It’s been one month since every restaurant in New York City got turned into a ghost kitchen, and to a person observing from home, the industry seems to be adjusting to the COVID-19 shutdown. There are heartwarming reports of businesses pivoting to delivery and serving hospital workers, and customers waiting for their takeout are standing outside in an orderly fashion six-feet apart. The curve is flattening.
It’s a very different picture on the ground: Most restaurants are completely shuttered. Many that tried takeout and delivery ended their operations for fear of their employees and customers’ safety. Those that are still trying to make it work are unsustainably earning a fraction of what they normally would make. Federal Small Business Administration loans have yet to hit most bank accounts, and the programs have already run out of money. Even California, which is far ahead of New York in containing the virus, will reduce capacity in restaurants when the shutdown finally lifts, a move that many restaurateurs say will likely hurt businesses as they attempt to recover from the crisis.
The first sign of longer term decline is here: the boarded up storefront. Common during the lead-up to hurricanes to prevent flying debris from smashing up windows, plywood is otherwise used to minimize the risks of burglaries and looting. Will it get that bad? No owner that we reached out to would openly acknowledge it. But as the crisis drags on indefinitely, restaurants are starting to close permanently and unemployment continues to skyrocket. Some restaurateurs are taking a preventative tact in case the economic impact takes an even deeper turn.
Jen Pelka’s West Village outpost of the Riddler, a Champagne bar, opened just a few months ago. A homeless person was sleeping in the vestibule on April 11. “You are not being a very good neighbor by boarding up your place — which is now covered with graffiti,” wrote John Keenen on the Riddler’s Instagram. “It is projecting a very bleak presence in the neighborhood. Such disregard for our beloved West Village and for the residents who make up this community. Boooo!”
Boarding up, Pelka said in an email statement, was a move for “securing and protecting our space” during the shutdown. “It has been heartbreaking to close the Riddler and furlough 100 percent of our employees, and we’re doing everything we can to preserve what we built so that we can reopen in the strongest way possible in the days ahead,” she writes.
“Everybody that has a specific place that they love should be a small cheering section for it,” said Upper East Side resident Dick Bessey, who set up an employee relief fund for French bistro Cafe D’Alsace and kicked in $5,000 to get things started for his regular lunch haunt. “A lot of restaurants aren’t going to come back. That’s my biggest fear.”
Even restaurants recognized by the Michelin guide are not immune to the economic impact of COVID-19. Bed-Stuy pizzeria Speedy Romeo, which has been on the “affordable and great” Bib Gourmand list since 2013, tried its hand at delivery and takeout before suspending all operations on March 28. “Unfortunately we had to lay off the 95 percent of our staff during these troubling times,” the restaurant wrote in a recent Instagram post. “We did everything we could to take care of our 50 employees after layoffs, and of course, it’s going to be far from enough.”
It’s advised that New Yorkers stay at home and cook their own food, but those seeking a stand mixer or another specialty appliance are out of luck: All nonessential businesses are shuttered, including kitchenware retailer Sur La Table, which closed all of its stores on March 20. Requests for comment from corporate were left unanswered, but employees on social media said that they were encouraged to apply for unemployment or use up paid sick days. The chain’s Upper East Side store has been completely boarded up.
“Everyone is so broke,” said Julio Xoxocotla, a bartender at the Wayland who is now doing cocktail delivery to help bring in money. “Everything is so uncertain right now. We don’t really know how long this thing is going to go on. May, June, July? It’s going to take a while. We hope that we can survive.”
The Painted Lady Saloon on the Upper East Side opened in March 2019 and was doing better than most new restaurants — it was slated to break even by mid-April. Now that it’s lost the bump in business it would’ve gotten from St. Patrick’s Day and its anniversary party, the timeline is more focused on survival. “I’m concerned if we don’t open by the middle of May,” says owner Jennifer Dowds, who lives in New Jersey and boarded up as a precautionary measure since she can’t visit the restaurant regularly. “Those debts are just going to keep incurring.”
The Hell’s Kitchen pub Hellcat Annie’s started off with plain plywood coverings, but has since gone goth by painting it black with a message that all New Yorkers can agree with: “F. U. Virus We Will Be Back!”
This story has been updated with a statement from Jen Pelka of the Riddler.