While city and state officials start to sketch out ideas of what a restricted restaurant reopening might look like — still projected to be at least a month away — more and more NYC restaurants that initially shut down completely are cautiously reopening their doors with new takeout and delivery programs.
The openings are usually signaled by a couple of Instagram posts, an email blast, or a sign out front beckoning diners to order takeout, and restaurant owners admit that they are walking into unknown territory. Customer demographics have shifted as Manhattan offices remain closed and many New Yorkers have left the city. Reassembling staff has been difficult. Finding suppliers that will deliver the right ingredients on a regular schedule has been equally challenging.
But while staying open in the early days of the pandemic felt like a high-stakes gamble with staff safety, owners say, now the city has settled into its socially distant reality. Face masks and gloves are the norm for staff and customers alike. The public is, for the most part, respecting social-distancing guidelines. And it’s time to test the waters.
“We just know more about how to be safe, and we are just going to keep going from here,” says Libby Willis, the co-owner of Brooklyn favorite MeMe’s Diner, who recently reopened the restaurant with a limited weekend takeout menu with her business partner, Bill Clark.
“We felt a strong desire to start work again,” says Clark. “We knew there would be a demand for it, and we’re going to figure out the process as we go.”
For many restaurants, reopening is a necessity because they received funds from the federal small-business relief fund, the Paycheck Protection Program — and rehiring is one of the requirements for the loan. They’re doing it despite the risks: The money is offered as a grant for now, but if restaurants aren’t able to hire back the majority of their staff within eight weeks, the sum will convert into a loan with steep repayment stipulations.
Michelin-starred Village restaurant Jeju Noodle Bar reopened in part to rehire about five of its staffers after receiving PPP funds, according to owner Douglas Kim. Renato Poliafito, the owner of Prospect Heights hit bakery Ciao, Gloria, reopened a little over a week ago and rehired eight of his original 12-person staff with the funding he received from the PPP.
Ciao, Gloria’s business is down 40 percent, and Poliafito is worried his employees will need to go back on unemployment if things continue the way they are and the loan money dries up in the next couple of months. And Kim thinks it’s unlikely that he can rehire his full 25-person staff within the timeline, and is instead preparing to pay back whatever he needs to in the future. But it’s better than refusing to open for his core staffers who want to work and keeping Jeju’s doors shut while more and more restaurants around town start to open back up.
“Taking a loan without not knowing what the end result will be is really difficult,” Poliafito says. “But I can’t do anything else. I have to be able to pay my staff.”
There are other hurdles to reopening, even for those who aren’t using the federal loan. For many, the process is less like reopening and more like debuting an entirely new restaurant. Owners are spending their days piecing together online ordering and delivery logistics, altering the physical restaurant to add socially distanced pickup windows, and reworking menus to sell food that travels well.
Kim skipped over offering Jeju’s famous noodle bowls to start because he knew they wouldn’t hold up for long in takeout containers. Instead, the restaurant is selling a five-course, $49 per person menu with dishes like roasted chicken with a maple soy glaze — food that is more suited to reheat-friendly home eating. Fashionable Gramercy Indian restaurant GupShup is doing family-style portions serving up to four people, in addition to the small plates it’s known for, says owner Jimmy Rizvi.
“Delivery and takeout will be the main component of our business this year,” says Rizvi, who adds that delivery was a small portion of revenue in the past. “This is just where we are at right now since the situation has changed 360 degrees.”
Though they see limited foot traffic, physical restaurant spaces sometimes have to be redone, too. Baz Bagels co-owner Bari Musacchio bought several colorful steel tables to set up on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant in case the city follows through on potential plans to allow more outdoor dining this summer. A takeout-order window has been set up for customers who don’t feel comfortable ordering online. Musacchio set up a table for diners to pick up their orders in the restaurant’s outdoor vestibule and decorated the space with a disco ball and plants.
“People come to Baz for the atmosphere,” Musacchio says. “I wanted to make sure that people still get the atmosphere even if they aren’t coming to the restaurant.”
But restaurants are still taking things slow, opening with limited menus or starting with just takeout. Baz’s menu is down from 20 sandwich options to seven, though Musacchio has added a function to the bagel shop’s website to allow customers to request their favorite old menu items, a way to gauge demand. Jeju is only doing pickup for now because Kim is concerned about maintaining quality control. “I was worried about delivery people — how many stops are they going to make before they get to the right spot?” Kim says. He’s looking into the possibility of hiring his own delivery person instead of relying on third-party vendors.
And the inventory hasn’t been as smooth as it was before the pandemic. Lower East Side sushi restaurant Kissaki, which had been open for just a month before the dining room shutdown, has needed to wrangle new wholesale suppliers to maintain a new sushi takeout program, says managing partner Garry Kanfer.
“I’ve been helping our chef out,” Kanfer says. “I’m doing a lot of things I didn’t do before. I just have to.”
The flood of restaurants reopening their doors — and more eagerness from diners to be outside their homes — has not yet translated into sales that are comparable to when dining rooms were open, many restaurateurs say. Zooba, a fast-casual Egyptian restaurant in Nolita, has been processing about 25 percent of its normal order volume since it opened May 8. Los Tacos No. 1 is operating at about 25 percent of its regular sales. Baz’s Bagels, which will reopen to diners on May 20, is also projected to hit only about a quarter of its usual sales, says Musacchio.
Still, some sales are better than none when many bills still need to be paid. Though Baz was able to negotiate down some of its insurance costs, and the landlord has been reasonable with rent payments, plenty of budget items require immediate payments — and it’s not clear what a healthy operating budget looks like anymore.
“We had all these percentages that made sense before,” Musacchio says, listing off her old budget items. “Labor had to be a certain number, rent, utilities, insurance, packaging and office supplies. Now, those numbers are completely changed.”
At Kissaki, Kanfer is proud of how the restaurant has plowed ahead in spite of the obstacles. The restaurant sends 50 free omakase boxes to frontline health care workers on a daily basis — with the help of new sushi-making robots — and is now selling 100 to 120 omakases a day to the public from Thursday to Sunday and 60 to 70 boxes on the other weekdays.
“COVID-19 made us realize that something could be taken away from us in a minute,” Kanfer says. “I understood that I needed to innovate.”
Though business is starting off in small stages, Willis and Clark are optimistic about the future. In the weeks since MeMe’s has opened, the response has “exceeded our expectations,” the duo tells Eater. It’s not the same — customers line up six feet apart, and only two people are allowed inside at one time, masks required — and more changes will likely come, they say. But MeMe’s is working out what it means to be a community business right now.
“We won’t go back to six nights a week, breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” Clark says. “That’s just not something we can do right now. We’ve always been a neighborhood restaurant, but the idea of what [that] means is changing now.”