The restaurant industry is in uncharted territory, fighting to stay alive amid the chaos of the coronavirus pandemic.
Business owners are scrambling to come up with innovative ways to serve customers and offer food while abiding by city, state and federal laws regarding COVID-19. Dining establishments big and small have had to lay off countless staff members all while restructuring their business models until further notice.
Originating in Wuhan, China, in December, the novel coronavirus has spread to at least 184 countries, infecting over 1.5 million individuals worldwide and killing 87,984. New York State alone is home to 149,316 confirmed positive cases as of April 8. Monroe County currently has 627 confirmed positive cases.
Non-essential New York businesses were required to shut down all in-office operations on March 22 under the New York State on PAUSE executive order. Under this order, however, restaurants and bars are deemed as essential retail—so long as they offer only takeout and/or delivery options and do not operate as a sit-down establishment.
Communities of chefs, restaurateurs, caterers, food entrepreneurs and others are coming together during a time of crisis—a crisis with no real expiration date. The National Restaurant Association predicts that over $225 billion within the restaurant industry will be lost in the next three months due to the coronavirus outbreak.
While the industry in the past has faced its share of obstacles, the coronavirus is unlike anything Rochester’s chefs and businessowners have seen before.
Adjusting to a new world
Michael Calabrese, a co-owner of neighborhood favorites Good Luck, Cure and newly opened Lucky’s, says “in 2008 we opened Good Luck in August after the market had just crashed. This is a whole other level of panic. We don’t know how long this is going to last. It’s devastating.”
Already, $145 billion in government recovery funding has been requested by the National Restaurant Association with hopes of helping restaurants stabilize in a time of plummeting revenues, widespread layoffs and mass uncertainty. Restaurants, like other small businesses, are eligible for relief included in the recently enacted Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, but some industry observers say it falls short of what’s needed.
“We’re a big family, so it’s like telling your whole family they have to file for unemployment,” Calabrese says. “We’re only purchasing the essentials—we have to tighten our belt.
“But we will bounce back from this. When we get the green light to move forward, everyone will be hired back. We have a great team and everyone is on board with what we’re doing. I don’t know what will happen if this continues for six months, but health is the No.1 priority.”
Max Gordon, owner of The Hideaway on Park Avenue notes that there is a playbook for every circumstance besides this one.
“There’s no precedent for what we’re witnessing right now,” Gordon says. “In the short term, we’ve seen a massive reduction in revenue. In the long term, well, that’s impossible to tell right now. When the ban is lifted … will people flock to restaurants? Will they be nervous? We’re not planning for what we don’t know.”
This uncertainty is the new reality for restaurants. They are trying to save their businesses at a time when dining culture and socialization are not permitted.
“We’re creatures of community and commiserate together, but now you can’t do that,” Gordon says. “We’re not meant to be alone. We need some normalcy or we’ll see a whole other side of this affect mental wellbeing. The restaurants that are able to stay open are here to help provide that sense of normalcy.”
Gordon thinks his restaurant could survive for another six months, but stresses that the estimate is completely dependent on how the restaurant’s creditors respond to the crisis. The Hideaway has already cut its staff to operate at 30 percent.
With the constantly changing situation, The Hideaway’s financial stability could change in an instant, Gordon says.
“If the government suddenly decided next week that everyone has to offer two weeks of paid sick time, I can promise you we and every restaurant would last maybe two weeks,” he says.
Forced to innovate
Rochester’s restaurants and bars have been left with no choice but to transform their business models to allow for takeout, delivery and gift card purchases. Restaurants that operated solely by means of a dining room are quickly making changes to mobilize their dishes for people to eat at home. Even cocktails can be made to go with the state Liquor Authority’s decision to allow liquor to be sold for takeout purposes along with food. From using waitstaff to deliver food to implementing curbside order pickups, Rochester’s culinary scene is getting crafty.
“We’re trying to find as many people from our staff with cars to help, since I had to cut back on hours,” says Voula Katestos, owner of Voula’s Greek Sweets. “I’m employing all of the staff that is in most need and willing to work. My staff is giving each other shifts and splitting them. I’m trying to help my staff while also feeding the community. Everyone working is following safety precautions and being super safe about it.”
Voula’s and many other restaurants have gone cashless to prevent the COVID-19 virus from spreading through physical transactions. The vegetarian restaurant has cut its hours (9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.) to maintain a sustainable business model that Katsetos believes can last as long as it needs to.
Weekdays, the restaurant has two staff members, one cook, and one person answering phones and overseeing curbside takeout orders. Katestos and her family members have embraced their new roles as delivery drivers to reduce costs.
“I don’t foresee us closing unless the government tells us we have to close. If I had to run it like this for the next year, I could do it,” Katsetos says. “It’s sustainable for us because we were already small. On top of our dedicated staff, myself and my family are making it work. It wouldn’t be sustainable if I had to hire a delivery person. I’m so grateful at the response we’ve gotten; people have been sharing our posts on social media and it’s been great.”
Many businesses are ditching delivery apps in hopes of providing opportunities for their own restaurant staff.
Aside from delivery, businesses are taking steps to ensure those who pick up food from its premises are doing so responsibly. Restaurants like Voula’s, Good Luck, Fiorella, Tap and Mallet, Edibles, Blossom Road Pub and Wok it Out—just to name a few—have implemented curbside pickup. Customers call in orders, pay over the phone and then call once again upon arrival; a staff member wearing gloves places the bag of food either inside the person’s car or waiting on the curb. At The Hideaway, patrons can retrieve their food and drinks from drive-thru ledge connected to the restaurant’s kitchen.
“We can help people not leave their car, and that’s about as perfect as a solution as there can be,” Gordon says.
For local restaurants that have decided to continue operating, maintaining revenue is one of many short-term goals. Another is to offer the community food that is nourishing and comforting in a time when resorting to unhealthy alternatives and inexpensive junk food is easy to do.
“Food is essential,” Gordon says. “Good food is hard to come by and we know people still need to eat. Our supply chain is completely uninterrupted, so fortunately The Hideaway can stock up on these essentials that are completely off the shelves in supermarkets. If Wegmans doesn’t have chicken but has Doritos, you’ll buy Doritos. Those health effects will trickle down in a time like this.”
Marty’s Meats launched a grocery pickup initiative for members of the community to directly purchase grocery essentials from the restaurant, with hopes of providing nutritious food to families while minimizing the spread of COVID-19 amongst grocery store crowds.
For Katsetos, another reason for staying open during the outbreak was to provide for vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free customers who might not know how to cook for themselves. Providing nutritious and delicious meals isn’t just part of Voula’s business model, but rather her identity.
Voula’s Greek Sweets is one of many restaurants encouraging patrons to purchase online gift cards to use at a future time, in order for the business to sustain revenue in the short term. The restaurant also is offering scaled-down prices and special combos to encourage locals to still purchase.
“We’re trying to offer deals for people who can support us right now,” Katsetos says. “We have an incentive where for every $25 you spend with us, we’ll add $5 to a gift card for future use. Just yesterday a gentleman came and did a $400 takeout order. No one knew who he was … just a kind guest that wanted to help us and provide for his family. But this one order was able to pay for an entire day’s worth of staff.”
Veneto Wood Fired Pizza & Pasta is offering $55 “date night” meals. Rohrbach Brewing is hosting virtual happy hours to keep community spirit alive. Simply Crepes is offering the option to add a roll of toilet paper for $1 with curbside or delivery orders. Lucca Wood-Fired Bistro created customizable pizza-making kits to encourage making pizza with family at home.
Some restaurants and locally based chains are also taking creative strides to raise money for members of underprivileged communities who might be negatively impacted by the coronavirus. Rochester-based submarine sandwiches chain DiBella’s launched a Community Support Plan that will cut prices in half for first responders, health care workers and active military and waive delivery fees for all $15 orders placed through the company’s website. DiBella’s also plans to donate half of all regular sales including catering orders to community food banks.
“I’d argue anyone in the restaurant space wants to feed people and keep the economy going for restaurants,” says AJ Shear, director of marketing at DiBella’s. “We chose to take it a step further. We said to ourselves … ‘how can we play a role?’ If profit is not our priority and helping communities is, we know that the community has helped us be profitable so now it’s our turn to help. We took an idea that usually takes three months to formulate and came up with it in 12 hours.”
Other efforts are also in play. Local food blogger @whatsgoodintheroc is organizing a spreadsheet with hopes of feeding medical professionals in the Rochester region who are dedicating their time and health to protecting the community. Any restaurants that would like to get involved can email [email protected]. Local brunch destination The Mad Hatter created Meals for Meds Monday, where for every $10 raised a meal is bought for a veteran.
“There’s no win for us besides doing the right thing,” Shear says.
Robert Mantell is a Rochester-area freelance writer. All Rochester Beacon coronavirus articles are collected here.