Pre-COVID, Michael Sinensky owned some of the most popular nightlife destinations in Manhattan like the Village Pourhouse, Hudson Terrace and Sidebar. Once the pandemic hit, he went from having 25 bars and restaurants to filing for unemployment. At that time, he decided to revisit the charity he started after another disaster hit our city. A native of Far Rockaway, Queens, he founded Friends of Rockaway after Hurricane Sandy to help rebuild the homes that were lost.
Through his philanthropic work this time around, he realized there was an immediate need for personal protective equipment for essential workers. After witnessing the underhandedness from suppliers of these items who were looking to benefit from the dire situation, he decided to take matters into his own hands. With a team from his restaurant company, he launched WeShield, which supplies equipment to hospitals, healthcare networks and businesses nationwide. As a result of his efforts, they’ve sold $100 million dollars of PPE in one year, from May 2020 to April 2021.
And as a restaurateur himself, Sinensky empathized with the plight of New York City restaurant workers, and is now donating PPE such as masks, alcohol wipes and gloves to local eateries, through a partnership with the NYC Hospitality Alliance. “As a lifelong New Yorker, I don’t want to turn my back on the city and state that’s made me who I am, both personally and on a business level,” he said.
How did you get the idea to start WeShield?
I was a restaurateur pre-COVID, where I owned around 25 places, a bunch in New York City. And when COVID hit, obviously it destroyed our restaurant company to the point where I actually had to go on unemployment. So I had this really successful company, and then it went to zero. At first, deciding what I wanted to do with my time, I went back to my charity, which was a disaster relief charity named Friends of Rockaway, to help out. And what I saw the need was at the moment, was PPE for frontline workers and government agencies. People just were having a difficult time getting it to our frontline and essential workers. So I was getting donations and getting those delivered. Then it morphed into introducing the supplier to the buyer, because there was a lot of shady stuff happening in between. And then we realized that suppliers were also part of the shady process, and that’s when we decided to make this into a company called WeShield, when we saw the supply chain was broken, and people who were saying they had supplies were also part of the problem.
Tell us about your team there.
We actually brought over a bunch of people from our restaurant company. So it’s a bunch of restaurant people who were making sushi and slinging drinks to now selling masks and sanitizer. Erika [London, COO of WeShield] was my partner in the restaurant company and then she also moved over with me to the PPE.
How did your partnership with the NYC Hospitality Alliance come about?
So I’ve been a board member for several years, since the inception of it. And we’ve always worked hand in hand with them on different happenings, and we reached out to them for this specific project because as restaurateurs, we know how slim the margins are to begin with. And then add reduced capacity and reduced people living in the city, reduced everything, just to have another expense of PPE to protect both your staff and customers, is something that we feel that the hospitality industry shouldn’t be dealing with at the moment, so we decided to give out free PPE care packages, a month’s worth, to each location that signed up.
What’s included in the packages and how do restaurants get the supplies? Is there a criteria they have to meet?
From sanitizers to masks to disinfectant supplies to gloves. And you simply fill out a form that we list on our website and then we send it to you. No criteria. They tell us how many employees they have, and it doesn’t matter how big, how small you are, we’ll help you out.
Tell us about some places you’ve helped and what the response has been like.
Court Street Tavern in Brooklyn, Moonrise Izakaya and Blank Slate in Manhattan. And obviously people are very thankful for any help they can get with reducing their costs in this crazy time.
I read that you started as an entrepreneur at age 8. Where did you grow up?
Far Rockaway, Queens. After Hurricane Sandy I started Friends of Rockaway, because Rockaway was destroyed. And we rebuilt over 300 homes, helped thousands of homeowners. It was a really good thing.
You were involved with the rebuilding of Webster Hall after 9/11.
After 9/11, the city’s largest venues were completely empty as people were grieving and not looking to party. It was terrible to see nightlife dying as well, so I came to Webster Hall and implemented an idea to promote events to all the local college students looking to get their minds off the terrible news. This springboarded them for their relaunch ... I used to throw events there, huge events, like 2,000 plus-person events there, and ... later I was invited to open several college bars with the owner Sean McGarr ... And that’s how I really got into the bar business heavily, bars and restaurants.
As for all the bars and restaurants you own, what is the status of them now?
Sushi by Bou is one brand that I have. We had five locations in Manhattan, only one has reopened. Hudson Terrace, unfortunately, is closed forever. Sidebar, likely as well. A lot of staples in New York. Like ten percent of what we had in Manhattan has reopened.
You went to Stern at NYU, and I read that story about you going on spring break in the Bahamas.
How I went on spring break, decided not to leave, and opened up a bar there. [Laughs]
What are your future plans?
Definitely watching closely the political races that are happening to see the future of New York. I’m a lifelong New Yorker, and right now, it’s not a great feeling to be a New Yorker, to be honest. So we’re watching closely to see what’s going to happen with the political landscape. To see who is going to help clean up and restart the city in the proper way. We definitely want to help in that process ... At the same time, there’s only so much we can do if our help falls on deaf ears. Right now, we’re opening up a lot of places in Florida. We’re still on a hold pattern with New York, just to see what’s happening here. I would love to get back to where we were beforehand; we were supposed to open up 20 places last year, with the majority of them being in New York. And we wound up not opening 20, but closing 10 places in New York. It’s a pretty sad time.
To learn more, visit weshield.us