In memory of mom: How one East Village restaurant owner struggles to keep his doors open

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Vladimir Grinberg can be found, most days, darting around the Organic Grill on 123 First Ave. in the East Village, taking orders, cooking, seating customers, and more in an attempt to hold his 21-year-old business together amidst the time’s financial hardships.

Grinberg is concerned for his future after losing many longtime patrons throughout the deadly virus crisis, and potentially more of them due to the state’s new vaccine mandate. Yet it was not always like this.

A Jewish Russian immigrant, Grinberg traveled to New York City with the goal of spreading curative, plant-based food. This was not merely a business venture, however, but instead a deeply personal ideal: a dedication to his beloved mother. As a young man, Grinberg discovered that his mother had been diagnosed with cancer and says she was given a bleak prognosis.

“Twenty-eight years ago, she got sick very abruptly, we found out she had a very advanced form of lymphoma,” Grinberg told amNewYork Metro.

With death seeming imminent, his mother decided to travel to a retreat teaching a macrobiotic diet — a regiment that significantly limits animal fat — of which Grinberg says he was critical.

“I left home early, at about 17 and went into the army because it was mandatory. So, I decided I should go with her and spend whatever time is left. They embraced us from the beginning but still I was skeptical because people are getting paid but we were on our last legs,” Grinberg said.

At a monastery surrounded by a dense forest in Massachusetts, the retreat taught cooking, growing fruits and vegetables, and promoting food as a healing agent.

“That was very awkward for me, I heard many times food is medicine, but it was very, very abstract for me. But I decided to be open and spent a month there and became vegan,” Grinberg said, explaining that he saw changes in his mother. “I am not endorsing it, but it helped my family. My sister became vegan, it was a change that affected all of us.”

Whether it was the food or caring community, Grinberg credits the retreat for helping extend the life of his mother. Veganism became such a great part of his mother’s life before she eventually passed away, he decided to honor the memory of her by establishing the Organic Grill in the year 2000, hoping to share the gift of health with others.

“When she passed, we decided to open a vegan restaurant. If they eat here and not eat meat, for even one day a week, it is great,” Grinberg said.

After experiencing prejudice in his native Russia due to his Jewish background, he arrived in New York with big dreams. 

The East Village welcomed Grinberg with open arms and for over two decades he has been serving dishes to an area synonymous with avant garde and alternative lifestyles with great success until the emergent of COVID-19.

After being forced to close and sharing that he has lost a large portion of his clientele, the health food advocate admitted that he considered closing his doors for good.

“I love the neighborhood, it is very down to earth but I didn’t anticipate it would be so hard. At the beginning me and my wife contemplated on if we should stay or if we should close. We had a good run for 20 years, should we continue? It was very hard. But we are stubborn people and we decided to prove our concept. To be honest, now we have to do it by ourselves and working like five or six days a week. If I knew how hard it would be, I am not sure I would continue,” Grinberg said.

Yet he did continue, and he continues still, feeling like he had to weather the storm. But he likewise believes the storm is a never ending one thanks to a revolving door of rules and guidelines, the latest of which being the vaccine mandate requiring customers to have received the novel coronavirus jab.

With Grinberg still holding steadfast of both his mother’s memory and an ideal to spreading healthy food, the longtime restaurant owner requested amNewYork Metro to share a message: He is still here, he is working hard, and he hopes his clientele and friends return soon.