Joshua Suggs took two hits from the COVID-19 pandemic. First, he contracted the disease early in the outbreak, suffering from shortness of breath and spending time in a hospital. “I’ve never been that tired in my life,” Suggs said.
At the same time, the restrictions Gov. Phil Murphy imposed on businesses to halt the spread of the virus closed his business, Delta’s Restaurant in New Brunswick. “I didn’t believe the cash flow [from takeout orders] would be worth the risk” to his employees, Suggs said during a July 13 NJBIZ webinar on how the state’s hospitality industry is coping with the pandemic.
Suggs was joined on the panel by David Burke, president of David Burke Hospitality Management which operates 14 restaurants, including four in New Jersey; and Tim McLoone, president of McLoone’s Restaurants, which operates 10 eateries around the state.
While McLoone and Burke have been offering takeout and, more recently, outdoor dining, Suggs said he is planning to reopen for the first time on July 14. But operating at reduced capacity has not been easy. McLoone likened the effect of the pandemic to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. “It was as if all of our restaurants burned to ground and we had no insurance,” he said of the weather catastrophe. “It took five to seven years to recover after Sandy.”
While the restaurateurs welcomed the advent of outdoor dining, they said the capacity reductions might be sustainable if indoor service is permitted by the fall. “Our goal was we wanted to be still standing on June 1 of next year,” McLoone said.
Burke also noted that restaurants face additional expenses to ensure and enforce social distancing. “You can’t expect a waiter or a manager to police the customers,” he said, because of the staff’s reliance on tips.
Nonetheless, he noted, “people are watching” to make sure restaurant owners are doing everything they can to keep patrons safe. Suggs said he had installed a contactless payment system and is upgrading Delta’s restrooms with touchless faucets and soap dispensers.
McLoone said he believes his efforts are paying off, with customers filling the seats at his places. “There’s a feeling in the community that you better call ahead and make reservations,” he said.
And the industry right now is benefiting from goodwill among the public, McLoone added. People understand what the restaurant business is going through and want their favorite places to survive. “The customer is rooting for us right now,” he said.
A recording of the event, NJBIZ Conversations Presents: Restaurant Renaissance, is available here.