on scrubs and seeing patients in a hospital. What he can do is give a measure of comfort to those on the medical front lines.
Vellucci owns Sweetcatch Poke (pronounced po-kay), a chain of five Hawaiian-style fast-casual restaurants in Manhattan. The pandemic forced the city to shut down just before Vellucci could see a predictable uptick in business. Usually, when the weather warms up, more people head out for lunch and line up for Sweetcatch Poke's cold fish bowls. Instead, his business went down by 90 percent when people started sheltering in place and working from home.
"It would cost me a lot less money to simply close up the restaurants," Vellucci says. "But, I'm keeping them running so the workers still have jobs. We're also keeping them open to help the hospital workers."
Since March 20, Sweetcatch Poke has been giving free bowls to hospital staff at Bellevue Hospital, NYU-Langone Medical Center and the Manhattan VA Medical Center. Each hospital gets two daily deliveries of 25 to 75 bowls. Vellucci makes the evening delivery after putting in a full day of work at the law firm Norton Rose Fulbright, where he is a partner.
"This has been very well-received," Vellucci says. "So far, we've provided more than 2,000 bowls and we're still going strong. We also have been able to get other restaurants involved. We have recently partnered with The Smith restaurant group to provide additional meals for healthcare workers. If we get an order for 70 meals, we'll do 35 and The Smith will do 35, so it will give the workers some additional variety during the week."
With meals flying out the door every day, but hardly any money coming in, Vellucci was prepared to cover the loss himself. Once people in Manhattan learned what was going on, they wanted to help.
"The business was in such dire shape, I figured, 'what's a little more loss when we can do some good and help the front-line workers,'" Vellucci says. "I was really surprised people wanted to donate to the cause. The parents of one of my son's classmates emailed me wanting to help. People have emailed me through the Sweetcatch website asking how can they assist in this effort to help healthcare workers."
Vellucci got into the restaurant business by chance. While at a another poke restaurant in Manhattan, he was asked by the owner what he thought of the poke. Vellucci said it was fine, but he strongly preferred Sweetcatch Poke, started by celebrity chef Lee Anne Wong. Turns out the owner was considering a merger with Sweetcatch Poke. Though Vellucci had a lot of experience with mergers, he preferred to be involved as an investor.
One of Sweetcatch Poke's owners had died, and the remaining partners wanted to sell. So Vellucci bought the Lexington Avenue location at the end of November 2018, put together a management team and subsequently expanded in 2019 with four additional Manhattan locations. Although the crisis struck when he anticipated reaping the benefits of five restaurants, he knows this is just temporary and is happy to be able to give back.
"It feels good to help my fellow New Yorkers," Vellucci says. "I'm from Staten Island, went to public school in the city, after Binghamton went to law school at NYU and I feel a strong connection to the city. I hope we can all weather this storm together, and we'll see how life will be in the new normal."