“I Can’t Survive Until October”: NYC Restaurants Fear Delay to Indoor Dining

Editor’s Note: No city is more important to America’s economy than New York, and none has been hit harder by the coronavirus. “NYC Reopens” examines life in the capital of capitalism as the city takes its first halting steps toward a new normal.

It looks as if New Yorkers might have to wait a little longer to book a table inside their favorite restaurant.

As states across the U.S. experience an alarming surge of Covid-19 cases after reopening their bars and restaurants, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo said Monday that officials are now considering slowing down the restart of indoor dining in New York City.

“Around the country, a number of cities and states have been moving in the wrong direction,” de Blasio said. “We all love indoor dining, but we see problems with indoor dining.”

A delay would be another blow to the city’s beleaguered restaurant industry, which has been gearing up for weeks to reopen on July 6. Its roughly 27,000 establishments have struggled to survive on takeout food and drink orders and, starting last week, limited outdoor seating since the pandemic began.

Here’s what restaurateurs across the city had to say about the news.

Emil Stefanov, general manager at Boucherie in the West Village:

“Yes, all the restaurants will be be suffering, but safety and health comes first. You’ll have no business if you have no people to have business with. Everything else goes after that. So if they tell us they’re postponing the resumption of indoor dining, I won’t think how bad it is for my business, I’ll think about how bad the situation is getting. In New York, I feel safe with the leadership. If they feel that it’s not safe to go to Phase Three, then who am I to say no? Businesses will come back eventually. Safety of people comes first.”

Ivy Mix, co-owner of Leyenda in Cobble Hill:

“We weren’t planning to open up in indoor dining even if approval went through, so we strongly agree. We don’t think NYC is ready just yet for indoor dining. We fortunately have front and back patios at our small bar, Leyenda, and have been making that work and offering to-go cocktails. It’s not great, but we’re surviving.

“Having folks pass through masked to get to the back patio or use the restrooms is one thing, but the thought of friends gathered at a table without masks seems like a risk we would not feel comfortable taking right now.”

Dan Kluger, chef-owner of Loring Place in Greenwich Village:

“I wouldn’t say I was psyched about this news. We just started to hire people back. Now we’re pissing them off because we’ve made offers to people who didn’t want to get off unemployment, where they’re making more money. But they said yes. I hired another manager, I hired back a sous chef to help us be ready for indoor dining. Made offers to cooks and porters and servers.

“I have no problem with the government saying we can’t reopen, but they can’t change the message the week before. I’m taking on more payroll than I need to. I can’t survive until October. I understand the reasons why, but no one is communicating properly. I’ll be lucky if I make $1,000 off of outdoor dining this week. That’s how discouraging it is.”

Hakan Swahn, owner of Aquavit, a two-star Michelin restaurant in midtown:

“Obviously, it’s a blow to us; we had been excited about the prospect of reopening and did a lot of planning. It’s been tough to survive and do the right thing. This would have been a huge help, not just for us, but for all restaurants in New York. We’re very unhappy about not being able to, at least in a little way, reopen. I hope it doesn’t go into effect. We had made offers to people to come back. To go back and say, ‘Sorry guys, it won’t happen,’ … Of course, we care about everyone’s health. But it’s a blow.”

Nate Adler, co-owner of Gertie in Williamsburg:

“The most important consideration right now is a potential second surge of infections coming to NYC, which would push many restaurants to a point of no return. With that in mind, I have always been of the opinion that a slower, more gradual reopening is the better way. Let’s stay the course, while the weather is warm enough to dine outside and until the virus is better contained. Opening restaurants indoors at 50% capacity has the potential to do more damage than good.”

George Vavilis, owner of Morning Star Cafe in midtown Manhattan:

“How much am I counting on Phase Three reopening and inside dining? Zero. I told all my employees, if it happens on July 6, that’s great, but chances are equally high it’s not going to happen then. How can I control that? There’s no way. So I need to count on what I can control. Up to last week, it was takeout and delivery that I could control. Then, it was putting the barriers in place last week, and making sure every guest is safe. When they tell me that Phase Three is happening, then I’ll start counting that in.

Read more: After Cuomo’s Threat, a St. Mark’s Bar Owner Responds

“Don’t get me wrong, that would be ideal, I want it to happen, but I don’t keep my hopes up. We have 60 seats inside, but even if we could use a quarter of that, that would be better than nothing. But safety comes first. I don’t want to get sick, and I don’t want to get any of my guests sick.”

Amanda Cohen, chef-owner of Dirt Candy on the Lower East Side and Lekka Burger in Tribeca:

“As a restaurant owner, I am incredibly uncomfortable with opening up my dining room, and I can’t, in good faith, put any of my employees at risk just so that I can bring in a few dollars. New York has done a good job with its long game in dealing with the virus, which will have been for nothing if we start to play the short game.”

Jeffrey Banks, who owns restaurants including Carmine’s and Virgil’s Real Barbecue in Times Square:

“The government shut down business for the safety of everyone. I respect that. Then, they declare that restaurants should open for takeout and delivery. But there were no rules for wearing masks, for keeping my staff out of dangerous conditions. And this was when people were scared and running their Amazon boxes through the dishwasher.

“Whatever we’re asked, we do. But how am I supposed to support the 1,300 people that got laid off? How can I get them back to work? I’m worried about people who work for me who are going to run out of unemployment.”

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After Covid Backlash, U.S. Neighborhoods Rally Behind Chinese Restaurants

On June 29 the dim sum bastion Jing Fong reopened in Manhattan’s Chinatown for take out and delivery. A handful of folding tables have been set up outside for people who want to eat pork dumplings hot from the steamer. But because the restaurant shares Elizabeth Street with the 5th Police Precinct, the road can’t be blocked with waiter service tables.

It’s a stark contrast to the activity that took place a few months ago in the 800-seat multilevel space, with 20 dim sum carts roaming the floor on a typical Sunday. “On a busy day, we would seat 2,500 to 3,000. Just for brunch,” says marketing manager Claudia Leo. The restaurant prepped over 1,000 pork buns a day. “I doubt we’ll be doing that anytime soon,” she says.

While New York’s Chinatown is just beginning its comeback, Chinese restaurants outside the neighborhood have rebounded in a notable way. Jing Fong’s Upper West Side location reopened for take out and delivery on June 2. Two weeks later, on a rainy night, the restaurant did 100% of the business they’d done when the 70-seat dining area was open; on average it’s been about 55%. “The locals on the Upper West Side spread the word in their buildings that we were reopen—it was huge,” says Leo.

The trend is taking place across the country. Since reaching a peak closure rate of 60% on April 11, Chinese restaurants have reopened faster than any other category of independent restaurant, according to the small-business data company Womply. As of June 20, just 15% of Chinese establishments weren’t doing business, vs. 20% of other types of independent restaurants.

In New York the contrast has been even sharper. On March 30, 94% of Chinese restaurants were closed, compared with 61% of the city’s other restaurants. By June 20, the number of closures had fallen to 10%.

Likewise, in the last week of December, Yelp’s page views for Chinese restaurants accounted for 8.7% of traffic for all restaurants in Manhattan. By March 2, Chinese restaurants only made up 6.2% of page views across all restaurants in the city—the lowest percentage since the beginning of 2018. By the week of May 11, Chinese restaurants accounted for 10.3% of restaurant page views, according to the company’s data.

Racist Reaction

Early on, many people blamed racism for the high rate of Chinese restaurant closures.

“I think the initial xenophobia and frankly racist reaction to Covid, Chinatown was the first neighborhood to be impacted as far back as early February,” says Malcolm Yeung, executive director of San Francisco Chinatown Community Development Center. (President Trump continues to stoke that reaction, having referred to the novel coronavirus as the “kung flu” as recently as June 24.)

San Francisco is the oldest Chinatown in North America. There were 150 restaurants in the neighborhood pre-pandemic; only about 70 have reopened.

In New York, Leo says, “We got racist calls: Can I get a side of corona with that?” 

Consequently, awareness campaigns such as #TakeOutHate have helped highlight racism issues and encouraged people to support their local Asian restaurants. 

But restaurateurs say that the decision to close was invariably based on in-house safety concerns and not customer fall-off. Many Chinese places are owned and operated by multigenerational families concerned about the danger to older family members. “We decided to close our restaurants because almost all our chefs are in a high-risk age group, which is 50 and above,” says Leo.

“The Chinese restaurant community knew how serious the virus is—we saw it first hand with SARS,”says Lydia Chang, director of business development at the mid-Atlantic-based Peter Chang Restaurant Group. “Our staff is mostly Chinese and was watching the news back home. They tend to live with three generations. They weren’t taking chances.”

New Business Models

At Peter Chang restaurants, the strongest demand among their 12 spots has been at the most neighborhood-focused location, in Arlington, Va. The place has averaged 80% to 90% of their precoronavirus business via carry out, according to Chang. In fact, sales revenue was 10% higher in May than in May 2019. “It’s surprising to me,” she says.

Chang has also created new models such as “community catering menus” of 100 to 150 orders that are purchased by groups and delivered to a drop-off location for families who are tired of their own cooking.

Yong Zhao, co-founder of Junzi Kitchen, the modern fast-casual Chinese minichain in New York and New Haven, Conn., believes that many places closed too aggressively. “People were scared. They closed more than they should have,” he says. Now Chinese restaurants benefit from being the most delivery-centric of cuisines and one with many options for ordering. “For Chinese restaurants, there are lots of different Asian-food-focused platforms besides Doordash and UberEats, like Hungry Panda and Chowbus, which will deliver food from Flushing to Manhattan. Chinese restaurants have more plays in their playbook.”

Zhao has seen sales rebound slightly, from less than 20% during the first week of the shutdown to 40% now. He also credits new programs such as family meal kits.

Chowbus Chief Executive Officer Linxin Wen is developing a feature to facilitate safe service as more Chinese dining rooms reopen.

“We’re building a contactless dine-in feature,” Wen says. “Customers preorder and schedule a time, and a waiter will bring the food. We started planning two weeks ago when a Dong Ting Chun in Seattle told us they were getting ready to reopen but it was hard for them to do takeout. We came up with a solution.”

Chinese restaurants in the U.S. still have a long way to go, even as their takeout business grows. Even as recently as the week ending on June 8, the number of seated diners at Chinese restaurants was down 60% from the same week a year earlier, according to data from OpenTable.

In San Francisco’s Chinatown, China Live has established itself as a high-concept spot with multiple dining spaces and bars, when it’s in action.  Co-founders Cindy Wong-Chen and her husband, George Chen, claim its the city’s highest-grossing restaurant; their 2019 revenue was $20 million. The pandemic has been tough, but they’ve seen demand for pantry staples with a Chinese twist—lychee jams, organic extra virgin tea oil—come from as far as Spain. They’ve maintained deliveries, though they anticipate a challenging future.

“I don’t believe that sales will come back in a traditional way, that is between four walls,” says Wong-Chen. “Seventy percent of our business is from outside the Bay Area, and people aren’t traveling as much.”

But Junzi’s Zhao is cautiously optimistic. “We aren’t even in Phase 3 yet. We’ll come back to 70% then, I’m confident about that. And it’s encouraged us to work on new programs. We just teamed up with the Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam for a menu mashup. We’re all immigrants, we are all in this together.”

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World News

Trump Family Suit to Block Niece’s Tell-All Tossed by Court

A New York court dismissed a lawsuit brought by President Donald Trump’s brother seeking to block the publication of a tell-all book by their niece Mary Trump.

Robert Trump filed the suit Tuesday in Queens probate court, arguing that the book’s publication would violate confidentiality agreements relating to the settlement of the will of Fred Trump, the president’s father. The probate court said it was not the proper forum for such a case.

Judge Peter Kelly said Thursday the case should have been brought in trial court in Manhattan rather than in the probate court where Fred Trump’s estate was settled. Kelly said that proceeding ended in 2001 and no longer exists.

Charles Harder, Robert Trump’s lawyer in the matter, said his client would file a new lawsuit in Manhattan.

Mary Trump’s book, “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man,” which is due to be published on July 28, will include purported psychological observations about her “toxic” family, according to the lawsuit. It’s also expected to reveal her role as a primary source for the New York Times’s investigation into the president’s taxes, and to detail her claim that the family’s mistreatment of her father, Fred Trump Jr., contributed to his early death.

“I am deeply disappointed in my niece Mary’s decision to write a book concerning our family,” Robert Trump said in a statement earlier in the week. “Her attempt to sensationalize and mischaracterize our family relationship after all of these years for her own financial gain is both a travesty and injustice to the memory of my late brother Fred and our beloved parents.

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