The return of restaurants. The season of hedonism. The summer of New York City. There’s no shortage of names for what’s unfolding in the once-yurt-laden streets of New York, but Nicole Biscardi thinks there might be room for one more. “This is the start of the restaurant renaissance,” says Biscardi, a hospitality industry specialist with the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce.
In July 2020, when the five boroughs became an epicenter for coronavirus globally, city officials struggled to document the number of restaurant closings across the city — there were just that many. Roughly a year later, the opposite is now true: New York City is experiencing one of its busiest seasons for restaurant openings in over a year. Even if it’s not all that busy.
Restaurant openings are on the rise again in New York City, but viewed through the lens of pre-pandemic openings data, the renaissance looks more like a slow recovery. “People might think restaurants are blowing the doors off, making money hand over fist, opening left and right, but they don’t realize how devastated the industry was,” Biscardi says. “Even though it looks and feels like things are back, they’re still not.”
Close to 700 restaurants opened their doors between March and May 2021, according to the latest available data from Yelp, but more than 1,000 opened over that same period in 2019. In May, typically one of the year’s busiest months for restaurant openings, the number of new openings dropped by 300 restaurants from 2019 to 2021.
Restaurant reservation company Resy estimates that roughly the same number of businesses opened on its platform between April and June 2021 as during that same period in 2019. However, the company’s reach has more than doubled in recent years, from roughly 2,000 restaurants in late 2018 to more than 5,000 the following year, suggesting that openings have not kept pace with the company’s growth.
Even so, it’s an encouraging uptick after a year that brought even the city’s busiest seasons for restaurant openings to a halt. Over the last year, Biscardi says she has monitored restaurant openings across the city, surveying a caseload of more than 600 businesses grappling with seasonal weather and shifting regulations. In the fall, when indoor dining briefly returned to New York City, there was “panic” about how vaguely worded state policies would play out in reality, she says. After indoor dining shut down two months later, most of the restaurateurs she spoke with were “hysterically crying,” unsure if their businesses would make it through the winter.
By spring, coronavirus restrictions had started to loosen, and something became apparent, Biscardi says. Through a year of ups — and mostly downs — some restaurant owners were holding their breaths, planning new projects, and waiting to debut those that were already in the works before the pandemic. Now well into summer, restaurant openings are “firing out like a shotgun,” she says.
True, the number of restaurants that opened between March and May 2021 is down compared to 2019, but viewed year-over-year, the number of new food businesses is up by roughly 92 percent, according to data from Yelp. Between March and July, approximately 1,300 additional establishments applied for permits through the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, though that number also includes non-restaurant food businesses and renewals for existing restaurants.
Spring and fall were typically the busiest seasons for restaurant openings in pre-pandemic times, but the latest uptick in numbers is the culmination of a year-long “bottleneck,” according to Biscardi. “Because of how long it can take to plan and open a restaurant, there were a lot of restaurants waiting in the pipeline,” she says. When pandemic restrictions on restaurants and bars started to loosen, “people that were even sort of ready to go said, ‘Fuck it. Let’s do it now.’”
Such is the case with Hand Hospitality, the hit-making group behind Her Name is Han and Izakaya Mew. Emboldened by the city’s reopening, Hand debuted Little Mad in early June, a Korean-American restaurant in Nomad located in the former space of On, from the same group. Hand has plans to expand with a second restaurant next month, a Thai establishment that has been in the works for more than a year but was put on hold due to the pandemic.
The openings were spurred by a feeling — that “everything is slowly coming back,” a spokesperson for the hospitality group tells Eater — but also by a fear. “If we don’t do it now, how much later can we wait?” they say.
Hand Hospitality repurposed its restaurant spaces, but elsewhere in New York City, openings are being spurred by “fire sale” rent deals made earlier in the pandemic, according to Andrew Moger, the founder of local sandwich chain the Melt Shop and real estate development company BCD. “The things that are opening now are deals that were made during the pandemic,” when rents were being discounted by 30 to 50 percent in some parts of the city, he says. “It’s not like you sign a lease now and you pop it up the next day. It takes time.”
For operators with capital at their disposal earlier in the pandemic, investments are starting to pay off. Blank Street Coffee, which first opened in Williamsburg last August, now has a double-digit lineup of coffee carts and brick-and-mortar cafes under its belt. Founders Issam Freiha and Vinay Menda plan to open 20 additional locations in New York City by the end of the summer, they say, roughly a third of which will be brick-and-mortar.
“We were the only bid most times,” Menda says of rent deals made at this time last year. “We had all the time in the world to decide what we wanted to do.”
Those same opportunities are rarer today. Brandon Pena is the founder of Puerto Rican coffee roaster 787 Coffee, which nearly doubled its number of locations this past year — from four to 11 — by signing leases on cafe spaces that shuttered during the pandemic. He estimates rent prices have increased by roughly 20 percent from this time last year. “There’s a lot of restaurants opening and everyone’s trying to get the best price,” says Pena, who has been outbid on three cafe spaces in June alone.
“Everything we’ve looked at, prices are up because they have offers now,” he says. “They used to not have anyone.”
Restaurant spaces may be moving again, but experts say the New York City economy may still be years away from returning to pre-pandemic levels and could be slower to bounce back than other metropolitan areas in the country. Other factors, including the end of the state’s pause on commercial evictions on September 1 and the Restaurant Revitalization Fund running out, mean that an uptick in restaurant closings could be on the horizon.
Biscardi will be the first to say she’s not a “fear monger” — or an expert on citywide economics — but as someone who’s been on the ground with restaurant and bar owners over the past year, she believes “we’re on the right path back,” even if it’s a long one. “Even under perfect circumstances — everything’s open, regulations are lifted, people want to go out — I think we’re looking at another two to three years from now,” she says.
Still, a renaissance is a relative, and Biscardi expects that restaurants and bars will continue to open their doors, especially as New York City inches toward its second busiest season for openings: the fall.