A cruel winter: New York City restaurants struggle for survival amid second indoor dining ban

A cruel winter: New York City restaurants struggle for survival amid second indoor dining ban

Two weeks into the latest prohibition on indoor dining in response to rising coronavirus infection rates in New York City, restaurant owners in the five boroughs are braced for brutal aftershocks as they battle a war against the cold.

As of Dec. 14 the only option for restaurant customers beyond takeout and delivery is dining outdoors. Even if you’re a Coney Island Polar Bear, that’s a hard sell when you can see your breath between bites. It’s the latest blow to a New York industry already battered by COVID-19.

“There are people who will do anything. They’ll wear parkas and eat under heat lamps,” said Jeffrey Bank, CEO of the Alicart Restaurant Group, which owns Carmine’s, where hefty platters of Italian classics have been served for 30 years. 

“But outdoor dining is a Band-Aid when you need open-heart surgery” even in warm weather, according to Bank, who closed Carmine’s in Times Square in March and has some outdoor seating at his Upper West Side address. “Limited seating is not how restaurants work to stay profitable. Winter is going to crush businesses.” 

Destruction has already preceded the frigid mean season. It’s uncertain how many restaurants have closed permanently due to the pandemic but Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, estimates the figure to be in the thousands. 

He reckons that financial strains from the current inside ban could close many more businesses and put thousands of “employees’ heads on the chopping block,” he said. “It’s absolutely devastating.”

Jeremy Wladis, head of The Restaurant Group, whose Manhattan eateries include 39-year-old Upper West Side comfort-food haven Good Enough to Eat, concurs. He’s committed to staying open through COVID — for the benefit of both diners and staff.

“In the restaurant business there are so many things to worry about every time someone sits down to eat — how they’re greeted, how they’re served, how the food is prepared,” he said. 

“On top of all that, now it’s the weather determining whether someone sits down at all,” Wladis adds. “And January and February are always the pits for business.” 

At Toast, a Morningside Heights staple for burgers and sandwiches, about $3,000 was invested in a reclaimed-wood enclosure and a fleet of heaters to beat the big chill, according to manager Jonathan Clark. 

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Still, takeout and delivery is the meat and potatoes of their business. “Eating outside in winter in New York is not alluring for most people,” he said. “The wind coming up Broadway can get rough.” 

Mother Nature is just as inhospitable in SoHo, where Torch & Crown Brewing Company opened in October. Co-founder John Dantzler considers himself fortunate to have outdoor dining areas offering business lifelines. He’s thinking about adding more heaters to sidewalk seating. 

At $400 to $800 a pop, heaters are pricey propositions. But there’s a lot riding on radiant warmth. Between the team at the business’ Bronx production facility and downtown workers, “we have about 65 employees,” Dantzler said. “We have a lot of jobs to protect — real people with real families depending on us and what we do.”

At Kokomo, a six-month-old family-run Caribbean restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the owners reported “a significant drop” since the indoor ban. Frigid weather “has wreaked havoc and changed the experience for guests.” 

In addition to propane and electric heaters, they’re providing warmth with an enticing complimentary hot chocolate. “Some take the hot chocolate to go when it’s too cold to stay,” said co-owner Kev Graham. “We’re not a family that gives up.” 

At 93-year-old coffeehouse Caffe Reggio in the West Village, general manager Lena Batyuk, like many other restaurant pros, has become obsessed with the weather. 

“I wake up every morning and check the temperature,” she said on Dec. 27. “If it’s 34 degrees, I say to myself, ‘We’re not going to make any money today.’ Yesterday the temperature was 27.” 

Batyuk’s informal research reveals that “once it drops below 38, the cold becomes unbearable,” she said. “People won’t hang out. No matter what you’re wearing or even if there are heaters.” 

For winter, Caffe Reggio added heaters and a roof to their MacDougal Street enclosure. “But you can’t have more than 50% of the structure closed, so it’s still cold,” she said.

Caffe Reggio in the West Village.

Courtesy Caffe Reggio

According to the State Liquor Association, an enclosure may only be considered outdoor if it has two sides which are open air. “Sides are not considered open if covered with clear plastic or other materials that restrict air flow,” its directive said.

“We have inspections,” said Batyuk, adding that the most recent check was in mid-December. “In the summer they were here almost every week.”

Like many other restaurant insiders, she is confused by the recent update briefing report by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. In it, restaurants and bars are shown to account for 1.4% of coronavirus exposures. Home gatherings account for 74%. 

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Making it harder to dine out increases home gatherings, restaurant owners say. A coalition of restaurant and bar owners filed a federal class-action lawsuit on Christmas Day against Gov. Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio in response to those statistics, the New York Post reported.

Bank is encouraging customers to dine at Carmine’s in Atlantic City, where indoor dining is allowed.

Batyuk considered, then nixed, handing out throws. “It’s not a time for sharing blankets,” she said. “My hope is that we can have limited customers back in the store this winter. We were doing much better when people — even 25% — could sit inside. I don’t think that’s a lot to ask for.”

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