On June 6th, Wooster Street, Soho, was deserted. The first summer heat was warming the asphalt as a stiff breeze blew across the empty road. All storefronts and windows were covered with sturdy wooden panels. The slender poles on which boutique banners are normally hoisted were stripped naked. The orgy of smells coming out of countless kitchens was missing. There were no cars. There were no people. There were no sounds. The usually bustling restaurants were closed.
New York was not recognized as the restaurant capital of the world by chance. According to Statista, in 2018, there were 27,000 restaurants in the city. If you were to eat at a different restaurant every day, it would take 22.7 years to try them all. Restaurants of every cuisine, and at every price point -from one dollar pizza slices to three Michelin stars — there was always a place that met your needs, a new restaurant you hadn’t tried, or your favorite one waiting for you.
On March 16, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo imposed an immediate shutdown of all non-essential businesses to reduce the rapid spread of COVID-19. Suddenly, a considerable portion of the 320,000 employed in the food and beverage business were out of work, indefinitely.
As the virus ravaged the world, with a vaccine a month or perhaps years away, many restaurateurs who decided to stay open faced the uncertainty of what would come next. Would they be able to pay rent, or continue paying their employees? How would the business look? And, most importantly, who would still be willing to eat at their restaurants?
“When the lockdown arrived, the world fell apart, and our revenue fell by 90%,” Rosario Procino, owner of Ribalta Pizza, said. Together with his business partner, Pasquale Cozzolino, Procino decided to keep the business open as a responsible choice. They closed only during the tumultuous week of protests following the death of George Floyd (theirs was one of the restaurant windows that was destroyed).
“We did it for our staff who needed to work, they asked us to stay open,” Procino said. But their decision was also aimed at keeping their brand alive, and to not let down the clients who remained in the city. The two entrepreneurs shifted a part of their operations to donating food to hospitals and to those in need.
But unlike Ribalta Pizza, many other restaurateurs didn’t find the strength to stay open, and shut their doors. Independent restaurants make up 70% of all American restaurants, and they did not have corporate resources to face the crisis easily. According to a report by the Independent Restaurant Coalition, as many as 85% of independent restaurants might never reopen.
But that doesn’t mean that larger companies will not suffer; in fact, Le Pain Quotidien, a restaurant with 98 locations in New York, filed for bankruptcy last month.
New York City’s go-to Italian restaurants, Serafina, are also feeling pressure from the economic fallout. “It will be hard, I don’t know how many will stay open after the summer,” said Vittorio Assaf, founder of Serafina Restaurant Group, an established Italian restaurant network with a dozen locations in New York, and twenty more around the world.
When the crisis hit, the government came out with a $670 billion Paycheck Protection Program to temporarily help restaurants in crisis across the nation.
“It helped for a few weeks, but in the meanwhile, taxes went ahead, and didn’t stop. They should have frozen mortgage payments, taxes, insurance fees so that after the pandemic, the economy would have started again from that exact point. But they made us pay for everything,” Assaf said.
On May 20, Earl Blumaneur (D-Ore.), proposed “The Restaurant Act” in Congress, that would provide another $120 billion in grant support to independent restaurants.
Assaf explained that if substantial help from the government didn’t arrive, only those who have no debts and are strong enough to stand this crisis would open again. He said he might have to close a few locations and “only fast foods will be left.”
One of the main problems for restaurants is rent. “I pay $60,000 in rent a month just for one location,” Assaf said.
Procino, besides managing Ribalta Pizza, is also an active board member of Relief Opportunities for All Restaurants (ROAR), an association of independent restaurateurs. Procino said that they were left alone to deal with landlords who did not always understand the unprecedented situation and wanted the full rent, and on time.
Therefore, ROAR pushed the New York City Council to freeze the Good Guy Guarantee, a clause present in rent contracts that immediately exposes the personal assets of restaurateurs in the event of an unmet payment.
“This gives the restaurant space for negotiation with owners. Either we renegotiate the rent, or here’s the key, I close, and your space will be empty for months,” said Procino.
Midtown was as ghostly as Soho. An area of the city that attracted businessmen, tourists, and theatres was now dead. People are working from home, and might not come back to New York offices until the end of the year.
It’s not clear when and how theatres will reopen, and people have been learning how to cook at home. The decrease in demand will lead to a natural selection based on quality and price: “In New York, in usual times, just one restaurant out of 10 survives the first two years,” Procino said. This time the selection will be even harsher.
The future doesn’t look any brighter for the restaurants that will stay open and will manage to survive until the beginning of Phase Two, when commercial activities restart.
During the pandemic, delivery services thrived, and took over a significant share of small restaurant profits.
Aldo Bozzi, owner of Mezzaluna restaurant on the Upper East Side, which has been open for over 35 years, said restaurant chains have more bargaining power with delivery platforms compared to smaller restaurants.
“Online delivery will be the future, but they are a double-edged sword,” Bozzi said. “If a delivery platform takes 35% or more of your revenue, you lose money every time you sell something.”
For those still willing to sit down and have a meal at a restaurant, after the lockdown is lifted, it will be a changed experience. Plexiglass dividers have been propped up between tables in San Francisco restaurants that have already started reopening.
Fewer people will be allowed inside the dining rooms, because tables will be placed farther apart. Menus will be available on mobile phones, cash will not be welcome, and payments will be contactless.
But Procino didn’t like the idea of plexiglass between tables. “Who wants to go eat in a place set up like an operating room?” Procino said.
The restaurateurs were apprehensive about the ingredient of their success: ambience.
No more hugs or handshakes with longtime clients, no more cheers at the counter while watching a football match, no more welcoming smiles to friendly faces.
Francesco Antonucci, owner of Antonucci Cafe and a New York restaurant entrepreneur since 1983, said that when a vaccine will be found things will go back to a new normal.
“People want to live and have fun. Remember we live in New York.”
Despite witnessing their lives’ work upended, the four Italian restaurateurs shared a common hope, and a willingness to survive these difficult times.
“I complained every day about my job, and now you have no idea how much I miss it,” Antonucci said.