On one of the biggest food holidays of the year, restaurants operate their first full day under a brand new rule: They must close their dining rooms and operate through take-out and delivery only.
Restaurateurs say St. Patrick’s Day and the surrounding week’s festivities can bring in hundreds of thousands in revenue, yet on Tuesday, all dining rooms across the state are empty due to a mandate effective 8 p.m. Monday led by Gov. Phil Murphy, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont as a regional approach to combat the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, throughout the tri-state area.
“If you’re a dine-in restaurant … we’re not designed for takeout. The only way it would make sense to stay open as takeout is if [co-owner and chef] Heather did the cooking and I did the takeout in the front. The labor cost to keep my guys in the kitchen employed, I’m not going to get that in takeout orders,” said Ruddy Alvarez, owner at Circa in High Bridge. “Dine-in is designed for people to relax, to drink, eat, and hang out … my plan was to stay open until the end of the week, but what, am I gonna spend money paying salary to lose money every week?”
It’s impossible to make a plan on something with no structure, and without knowing when he’ll be able to re-open, Alvarez said, that’s what he and other small restaurants are left with: no structure and no ability to plan.
“[Will it be] two weeks? I could keep my staff employed for two weeks, and I’d recover when I recover. But to not have an end date?”
Small town High Bridge hunkers down in the winter, so business is slow. And at Circa, St. Patrick’s Day is the beginning of the busy season, especially if the weather has been as nice as it has been. The dining room was fairly busy this weekend, but people typically drink all week, he explained.
For now, the plan is to do take-out for the next couple days, and evaluate then. Alvarez has to decide if he wants to buy more food to keep take-out afloat.
“I don’t know if it’s worth it. Why restock if we’re not going to have the business for it? If the bar was open, that would at least be something,” Alvarez said.
For Towne Restaurant in Clinton, closing its doors isn’t uncharted waters – open 40 years, it happened when Superstorm Sandy hit, and from a fire and a flood in town – but it’s never happened due to public sickness. Total closure of its dining room doesn’t come easy after an already challenging week.
“It was really tough week last week so you’re kind of reorganizing this week and everybody’s coming up with their game plan. I plan to open just for takeout and delivery. It’s tough, though. Stuff has really come to a standstill locally,” said owner Dino Rentoulis. “We’ll see how it goes. I think we’re in good shape, hopefully, we can get it open in two weeks. It’s going to be a long road for a lot of people, but I have a positive outlook about it.”
It’s going to be a long road for a lot of people, but I have a positive outlook about it.
– Dino Rentoulis, owner, Towne Restaurant
Rentoulis expected to hand out 700 corned beef and cabbage sandwiches during the town’s parade on Saturday, but it was cancelled. Thankfully, he said, his distributor hadn’t dropped off the order yet, and he was able to put it on hold.
The shift to take-out is difficult for a fully-fledged diner, he explained. Take-out means trimming their vast menu and possibly cutting hours.
“Strategizing on times to be open, on curbside pickup, on delivery. The thing is, everybody has gone to it, so that business gets suppressed with everybody,” Rentoulis said.
Some food, like eggs benedict, doesn’t work as well for take-out as it does dine-in, he explained. In minimizing Towne’s menu, they’ve had to give some things away to community organizations like Meals on Wheels.
“I don’t have a ton and ton of inventory, I’m not like a wedding venue that just lost an order of 2,000 people, but inventory that won’t be able to go with takeout … it does no good if you throw it in the garbage,” he said.
‘This is a pause’
Even through hardship, some restaurants that can are using this as an opportunity to be a good neighbor. Stage House Tavern in Somerset is offering a to-go corned beef and soda bread platter, but has otherwise cut its menu down to four options: rice, vegetables and chicken; rice, vegetables and beef; vegetarian pasta; or chicken, sausage and potatoes. For $22.95, each order feeds four people, or one person four times.
They aren’t just feeding those who pay, though: General Manager Donald Erickson Jr. is prepared to deliver 100 meals per day to elderly and veterans within their community for the next six to eight weeks.
Seniors who cannot leave their homes and can’t afford the meals they need can call Stage House between 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. daily to receive a doorstep delivery from Erickson himself between 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Tuesday, he’s delivering as far as Clark, more than 20 miles away.
“I believe that New Jersey hasn’t seen the worst from this virus and [seniors] are the ones who will be directly affected and I wanna get ahead of that. At the end of the day, we’re part of our community, and they support us, and this is the time we need to be helping them and supporting them,” Erickson said.
Any other year, he said, there would be 700 to 800 people in his dining room and on his patio Tuesday. The restaurant is now a ghost town, he said, except for him, his chef Tim, and his banquet manager Danielle.
“We’ve gotten tons of calls from people who want to volunteer and staff who want to volunteer, but were keeping it limited because of the virus. You gotta cover your bases, and I don’t wanna pass it onto anyone,” said Erickson, who is essentially self-quarantining otherwise, avoiding confined public places besides his restaurant.
When the virus blows over, he said, he expects the weather to be beautiful and his patio to be full. Now it’s a waiting game, but an important one.
“My patio will be open and were going to be inundated. New Jersey is very resilient, and people are going to be missing being outside. This is a pause. I think if businesses can hold out for a six to eight week period, it’ll be a simple pause in business. It’s unlike something we’ve ever seen before. [After the financial crash in] 2008 it took years to bounce back. I don’t think this is going to be the same case scenario,” Erickson said. “As soon as we find a vaccine or a window of how this can be dealt with.”