Grand Central Oyster Bar is a scene frozen in time. The tables and chairs are haphazardly arranged for dining at half capacity, a short-lived attempt at keeping the pandemic at bay months ago. Trays of plates and glassware are strewn across the counters. And a sign on the door tells the story of a hasty exit without a plan to return.
“We will be closing today, March 16, 2020 at 3 p.m. Reopening will be decided at a later date.”
More than four months later, the Oyster Bar remains shuttered. “We’re not even open for takeout because it’s so deserted,” says Janet Poccia, President of the Oyster Bar. “Grand Central Terminal is a ghost town, still.”
The Oyster Bar is in a much better position than a lot of the other tenants inside the terminal: occupying a landmarked space, owned by its workers through an employee shares program, and financed to the tune of over a million dollars by the federal Paycheck Protection Program, the restaurant that is only a day younger than the 107-year-old building itself is difficult to replace, and has the means to weather the storm. The same cannot be said of the other restaurants inside Grand Central Terminal.
While many New York City restaurants are currently trying to stay afloat with makeshift outdoor dining setups, they only represent a fraction of establishments in the city. Only 9,200 of the city’s estimated 26,000 restaurants have applied for the Open Restaurants program, since many do not have the frontage to do anything more than takeout and delivery. Some remain closed completely.
The restaurants inside Grand Central Terminal are a sort of bellwether for many establishments unable to participate in outdoor dining, particularly food halls, and Midtown restaurants that rely on the foot traffic of commuters and tourists. While some tenants are internationally-recognized brands like Shake Shack and Jacques Torres, most are local mom and pop operations like Wok Chi, Prova Pizzabar, and Art Bird (which is owned by Lady Gaga’s father Joe Germanotta). Trapped inside the 35,000 square foot landmarked building that has been transformed into a ghost town by the pandemic, the restaurants are at the mercy of a government that has seemingly put off indoor dining indefinitely.
“COVID life at Grand Central has been tough,” says Michael Zaro, President of Zaro’s Family Bakery, which has three locations in Grand Central Terminal and has been a tenant since 1977. “There’s just nobody commuting.”
According to a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, daily ridership is currently down over 80 percent compared to the same week in 2019. But that is seemingly an improvement: at the height of the pandemic, Metro North ridership was down by as much as 96 percent on some days.
“We were very optimistic, with phase two starting to open up, that we would see a much greater increase in traffic, but we have not found it yet,” says Zaro. “It continues to be real tough to operate in Grand Central.”
Given the dearth of foot traffic, most of the restaurants have not bothered to reopen for any level of service. “The majority of our clientele were tourists, and that’s not coming back for a while,” says Bryan Flodmand, who was CEO of MeyersUSA until mid-March, when he was laid off along with the rest of his staff.
The stateside arm of the restaurant group owned by Noma co-founder Claus Meyer, MeyersUSA operates one of the largest footprints in Grand Central Terminal: the Great Northern Food Hall has five distinct pavilions on the ground floor, and one level down is Agern, the group’s Michelin-starred Nordic eatery. The restaurants’ websites and social media accounts have been shuttered — an unpromising sign — but Flodmand insists that they will return, albeit in different forms.
“The full-service Agern dining is going to be something entirely new,” says Flodmand. “It might still be Michelin-quality and Agern, but just the whole way we operate it is going to need overhaul.”
The MTA would not say which restaurants have completely tapped out due to the COVID-19 shutdown, but sources speaking on the condition of anonymity say that many of the tenants on the dining concourse have called it quits, despite the fact that the MTA and Grand Central Terminal’s management company, Jones Lang LaSalle, have been lenient with rent and evictions. Building management even set up socially-distanced high top tables to aid the opened eateries, but later removed them after it was noted that they were in violation of the indoor dining ban.
Only three businesses are currently operating on the dining concourse: Frankie’s, Central Market, and Magnolia Bakery.
“We expected it to be very slow upon opening, which it has been,” says Bobbie Lloyd, Chief Baking Officer of Magnolia Bakery, which reopened its Grand Central Terminal location on June 16. “But it’s increasing, and that’s what we wanted to see.” Part of the company’s strategy for its various satellite locations is to use them as delivery hubs, which buys time for the foot traffic to return. As the sales numbers grow week over week, Lloyd projects that their holiday revenue, which is their highest of the year, will make the journey through the COVID-19 outbreak worth it.
For now, there is very little good news for these businesses, though it seems that a healthy dose of optimism is required. Although Zaro’s has been open since the start of the pandemic, it is still operating at less than 10 percent of its pre-pandemic revenue. The company believes that it will survive this calamity.
“We have every intention to keep fighting,” says Zaro. “Our business is almost 100 years old. It’s been through World War II, and Korea, and Vietnam. We’ve always figured out a way to get through.”