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When Governor Cuomo gave the go-ahead for indoor dining in New York City with 25% occupancy at the end of September, he tantalizingly told business owners that “guidelines will be reassessed based on the data by November 1. If the infection rate does not increase, restaurants may be permitted to go to 50 percent capacity; the State will monitor any positivity increase on an ongoing basis and potentially reassess if necessary.”
There’s been no word since, but business owners have been busy sorting out plexiglass dividers, supercharging ventilation and temperature checking machines.
We asked over one hundred Hell’s Kitchen bar and restaurant owners about how moving indoors had worked out, were they ready for 50% occupancy, and how they were coping.
Our questions hit as rain pelted down on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen.
“This week has been a reality check because of the weather,” said Tommy Greco, the owner of K Rico Steakhouse and The Ritz Lounge. “We decided to stay closed at K Rico today. We lose money if we open when it’s cold and wet like this.”
Over at The Marshal, Charlie Marshall told us: “Days like today are pretty impossible, but that’s why we’ve pivoted so strongly to delivery.”
“Wet. Damp. Yeah, challenging for outside dining,” shared Dave Pasternack, co-owner and chef at Esca. “You spend your life building relationships with your customers. Now, I’ve got to ask people to sit outside in the rain, wind, and cold. That’s tough! Even with the outdoor heaters, it’s a challenge when it gets windy and damp.”
“We see a retraction in business.” Adam Block, owner of The Press Lounge and PRINT Restaurant told us. “Even with our indoor/outdoor seating at The Press Lounge, in the rain and cold it’s not a really enjoyable experience. It’s uncomfortable.”
“It can be 150% indoor dining. I reached 25% only once, one nice Saturday night,” said Daniele Kucera owner of Etcetera Etcetera. “Usually, we have between one and five tables indoors. People are still not comfortable even though we do everything we can — new hospital-grade filters, QR code menus, automatic soap dispensers, table spacing with plexiglass dividers, masks wearing, sanitizers, temperature check, and so on.”
“I am worried that going into winter we’ll see fewer people. My hope is deliveries will grow again,” continued Daniele. “And, honestly, I am comfortable (at this moment) with 25%. Look what is happening in Europe after they opened at full capacity. Better go slow and safe. The fight for survival continues.”
Nicola Arcari, the owner of Mercury Bar, is enthusiastic about the opportunity and is itching to go: “We are ready! We’ve hired extra staff, invested $10k on plexiglass and a top of the line temperature station, all to make our guests super safe. We are very excited. It’s starting to feel like the home stretch.”
“I haven’t heard anything more about restaurant occupancy going up to 50% anytime soon, but I can tell you this: most people would rather sit outside in the cold than sit inside in a warm dining room,” shared Steve Olsen from West Bank Cafe. “I believe it’s going to be a long, cold, dreary winter and the city will be dead. I hope I’m wrong.”
Carolina Rivera, partner at House of Brews on Restaurant Row, told us: “Having the 25% indoor dining has not had a big impact for us. People still feel unsafe being inside. I completely understand as well, but our outdoor set up is not the best to keep customers warm or comfy enough. We are expecting to get to 50% capacity soon and hoping we can find the vaccine so this nightmare can be over.”
“We’re renegotiating again with the landlords. We’ve been great tenants at K Rico for 6 years, but we’re rolling with the punches,” added Tommy Greco. “At 25% indoors, I can seat 18, and at 50% that increases to 36. I can make a run of it at 36 seats and keep the business going.”
Amy Scherber from Amy’s Bread gave us her perspective as a business owner and diner. “We have stuck with takeout only in our HK store. It is so small that we can only allow 4 guests, and we have set up the dining room to work as our kitchen right now. Eventually, we may need to allow indoor dining, but we are not there yet! In Chelsea Market, we allow indoor dining, and we take their temp and contact info if they stay, but only a handful of people ever sit inside. They all take the food to go! So I think many New Yorkers have gotten used to taking food home or to work, and they are not gathering for coffee with friends or for meetings right now in a place like ours.
“For a restaurant meal with table service, that is a different story,” Amy continued. “We have been doing indoor dining, and it has been great. The places are all very gracious and spacious, and it seems perfectly safe to us.”
Kevin Lee, at At Nine Thai Restaurant, said: “25% is not working at all for restaurants in Manhattan. Rent is a factor that makes businesses unable to survive. Rent is way too high; all restaurants cannot make even a profit. You will see many businesses will be closed in the next month. The restaurant still has to pay many taxes in full. Restaurants being permitted to go to 50 % capacity will be good news, but New York City needs tourists.”
“With the infection rates moving upward relatively quickly in the city over the past two weeks, I cannot really believe we will get more than a ‘not yet, but we’ll re-evaluate in the middle of November’,” predicts Charlie Mashall at The Marshal. “We have not seen many takers on indoor dining yet, though people seem to be ok with having the dining room to themselves or one other table, we are very small. I don’t really think that at this point, even if we did increase to 50% capacity, we would find that many customers would be willing to sit in a room with that many people in it. Perhaps for larger restaurants?”
Franco Lazzary at Vice Versa explained: “25% capacity plus the six-feet distance between tables is simply not enough to survive, and now the weather is getting cold. Obviously, it is New York! 50% would definitely help, but we also need to include the bar area.”
“We noticed a significant decrease of business because people are not ready to dine indoors just yet,” shared Luis Garcia, manager at Arriba Arriba. “We are building a heated area outdoors where the garden is. It’s a very expensive job, but in our opinion, it’s worth it; 50% is going to allow us to use a bit more space, but as you know, every place in Manhattan has such a limited space.”
Suzy Darling, the owner of The Pocket Bar and Back Pocket Bar, told us: “We have been doing well with our 25% indoor seating. But are completely prepared for 50% indoor seating as we are proud of our diligent safety precautions. This doesn’t come a moment too soon as the weather gets continually more challenging for outside seating. However, with three outdoor sides protected and our outdoor roof, our customers continue to tell us how cozy they feel and love being immersed in the iconic New York City Fall weather. I’m more than ready for this next challenge, uh I mean phase!”
Over at Westville, Peter Staley, the manager, told us: “Currently we’re waiting with bated breath to get any more information on increasing restaurant capacities from the NY government. We’ve observed that the safety measures we’re taking in the restaurant are effective in preventing the spread and encouraging responsible behavior. We’re ready to go, though we’ve received no notice as to when, and are hoping that the general public stays vigilant as the weather turns colder so we can keep feeding Hell’s Kitchen healthily and responsibly!”
“We are planning on it not passing, because Governor Cuomo only cares about upstate New York,” complained Ted Arenas from Rise Bar. “Manhattan has lower infection rates than other regions that have been allowed 50 percent capacity since June. The most recent New York State figures show the percentage of residents positive in mid-Hudson at 1.9% and the city at 1.3%.”
Robert Guarino, who oversees operations at 5 Napkin Burger, Nizza, and Bouillon Marseille, told us: “Reading the tea leaves of the Governor’s press conferences, it seems that the ‘Micro Cluster’ strategy is the plan to keep the virus under control over the winter. This makes sense to me. We are hopeful that numbers in Manhattan will continue to remain low to get to 50% indoors before it gets too cold. We have installed filters, purchased air purifiers, and are actively installing plexiglass dividers in all of our dining rooms in preparation for 50%, when and if it comes. We are also investing in heaters and building structures for outdoors, but we will need more indoor seats at some point. There is a huge difference in potential sales between 25% and 50% and capacity. A restaurant like Nizza has 18 indoor seats right now. It will be tough to make that work on a 20-degree day. At 36 seats, we can make a go of it.”
“I really don’t know if this 50% capacity will take place in November. I’ll wait until Sunday to see if the Governor will change his mind. Westchester restaurant business is up and has been running full force for a long time, and the Governor hasn’t done anything here. This is political,” explained Antonio Mauro at La Vela Restaurant. “Personally. I am happy to have pulled through since March, but I don’t really know how to move forward. We spent 6 years building this business and then losing everything in just 5 months. It feels like running a restaurant in the middle of the desert.”
All the business owners we spoke to are finding ways to innovate, regroup and survive.
Brian Keyser at Casellula has reached an agreement with his landlord and will reopen only when things are back at 100%. “Even 50% or 75% won’t be enough for Casellula to survive, especially without outdoor dining due to the cold. We are so small, and our labor costs are so high.” This is a strategy followed by other business owners like Howie Ostrofsky at On the Rocks.
Tommy Greco has added a sushi bar to The Ritz Lounge. “One of our guys used to work at Nobu Fifty Seven. I suggested to him we did a Vegan Sushi place, and he was all in. We picked up some stuff at auctions, and that’s got us going again. We’re managing to employ some drag queens, have covered our DJ booth in plexiglass, and can work at 25% capacity on the two floors.”
Adam Block at PRINT started planning for the winter back in August. He’s created PRINT Provisions as an option for those staying home but wanting to have small batch produce that’s organic, local, and sustainable. They are currently curbside pickup but will soon be doing next day delivery.
Dale Weiner at Vintner Wine Market has limited space on 9th Avenue for indoor seating, so they are expanding their menu, catering & beer offerings with some new items. She told us: “We are pivoting to more retail for takeout and delivery, which we hope will be good for both business and the neighborhood.”
Finally, Dave Pasternack at Esca is getting through the stresses of running a restaurant with a little fishing each week. “I’ve been catching good fish. I’ve been catching a lot of fish, a lot of Striped Bass.” He sometimes brings his catch to the restaurant – that’s special, indoors or out!