The body blows just keep on coming for Hell’s Kitchen restaurateurs. Yesterday, a number of 9th Avenue businesses were given notice to dismantle their side street outdoor dining sheds by June 20, or face a hefty fine. Meanwhile, the Senate finally pulled the plug on replenishing the beleaguered Restaurant Replenishment Fund (RRF).
Amália Sarmiento of Arriba Arriba had to dismantle her 9th Avenue shed back in early May — and yesterday was told to remove her outdoor dining on the side street. The exterior of the eatery is already covered in scaffolding, which Sarmiento fears will only further deter diners.
“I understand if the City of New York says, ‘it’s time for everybody to take them down,’ and gives us at least a bit of time in advance for us to prepare and move. But it’s so fast — they say ‘oh, on this day BOOM!’,” she said.
Sarmiento also applied for funding in the first round of RRF. “It was like a contest. A lot of people got millions,” she said. “I was sitting at the computer at 11am as soon as it opened and had all of my paperwork ready — but never got anything.”
The Department of Transportation (DOT) and Department of Design and Construction (DDC) have implemented a new phase of 9th Avenue construction to install and repair water mains in Northern Hell’s Kitchen along with sidewalk expansion and pedestrian improvements. Despite outcry over the summer-months-timing, 9th Avenue business owners affected by the mandate dutifully removed the structures, with some restaurateurs counting themselves lucky to have some locations unaffected. This peace of mind would be short-lived, however.
“It’s one thing after another, every day,” said Sean Hayden, owner and partner at Alfie’s and Jasper’s Taphouse and Kitchen on 9th Avenue, who was handed a letter from the DOT and DDC that their previously allowed dining sheds must be dismantled by June 20 or face a fine. “It’s always against you, against you, against you. There’s nobody ever fighting for the good in the neighborhood.”
“This is my third restaurant that is being affected,” said Dorian Gashi, owner of Medi, Blue Seafood, and Giardino 54. Having already removed the sheds at Medi and Blue Seafood, Gashi hopes that Giardino 54 — set away from 9th Avenue on the side street — will be spared.
“During the Manhattan Community Board 4 meeting last month, the DOT, the head engineer, the head of this construction project, and the PR representative were present. I specifically asked which side streets would be affected — first, they said, no. Then they said, ‘Yes, the side streets will be included,’ and that increased the number of restaurants affected from 25 into 37,” said Gashi. He was told that restaurants on the side streets further than 50 feet from the avenue would be exempt.
“Immediately after the board meeting was over, I measured the distance from the Ninth Avenue sidewalk to my shed. It’s 60 feet. We are talking about a 10-foot difference. Now, today we were served with a notification from the DOT commissioner that the Open Restaurant program is terminated. Where do we stand? Does their word count for anything?” he said.
Mayor Adams, responding to the controversy over the 9th Avenue shed closures, said in a press conference: “We’re telling those on 9th Avenue, hold on, they’re coming back. We know it was a real boost for the economy. It helped our restaurants. It kept them afloat.”
Hayden said that the city’s stance on support for dining sheds was, at best, confusing. “You have the mayor coming on TV and saying he’s not going to touch these structures, he’s going to give the restaurant people time to get their money back after the pandemic and try and pay whatever they’re in arrears — but then you’ve got the DOT doing this construction,” he said.
City Council Member Erik Bottcher said of the situation: “My office has reached out to the responsible city agencies and the mayor’s office to ensure that these small businesses have every available resource at their disposal. We need to change the government culture from ‘This is what we’re doing, deal with it’ to ‘How can we help you during this difficult time?’”
A representative from the DDC confirmed that the expanded reach was part of its original Ninth Avenue water main and roadway improvement project. W42ST reached out to the DOT, City, and the Mayor’s office for comment and has yet to receive a response.
Beyond the city limits, additional hurdles lay ahead for restaurateurs hoping for a new round of federal support from the RRF. The Small Business COVID Relief Act of 2022 proposed by Senators. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Roger Wicker (R-MS), included $40 billion for RRF replenishment. While the House passed the measure, conflict between parties in the Senate over the method of fund allocation led to the bill being left behind.
“This is devastating for us and the two-thirds of RRF applicants who didn’t get a dime in the initial, ridiculously managed first round,” said Corey Samuels of Kashkaval Garden. “The City took away our outdoor seating May 1 and today we received this horrible news. What a month! How are we supposed to compete with our neighbors who have been able to use their RRF grant to cover rent and payroll this past year? Be prepared to see a lot of shuttered restaurants over the next few months!”
One Hell’s Kitchen bar owner, who asked to remain anonymous until he has a chance to tell his staff, said that the Senate ruling was “a death sentence” for his business. “It’s a shame that the city, state and feds can’t come together to help us. It’s actually been my landlord who has been the most understanding during the pandemic! I called my lawyer to start the work to close. I feel bad for my staff, my customers and my wife,” he said.
“The state closed me down for 231 days. In March, my electricity bill was $6,000. That’s the highest it has been in 12 years, even in August when the air-conditioning is blasting. It’s impossible!” The owner predicted that their bar would close by the end of June.
“I blame the way it was structured in the first place,” said Hayden. “If they had split the money evenly, the 29 billion that was given into the fund originally and maybe give everybody a couple of hundred thousand to get them by — but to give some guys $5 million and to give the guy next door nothing — it’s insane.”
“I’m speechless. Those senators who voted the RRF down can drop dead as far as I’m concerned,” said Steve Olsen of West Bank Cafe. “Small businesses around our country don’t have a chance of surviving.”
Pat Hughes, of Scruffy Duffy’s and Hellcat Annie’s told W42ST: “I’m not surprised. If you put the government in charge of pretty much ANYTHING, they’ll screw it up. The RRF was mismanaged and discriminatorily distributed from the get-go — this will be the final curtain for many of the businesses that survived until now.”
Jim Lahey from Sullivan Street Bakery said: “It was sloppy and hastily put together. The distribution of funds only ‘rescued’ a select few. We applied immediately and our application never saw the light of day. Perhaps everyone should have gotten a little rather than creating inequities — because some food businesses received lots of money and others got nothing.”
“Many corporations made record profits during the pandemic while small businesses like restaurants try to still get back on our feet.
Taxing these corporations at a higher rate could have helped fund the RRF. Specifically, New York City (and Times Square/Hell’s Kitchen) was probably the hardest hit area of the country by COVID. We were at many times in the last two years restricted from running our business because of COVID and regulations,” said Jeffrey LaPadula from PS Kitchen. “RRF would have been amazing for PS Kitchen, but we will survive nonetheless.”
Bryan Ware from Fresh from Hell said: “We applied for the RRF grant to help our small business, but it’s been in review for months, and now it says the program is over. This program would assist us to get back on our feet after COVID.”
Back at Alfie’s, Hayden expressed his frustration that bar and restaurant owners, vital to the economic landscape of the city, were being pulled in every direction by city agencies.
“It’s like you’re under their thumb, whatever they say you do — that’s it. And what I’d say to these elected officials is — we employ 120 people between 9th Avenue and 45th Street. We’ve been on the Avenue for 20 years — we donate to the schools, precincts, we hire people from the neighborhood. Not one official in 20 years has ever come near the door — only when they’re looking to get somebody’s vote,” he said. “You wouldn’t even believe the amount of money I’m paying in sales tax every week — never mind labor tax. Everything is through the roof. They should be encouraging people like me to stay open, not trying to close me every day.”
Despite the dire straits, Hayden, like many 9th Avenue business owners, remains determined to survive. “We’re resilient, and we’re in better shape than most, where we’re kind of busy,” he said. “It’s just that some days you feel like you wouldn’t want to get out of bed. First thing this morning it’s the RFF, then more sheds down. It’s one thing after another, every day.”