After surviving a year of the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurateur Peter Gines feels cautiously optimistic about the coming months.
“Everything’s getting better,” says the owner of Jines Restaurant, a longtime staple of Park Avenue dining. “My biggest fear is that the coronavirus mutations could make us take a step back.”
Given the hurdles that restaurant owners have had to overcome since the virus began spreading through the area, that touch of optimism stands out. Weekly Zoom meetings of the Rochester chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association often focus on the damage the pandemic has done to the businesses of the chapter’s 166 members.
“Most restaurants were worried that they were going to close,” says Kelly Metras, chapter president and restaurateur.
Those worries have been well-founded for all too many restaurant owners. According to a National Restaurant Association report, as of Dec. 1, the pandemic had forced 110,000 U.S. establishments that served meals or drinks to close temporarily or permanently. Restaurant and food industry sales totaled $659 billion last year, far short of the $899 billion that had been projected.
Local eateries’ trials began on March 16, 2020, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in response to rising coronavirus infection rates, directed restaurants and bars to cease serving customers on their premises. Some eateries beefed up their takeout meal operations but found they didn’t make up for the revenue lost from in-person dining.
“It cost more money to have people come in and cook everything and do takeout, so we were just purging money,” says Metras, who co-owns two Rochester restaurants, Selena’s Mexican Restaurant and Nox, with her husband Aaron. “We did it so that we would stay relevant and, hopefully, be able to reopen.”
Some local restaurants tried to boost their takeout meal sales by making more use of Grubhub and other food delivery services, but those services’ fees cut into revenues.
“You don’t make as much using the delivery partners, because they’re taking 25 percent of your sales,” says Fran Basile, owner of the Monroe Avenue restaurant Dogtown.
Local restaurateurs strove to cope with their losses in part by reducing staff hours or laying employees off. Ross Mueller, president of Mueller Restaurant Group, saw the coronavirus making its way to the area. Anticipating the pandemic’s effects, he closed his company’s two restaurants just before Cuomo announced the March lockdown.
“Rather keep (my) employees safe, so I actually shut the doors a few days prior to Cuomo announcing that we had to shut down,” he says.
Between the Label 7 Napa Eatery & Bar in Pittsford and Native, a downtown Rochester restaurant, Mueller employed about 64 people before the pandemic hit. He sent them home with about one and a half weeks of severance pay.
At the height of the pandemic, Gines, who normally has an average of 50 people working for him, cut his roster to no more than 15 employees. He also turned off equipment he did not need, kept his restaurant a little cooler than usual during the winter, and reduced some of his other expenses.
“Window cleaners weren’t around; you adjusted your garbage pickups,” Gines says. “Your carpets weren’t being cleaned.”
Instead of bringing in technicians to clean his restaurant’s beer lines, Gines cleaned them himself.
“All of those things that you could do yourself, you would do yourself,” he says.
Complying with state rules
As infection rates dropped, the Cuomo administration allowed restaurants in much of the state outside of New York City to begin reopening on June 12. Local establishments were first allowed to serve customers outdoors, and then were permitted to expand to indoor dining. All customers had to sit at least six feet from each other and wear masks when not at their tables. Indoor seating could not exceed 50 percent of a restaurant’s normal capacity.
“We changed the format of the restaurant to accommodate 50 percent when it’s six-foot distancing,” says Art Rogers, the owner of Lento, a farm-to-table establishment in Rochester’s Village Gate Square.
The new arrangement allowed Rogers to serve about 60 patrons indoors at one time, roughly half the number he can accommodate normally. He could seat another 46 diners outside his place—when the weather allowed.
“We’re dinner-only too, so we have to wait until it’s mild enough in the evenings,” he says.
Both of Mueller’s restaurants were up and running by early July, but sales were down 40 percent. He believes the virus played a big part in keeping customers away.
“There weren’t vaccinations at that time,” Mueller says. “People were still pretty freaked out.”
Even as local restaurants adapted their operations to the new pandemic regulations, coronavirus infections began to rise in many parts of the state. The appearance of micro-clusters, or hotspots, of coronavirus infection led the Cuomo administration to formulate the Cluster Action Initiative.
Under the initiative, micro-clusters are classified as yellow, orange or red zones, with red being the highest level of infection. A cluster is placed on that scale based on measures such as its seven-day average rate of positive coronavirus test results. Areas with rates of at least 2.5 percent are classified as yellow zones, and those with at least 3 percent and 4 percent are respectively classified as orange and red zones. Individuals, houses of worship, schools and businesses must accept different restrictions on their actions or operations, depending on the zone in which they are located.
Most of Monroe County was classified as a yellow zone on Nov. 9. Under the new regulations, restaurants within that zone had to limit indoor and outdoor dining to four persons per table.
Restaurateurs soldiered on despite the new seating limit, but the pandemic worsened. On Nov. 23, almost all of Rochester and parts of seven Monroe County towns were declared to be in an orange zone. Once again, in-person dining was out for the restaurants involved.
“We were closed down in November just in time for the holiday rushes,” Metras says.
Making ends meet
Customers who’d grown used to being served their meals in person were sometimes confused by the shift back to takeout-only, and some refused to accept it.
“Zero percent of those people were, like, ‘Oh, we’ll get takeout again,’” Rogers says. “They found a restaurant that was (fully) open.”
Local restaurants’ revenues plummeted again. For example, Selena’s brought in $30,000 in December compared with nearly $150,000 the previous year, Metras says
In response to such losses, restaurateurs tapped into government programs that were created to help businesses survive the pandemic.
Mueller received $190,000 from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program in 2020, though the money didn’t go very far.
“We were so far behind in rent, utilities and everything else that by the time we got it, it was already half-gone,” he says.
Metras received a $212,052 PPP loan, an $8,000 Business Emergency Retention Grant from the city of Rochester and a total of $35,000 from Monroe County’s Fast Forward Monroe Small Business Grant Program, but she still had to take out a commercial business loan to make ends meet.
“We have been putting everything we have into staying open to get through this,” she says.
The SBA forgives PPP loans if borrowers meet their provisions, but Metras and her husband will have to repay the commercial loan.
Dark as this time has been for local restaurant owners, there have been some glimmers of light as the pandemic recedes. Cuomo lifted orange zone restrictions statewide at the end of January, and in early March announced that restaurants outside of New York City could fill their indoor areas to 75 percent of capacity as of March 19.
Though welcome, the increase in capacity will not benefit some local eateries.
“That won’t affect us at all, because of the six-foot distancing guideline that’s still in place,” Rogers says.
In addition, local restaurants breathed a sigh of relief when President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act on March 11. The bill contains $28.6 billion in grant relief for restaurants and $7.25 billion in additional PPP funding. Mueller was very glad when his new $240,000 PPP loan came through.
“I would be out of business if I didn’t get it,” he says.
Out-of-work restaurant employees also could benefit from the legislation, which extended the period during which those who are unemployed because of the pandemic can receive supplementary federal unemployment benefits. Through the end of August, they’ll be able to collect $300 each week from the federal government atop their state unemployment benefits.
Though the American Rescue Plan is a boon to unemployed restaurant workers, it could hurt restaurateurs’ chances of getting back to normal. Gines says his business has begun to improve, but he can’t find the staff he needs to serve the growing numbers of customers who are coming through his doors.
“We’re in full hiring mode right now, every position,” he says.
The restaurant owner lays part of the problem on the federal unemployment benefits, which he believes give workers incentives to avoid returning to their jobs.
“I have trouble finding people to work,” he says. “They can make more staying home.”
Metras also is short of staff, but says the government’s efforts to aid restaurants give her hope “that the people higher up in the country that make the decisions see the worth in the work done by small businesses.”
While she tries to stay positive at this difficult time, Metras worries that the new, more infectious coronavirus strains that have recently appeared in the county could spur another disastrous lockdown.
“The pandemic’s not over,” she says.
Mike Costanza is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer.