NEW YORK – After a grueling six months, the coronavirus pandemic remains an uphill battle for New York City’s restaurant industry. With more than 1,000 closings, some desperately hanging by a thread, restaurants are moving forward but with the fleeting certainty of a prosperous future.
A melting pot where culture meets cuisine, New York is home to many world-class dining establishments. Restaurants are a vital part of the essential element of what makes this city unique and attracts tourists and entrepreneurs alike. NBC New York spoke with more than a dozen restaurant owners about the impact Covid-19 has had on their business.
Delores Trono-DePierro is a Colorado native with over 15 years of experience in the hospitality industry. She opened her first New York restaurant, The Banty Rooster, in December 2019. It was a new challenge that she always dreamed of pursuing as a restaurateur.
“When I was 29 years old, I had the restaurant for a little over 3 years in Denver before selling it, and I sold it because I wanted the challenge of being in the city and doing what I do in the most difficult place in the world,” said Trono- DePierro in a recent phone call with NBC New York.
With opening a restaurant comes a learning curve focused on new customers and food critics, but what happened shortly after no one could have imagined. For this small business owner, fighting Covid was like a series of blows to the stomach. “You are in a boxing ring with an invisible enemy who is too real,” described Trono-DePierro.
The biggest hurdle for her was facing the permanent rental problem – having to pay $ 23,000 per month in addition to property tax.
What originally felt like a promising company was destroyed by the virus. In early March, Trono-DePierro made the painful decision to close its New York facility and laid off all 32 employees. “It was like being at sea with a map that had some parts blank and others constantly changing, and that was how it was to navigate Covid,” he continued.
Trono-DePierro isn’t the only one facing these heartbreaking dilemmas. According to a report published earlier this month by Yelp and the New York City Comptroller’s Office, at least 2,800 small businesses closed permanently between March 1 and July 10, nearly 1,300 consisting of restaurants.
Local networks have not been immune to these virus fights either. The vegan restaurant, Taïm, has 5 franchises throughout Manhattan and will soon open one in Long Island City. According to CEO Phil Petrilli, at one point, the chainsaw vanished to 50% of the business.
Dig Food Group CEO Adam Eskin has also faced uncertainty. “We are operating a small number of locations, we had to lay off a large portion of our staff as a fallout from the closures, and we are fighting rental negotiations for multiple locations that remain closed,” Eskin shared via email with NBC New York. .
Chef Kurt Gutenbrunner tells NBC New York how he was forced to close his restaurants for 2 months while taking off staff. In early May, he reopened his Michelin-rated restaurant Wallsé with a pivot. “In early May, we reopened for take out and delivery in Wallsé, which was something we had never done before,” Gutenbrunner quoted.
However, his other restaurant Café Sabarsky is still closed until further notice. When asked about future plans, he noted that the cafe would reopen as soon as the city allowed seating inside.
With the future of indoor dining remains a mystery, many small business owners don’t know how to operate as the colder months approach. Last week, the NYC Hospitality Alliance demanded an immediate response to the city’s indoor dining plan.
“We demand a plan. Safety and health must be paramount, but our financial health must also be paramount. Please, is urgent. Give these people the information and support they need, ”NYC Hospitality Alliance CEO Andrew Rigie pleaded at a recent press conference.
Carlos Suárez shared the uncertainty in the minds of many businessmen. “We are facing a very gloomy winter. In a way, looking down the barrel of a shotgun comes November, when the weather changes and there are no longer outdoor dinners, ”shared Suárez.
In early July, New York City launched the Open Streets program, a new initiative to expand seating options for restaurants by temporarily closing streets to create outdoor dining spaces.
Although the city’s open streets program has been a savior for most, many homeowners feel the action was taken too late. Boqueria CEO Yann de Rochefort expressed his opinion on the lack of coherence and clarity of government programs. “I don’t envy the work of the governor or the mayor, but I think, frankly, the city waited too long,” shared de Rochefort.
Brooklyn Chop House COO Stratis Morfogen shared similar sentiments over Skype and blamed politicians for the lack of accountability, especially when indoor dining plans are scaled down. “Opening a restaurant is not a light switch. We were preparing for 2 weeks, and guess what? They turned it off. Politicians shouldn’t run small businesses, ”Morfogen said.
Other restaurants couldn’t get the same benefits from taking advantage of the open streets. Trono-DePierro commented on how The Banty Rooster is located along an area that is forbidden to stand, allowing only 18 feet. She linked it to “drawing the short glass” when it came to the city’s program, but was also disappointed by the lack of consideration from local leaders.
However, the hope among most is that restaurants will keep meals outdoors as long as physically possible. The CEO of the Meatpacking District Management Association, Jeffrey LeFrancois, told NBC New York that he has fought for open streets not just for hospitality but even for retail. He believes this should be a year-round program and that restaurant owners must decide how long to maintain an outdoor dining setup.
In addition to government programs to save the hotel industry, restaurants have come up with their own creative strategies for increasing revenue. The Oberon Group owner Henry Rich said his business now looks completely different than it did before the pandemic. It focused on providing a retail and grocery operation, as well as launching a Wine of the Week club for customers.
The Michelin-starred Oxalis restaurant in Crown Heights decided to create haute cuisine kits to enhance their date night or homemade brunch, offering a different theme each week.
Restaurateurs Suarez and de Rochefort co-founded Safe Eats, a nonprofit organization that provides business owners with the latest safety guidelines and New York’s first trusted brand label for safe food.
Even with companies adapting to change, the future of New York’s restaurant industry still presents some unknowns. Pat LaFrieda, the CEO of Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors, shared that he receives dozens of Chapter 11 bankruptcy notices from his restaurant customers every other day.
“I can no longer tell you to wait. We are months after the period in which we were supposed to reopen. Panic is setting in again, ”LaFrieda added.
He, along with others mentioned, believes that the industry has been operating above capacity for quite some time in the city. But without tourism and residents fleeing to the suburbs, the growing concern is who will stay to revitalize the economy.
For Petrilli, the main concern is how New York will look next year. He fears that New Yorkers will not return after Covid, having found new areas with cheaper rents and better opportunities.
“A lot of places have good food and cultural scenes, really low unemployment (pre-COVID) and you can triple your living space by paying half what you were paying in New York. So what will the city look and feel like without the mass of humanity invading it every day? Petrilli replied.