Elected officials aim to help struggling restaurants

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State and local officials are taking steps to help restaurants rebound from the pandemic’s economic impact. 

For starters, sidewalks and streets will continue to serve as outdoor dining spaces. State legislation Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed last week allows eateries to use public spaces for another year to help with the industry’s recovery. Restaurants will need a temporary use permit from local authorities.

“As we build New York back better than it was before, it’s important that we learn from the past and capitalize on those efforts that helped so many of New York’s small businesses survive amid the global pandemic,” Cuomo says. “By extending the much-needed lifeline that allowed restaurants to use outdoor public spaces for seating during the pandemic, New York is ensuring that these small businesses will be able to continue to use these spaces as they work to rebuild and support the revitalization of the Empire State.”

The law builds on an executive order Cuomo signed in June 2020 that allowed restaurants and bars to serve their patrons food or beverages on-premises in outdoor spaces while their indoor capacity was limited. These establishments were permitted to expand the licensed premises to use public space such as sidewalks or closed streets, subject to limitations and procedures set by the State Liquor Authority and local officials. 

On Friday, Monroe County Executive Adam Bello appealed to the county Legislature to adopt the third-party take-out delivery service fee cap as local law, the remaining COVID-19 emergency order, which expired July 11.

Under the emergency order, third-party delivery services such as GrubHub, DoorDash and UberEats were not allowed to charge a restaurant delivery fees more than 15 percent of an order. 

“Simply put, the third-party delivery fee cap saved our local restaurants thousands of dollars. Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must continue to support our restaurants and keep money in their pockets to ensure that they can get back on their feet,” says Bello, who has Legislator Rachel Barnhart’s support on the issue.

A proposed local law to cap delivery fees was submitted to the Legislature for consideration in November by Barnhart but was tabled in the Agenda/Charter committee by the Republican majority, Bello’s office says. The order does not apply to restaurants with 10 or more locations within the state.

Marc Taranto, owner of Old Stone Tavern, says the capped fees helped his business. Old Stone Tavern saved $8,000 during the order. 

“It’s a monopolistic system where the restaurant partners are the ones that get the shortest end of the stick,” Taranto says.

Andrea Parros, owner of the Red Fern on Oxford Street, says GrubHub used to charge her 30 percent of an order. The Red Fern was able to save $10,000 in five months with the emergency order.

The outlook for restaurants statewide is grim. The New York State Restaurant Association in a March survey report notes that “restaurants continue to face a devastating future without financial support.”

The NYSRA survey found that despite expanded off-premise capabilities, more than 67 percent of restaurants said revenue from increased off-premise sales had made up less than 30 percent of their lost on-premise sales.

Restaurant sales were down 44 percent statewide in the year ended in January and most restaurant owners aren’t very optimistic about an improvement in business conditions. A third of respondents expected a return to normal business operations would take seven to 12 months.

In addition, employment remains below normal staffing levels, 92 percent of restaurant operators in the state say. 

Nationally, experts expect the restaurants to face an uneven recovery. According to the NPD Group, a research shop, a mix of factors, including geography and pandemic-related restaurant restrictions, impact restaurant chain customer transactions in a specific market. Areas like Dallas-Fort Worth in Texas, Atlanta and Orlando have seen modest improvements from declines a year ago. 

“I often get the question, when will the U.S. restaurant industry improve, and part of the answer is one market at a time,” says David Portalatin, NPD food industry adviser.

Meanwhile, calls for lawmakers to make changes favorable to restaurants are likely to continue. In May, an NYSRA poll found 72 percent of Upstate New Yorkers supported making alcohol-to-go from restaurants a permanent option. The last call for that emergency lifeline was June 24.

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

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