With Winter Coming, Restaurants Fight to Survive During Pandemic

Outdoor seating platform at Amali, restaurant in Manhattan, New York | Photo by Radka Horackova

By Radka Horackova | Nov. 20, 2020

Joseph Secondino sees the time coming soon when cold temperatures will force him to pack up the tables and chairs on the patio of his Brooklyn Heights restaurant, cutting a lifeline that has kept his business running during the pandemic.

December is when he expects to shut down outdoor dining at the Heights Café on Montague Street, where he was able to serve 20 patrons. He then will rely only on 35 seats inside, the equivalent of 25 percent of his dining room, the occupancy limit allowed under city pandemic rules. He worries it won’t be enough.

“Unless it’s 50 percent, I don’t see how it’s possible. We have to pay rent, insurance, payroll,” the restaurant owner said. He thinks it would be unlikely that seating capacity would be raised because politicians were not going to risk allowing more indoor dining while the coronavirus was on the rise again in the city, and pressure was mounting to return to a total ban on indoor dining in the face of another wave of infections. On Nov. 11, in a further blow to restaurants and bars, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered all to close by 10 p.m.

Secondino’s story is a common one in the city’s restaurant scene, which has been devastated by government measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus by limiting indoor dining. Since the pandemic began in March, hundreds of establishments have closed and many more are not expected to survive the winter.

A report issued by the state’s comptroller’s office in September estimates that a third to half of the restaurants and bars that existed in the city before the pandemic could close over the next six months to a year, as many as 12,000 establishments. 

Restaurants that remain open are doing so by keeping skeleton crews and operating at minimum budgets. Those that are lucky enough to have outdoor seating can accommodate guests outside until it will be too cold to dine al fresco. Heat lamps and blankets will no longer do once it starts snowing. Additionally, awnings and outdoor coverings require going through a cumbersome permit system and making yearly payments.

The personal toll on restaurant owners has been extreme.

Vlasta Stuchl and her husband, Vit, own a Czech restaurant called Bohemian Spirit on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Their establishment is located in the building of the Czech consulate and the Czech Center, a cultural hub, and has been a staple in the neighborhood, serving the diplomatic community and locals alike. 

“Vit and I are here 24/7 doing paperwork, payments, office work, occasionally waiting tables, everything except of cooking,” Stuchl said. We’re saving as much money as we can. Vit has had no day off since March.” 

When the pandemic hit and the city shut down, they kept the business open for takeout. Once outdoor dining was permitted, they moved tables to the sidewalk and started to welcome patrons back. It helped them to remain in operation. 

Now that indoor dining has resumed, they are able to seat 25 guests inside their restaurant, which has a 100-guest capacity. Stuchl said that it is a good thing for restaurants to use at least a quarter of their indoor space, but it isn’t sufficient to sustain the business. She added that their restaurant will continue to struggle as they are running out of money to pay rent and staff. 

Dominic Rice, culinary director of the Amali Group, which operates several restaurants in the city and in the Hamptons, said the 25 percent occupancy limit for indoor dining is only helpful for a full-service restaurant if its business includes a large amount of takeout and delivery orders. 

“The truth to the industry is that with the rents, operating costs, labor, city fees, permits, and vendor cost, we barely make it with 100% [capacity],” Rice said. “Right now, the PPP loans (Paycheck Protection Program) are keeping a lot of restaurants in operation.” 

Rice understands that no one wants to be responsible for a fueling another outbreak but feels that 50 percent capacity would have been a better launching point when indoor dining was reintroduced on Sept. 30. The group’s flagship restaurant, Amali, located in midtown Manhattan, is limited to seating 24 guests inside plus 21 outside. 

The company’s focus is now on additional rooms that can be rented out for parties while isolating individual groups. The management team hopes that they will be able to host private events and bring in revenue while complying with all the social distancing guidelines. 

Paying workers, even when business is slow, has been particularly draining and difficult to sustain throughout the pandemic, said Nicholas Morales, executive chef of Bar Marseille in Far Rockaway, Queens, which is part of the Amali Group. 

No matter how many guests come in each day, Morales said he needs to have five back-of-the-house workers and three front-of-the-house employees on a shift, including himself. 

“You almost want people to come in and leave as fast as possible but at the same time you want them to have an enjoyable experience,” Morales said, expressing how frustrating it is to seat only 17 diners at a time inside his 70-seat restaurant. 

Morales also has 40 outdoor seats but they are not covered and therefore not occupied on rainy or cold days. He is planning to add a covering that would block the wind and trap some heat from lamps. To bring in more revenue during the challenging months ahead, Bar Marseille will be offering holiday packages as well as a New Year’s Eve dinner menu. 

Restaurant executives and owners vow to do what they can to keep their restaurants afloat during the coming difficult months. Morales has started experimenting with pickling green beans and mussels to avoid food waste.

Secondino, owner of the Heights Café, also is committed to keeping his restaurant open. “We’re not going anywhere, but it’s going to be hard,” he said.