New York’s Iconic Restaurant Industry Finds Sorrow and Blessings Amid Pandemic

August 4, 2020 Updated: August 4, 2020

NEW YORK—Gutted by the pandemic lockdowns, the city’s once-thriving restaurant industry has struggled to keep afloat. But as the city enters its final Phase 4 reopening plan, some restaurant owners are starting to feel more optimistic.

Restaurants, often seen as the economic and social heart of a city, were hit especially hard in New York—once the U.S. epicenter of the virus. Most shut down entirely for months, while some relied on takeout to generate some income.

In interviews with The Epoch Times, restaurant and bar owners detailed their struggles during the pandemic. Some are still struggling to open after having no choice but to lay off their employees.

One owner described how the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) saved their business from closing its doors. Others touched upon the positive community response they saw after recently opening for outdoor dining. Under the city’s Open Restaurants plan, more than 9,000 restaurants have applied and been granted permission for extended outdoor seating, including in closed off streets on weekends.

Sal Scognamillo, owner of Patsy’s Italian Restaurant in Manhattan, said the business was closed for months until last week, when it reopened for outdoor dining and takeout. He hopes the worst is now behind them.

“We’ve been very, very blessed by the outpouring of support and love by our steady customers,” Scognamillo told The Epoch Times. “To me and to my family, they are more than just customers—they are part of our extended family.”

Epoch Times Photo
Patsy’s cookbook. (Courtesy Sal Scognamillo)

Scognamillo said he and his family are starting to “feel optimistic about the future.” Four generations of his family have worked at Patsy’s, which has been around for 76 years and whose most famous customer was Frank Sinatra.

“It’s also that way with our customers,” he said. “Generations and generations of customers have been coming for years.”

He’s received countless emails and messages on Facebook, and well-wishes from people coming in to support the business. Others have been buying their jarred sauce. One customer told him he had been “checking every day and walking by, hoping, waiting for you to reopen.”

Under lockdown restrictions, restaurants are still not allowed to open for indoor dining, and restaurants that do open for outdoor dining must also follow social distancing guidelines.

The outdoor seating program has been such a success that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the program will tentatively start again on June 1 next year.

Some owners say authorities have failed to stay consistent in their guidelines.

Ivy Mix, co-owner of Leyenda, a Latin American restaurant in Brooklyn and author of “Spirits of Latin America,” said financially the restaurant is barely reaching 50 percent of its normal sales. Leyenda recently opened for outdoor dining, using both its front and back patios.

“Each week, rules change, and communication from authorities does not exist,” Mix told The Epoch Times. “I am lucky enough to be on the board of the NY Restaurant Coalition, and I have a direct line into some governmental agencies—and still I am confused.”

Epoch Times Photo
Ivy Mix, co-owner of Leyenda inside her restaurant. (Courtesy Leyenda/ONS).

On Aug. 2, the New York State Liquor Authority (SLA) and State Police Task Force visited 874 establishments in New York City and on Long Island, where they observed 29 establishments that “were not in compliance with state requirements.”

“Now, with the SLA, some bars and restaurants who have been closed with no income are being shut down by the city when they didn’t even know what they were doing wrong,” Mix said.

“It’s stressful. … Who knows what will happen come November when weather is colder?”

There have been a total of 416,843 confirmed cases of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus in New York state, according to the latest dataAll regions in New York also are now under the current Phase 4 reopening effort.

Greg Sherry, owner of Old Homestead Steakhouse’s in Manhattan, meanwhile said the PPP money he received from the federal government was “critical” to his business’s survival. 

“That saved me, because without that money, I couldn’t pay my mortgage for the next three months,” Sherry told The Epoch Times. “We had no cash-flow coming in.”

A recent survey (pdf) by the NYC Hospitality Alliance found that 83 percent of the city’s eateries were unable to pay the full amount of their rent in July, while 37 percent couldn’t pay anything.

Sherry called the pandemic a “terrible thing,” noting that he doesn’t want it to get out of control in New York anymore. He said he believes that when restaurants do manage to fully reopen, 50 percent of staff will have lost their jobs.

“It’s getting to the point now that the economy is more important,” he said. “Get the economy healthy again.”

According to the governor’s office, both hospitalizations and intubations have hit new lows since mid-March. As of Aug. 4, there were no deaths reported in New York City for the third day in a row.

There are two messages he has for de Blasio.

“Let’s get the restaurants open safely,” he said. “Let’s get crime under control in New York so people are not afraid to come into town.”

Eimear Conway, owner of Mad Morton (which has two locations) and Angel of Harlem, said both Morton locations had to be closed since they couldn’t meet the outdoor dining requirements. This resulted in the loss of 45 jobs, she said.

“Rents, property taxes, insurance are still due, which we are unable to pay as we have no income, so the effect is devastating,” Conway told The Epoch Times. “We cannot use PPP as we have no staff on the payroll.”

Epoch Times Photo
The closed Mad Morton restaurant. (Courtesy Eimear Conway)

Angel of Harlem is faring better and was able to reopen its sidewalk cafe, as well as set up additional seating in the parking bays.

Conway said she has invested more than $2 million in her businesses and that making a profit now is impossible.

Phillippe Issa, owner of Velvet Brooklyn, said the restaurant used to host up to 80 people at a time. Now its capacity is down to 12 seats outdoors. After closing in March, it had to cancel and refund about 16 events that were planned for the 2020 calendar.

Issa urged New Yorkers to support small businesses. As for New York officials, he wants them to put themselves in business owners’ shoes before making any decisions or changing any rules.

Epoch Times Photo
Outdoor seating area at Velvet Brooklyn. (Courtesy Phillipe Issa)

Some restaurants have no choice but to let their employees go, even with PPP money.

Kazusa Jibiki, owner of restaurant Lovely Day, said she was forced to lay off about 14 staff and had to close one location as she was unable to pay rent.

While the outdoor dining program has been doing well, takeout orders are down. Their sales are only a little higher than when they were only doing takeout. Now she also needs more staff to serve the outdoor dining area.

“Lots of my friends own restaurants downtown,” she told The Epoch Times. “Four people I know already decided to close permanently, and more are planning to hand in their keys after their PPP runs out.”

She said they’re relying on the second round of PPP money as they have to pay outstanding bills for their vendors.

Andrew Gillick, co-owner of Josie Woods Pub, said the business closed in March and hasn’t reopened in any way since then. Gillick told The Epoch Times the management had to let go of more than 20 employees and are trying to reopen and hire them back in order to save the business.

“Not all bars and restaurants have the option to do outdoor dining, which Mayor de Blasio is heralding as the great success and savior of the business,” Gillick said.

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