People in the industry we spoke to feel it’s a step in the right direction, but what’s really needed is more government aid.

By Gowri Chandra
September 10, 2020
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Credit: Alexi Rosenfeld / Getty Images

On September 9, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that New York City restaurants could resume indoor dining at 25% capacity, starting September 30. And if infection rates hold steady, that number could bump to 50% by November 1. The city’s restaurants are among the last in the nation to reopen indoors. Georgia restaurants controversially resumed indoor seating on April 28, and upstate, some New York restaurants followed suit on June 12—both in limited capacities.

While the news seems like a welcome boon to NYC’s 50,000+ restaurants—nearly 1,000 of which have closed due to COVID—it’s a nominal one. We talked to a few of the city’s restaurateurs, and the consensus was: It’s not profitable, it’s not sustainable, and it’s not enough. But it’s better than nothing. Several reiterated what the industry has been saying all along: What’s really needed is more government aid.

“I'm still not comfortable yet,” Dirt Candy chef and owner Amanda Cohen said about reopening indoor dining. “I doubt I'm going to open at 25%. If, for some bizarre reason, I decided that I would, without more federal or state aid, maybe I can last for a month. That would be about it. At this point, everybody's just about run out of their PPP money. I think I have until about the end of September."

Indoor dining in New York City comes with many caveats. There will be a midnight curfew; people can’t sit at the bar; customers will need their temperatures checked at the door. And then there’s the question of will customers even feel safe eating inside? And even if they do, is it worth the health risks to themselves and the staff? 

Here are thoughts from several New York City chefs, owners, and restaurateurs.

How much will reopening indoor dining at 25% capacity help your restaurant financially? 

“I'm glad that a decision was made. I think that's super helpful and a long time coming. And certainly we were given enough time this time to sort of deal with it. But, at 25%, it's not particularly helpful,” Cohen said.

Dirt Candy has an occupancy of 74, and 25% of that is about 18 people. “I can’t split a person in half,” Cohen said, and explained that the operational efforts of accommodating dine-in at this scale is a conversation in diminishing returns. Even if things pick up to 50% in November, “50% is not 100%,” she said. “Which clearly means it’s not safe yet. And at 50% or 25%, I can't make enough money. I still have to pay my rent. It’s all a bandaid. And none of it is a real solution.” 

Michael Gordon feels about the same. He’s the chef and owner of Brooklyn’s Ital Kitchen, a French-inflected, Jamaican-inspired restaurant that channels his island upbringing through his French education. At Ital, 25% of the indoor dining capacity is four or five seats—not enough to make a dent, especially given the pending loss of the back outdoor dining space, come winter. “If we could use the outside and inside, that’s when a difference comes in... The bigger the establishment, the more 25% will be. But it’s just 25%,” he said. 

Roni Mazumdar owns three celebrated South Asian restaurants: casual Masalawala and Adda, and the more upscale Rahi. For him, 25% indoor dining is a wash at all three. “This is just a feel-good story,” he said. “That's all this is. This means nothing. This is a step in the right direction, I’ll say that. I think the biggest fear we had was we were going to be a hundred percent shut down for the entirety of winter. That's not what it seems like… But on the flip side, there isn't really a lot of federal aid that has come our way… So how do you sustain a losing proposition, and for how long?”

For him, and for so many other restaurateurs, 25% indoor dining capacity does little to offset the one looming fixed cost: rent. “There are three key cost structures,” Mazumdar explained. “Payroll, rent, and food costs. Payroll is somewhat variable… the rent structure, that's a fixed cost… It doesn't matter what capacity you're operating at.”

Like other owners, Nahid Ahmed feels this acutely. He’s the chef and owner of Luthun, a 32-seat tasting menu restaurant that defies categorization, pulling inspiration from El Bulli and NYC restaurant Lespinasse, where Ahmed and chef Arjuna Bull have worked. “I'm trying to negotiate something with my landlord,” he said. “But he's not talking.” The restaurant is six months behind on rent, and although Ahmed has the support of his investors, he feels the pressure to turn things around. 

Because Luthun’s approach so poorly translates to takeout, the restaurant’s been relying on outdoor dining for the entirety of its income. “Today it’s raining, so all the reservations are cancelled, right?” Ahmed said on the phone. “If they give me 25% inside, I can put only seven people inside. I can’t survive with seven people inside right now.” 

And it’s not just about the numbers. There’s also something intangible about a full restaurant: a bustling, warm space where people want to linger over drinks. Cohen notes that check sizes have diminished outdoors, understandably. “Some people aren't sitting here for hours having bottles of wine,” she said. And it’s unlikely that most people would feel comfortable doing that indoors anytime soon.

Gordon expressed a similar sentiment. He built his restaurant to provide a very intentional experience. His open kitchen concept is the heart of Ital, and this has been lost with takeout and outdoor dining. Similarly at Luthun, Ahmed’s chef’s counter tasting menu is the pulse of place and the bulk of the checks. For the foreseeable future, both are not quite what they were intended to be. 

What does rehiring employees look like now? 

The short answer: not great. By and large, the restaurateurs we spoke with aren’t able to justify hiring back many people, if any. And if they can, it’ll likely be disproportionately costly because of scale. 

For Mazumdar, it’s more about helping out his staff: Half of them have been furloughed at all three of his restaurants. “The reality of the matter is that this still ends up creating jobs,” he said, about the return to indoor dining. “There are real families who are at stake. So even to increase that, maybe bringing on a couple of more people, you know, on the payroll.” 

For Gordon and Cohen, rehiring doesn’t make sense right now. “Maybe I'd have to hire one more person, but I'm not going to make enough to make that really worth it,” Cohen said. She had to lay off all 35 of her employees in March, and was able to bring back six later on. 

Gordon currently has three employees, and given the size of his space, rehiring is not feasible. It’s the same for Ahmed, who currently has a staff of six: two dishwashers, three cooks on the line, and one general manager. “My employees keep calling and emailing me telling me they want to come back to work,” he said. “But I had to tell them they had to look somewhere else. I don’t have anything right now.”

The complications of re-introducing indoor dining with takeout.

Dirt Candy, like many cocktail-pouring, date-night restaurants, has had to pivot to delivery and takeout. And it’s done so successfully. “Our delivery, which has—while not sustaining us—certainly been a part of our business,” Cohen said. “And I would not want to give that up at the moment.” Now, returning to the old normal is a new challenge.

“All restaurants have different experiences, but you know, I used to be a higher-end tasting menu restaurant with very polished service and probably too many people on the floor, but we accommodated for that,” she said. “What do I do now? Am I going to still expect people to have a hundred dollars-a-person average, but also have them watch the delivery people come in and out of the dining room all night?” 

The midnight curfew hurts the bottom line.

And then there’s the curfew. In a city where people routinely come in to eat at 9 or 10 o’clock, a midnight closing time clearly cuts into the bottom line. And it puts restaurateurs in an awkward position. 

“I have a 6 o'clock and 9 o'clock seating,” Ahmed said, at Luthun. “People seating at nine o'clock, they're not going to finish until 12:30 or 1 o'clock. I'm not going to tell them to go leave, like, you know, you pay your check and I’m shutting down.”

Mazumdar is figuring out how to turnover tables in a way that makes the restaurant viable. “We actually have a limit of 90 minutes for each of the tables that we give, because if people linger for too long, we miss the next turn,” he said. He explained that an average restaurant might do three “turns”—referring to a table turning over customers—on an average night. “You’re doing barely a turn, a turn and a half, it's not enough on an already horrible situation,” he said. 

He added that at Adda, people would routinely line up before the restaurant’s dinner service, thereby leading to the restaurant churning through one round of customers by 6:30 p.m. Since people aren’t exactly eager to congregate in lines right now, that’s also hurting things on the front end. 

How is 25% capacity measured?

Restaurateurs also have questions about this, because it’s not clear cut. Are employees included? (They’re people, and they’re in the dining room; would they be magically exempt?) Cohen assumes that the answer is yes, which means that out of the 18-person new normal—25% of her 74 normal occupancy rate—she’ll only be able to accommodate 12 guests at a time after accounting for her 6 employees. 

Gina Buck of Concord Hill restaurant, in Williamsburg, also had questions. “Is it based on the number of tables we had pre-pandemic or the maximum occupancy certificate that includes staff as well as guests?” she told Eater.

There’s also the question of bar seating. According to published state guidelines, people won’t be able to sit at the bar, which should only be used for making drinks. But do sushi counters count? What about chef counters? That’s what Ahmed is wondering. His chef counter seating at Luthun is where he serves a highly tailed 15-course tasting menu, and accordingly makes the majority of his money. Normally it seats nine people; 25% of that is just over two. 

How will restaurants be expected to change ventilation?

State guidelines also specify that restaurants should “limit air recirculation and allow for outside air ventilation.” Owners are still trying to figure out what that means. Does opening windows suffice? How long will that hold up in winter? And is updated HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) needed? While it’s highly unlikely that the government will mandate a bill of expensive upgrades for an already struggling industry, it’s also unclear what’s expected.

“Now you have to outfit your entire interior, and there are conversations around how to blow in external air,” Mazumdar said. “So a restaurant business that you've already been struggling with now comes with a new cost structure. After you just spent money, let's say a month ago, to outfit your outdoor dining. Now that's obsolete… And where do you go from there? Invest more money, operate at 25% capacity. Oh.”