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 was 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 catastrophe. “It took five to seven years to recover after Sandy.”
At the outset of the state’s shutdown, McLoone said his restaurants “weren’t remotely set up” to provide takeout service. “We did it to get rid of our perishables.” Then the company closed all of its restaurants and laid off 700 people. “Then we decided to tiptoe our way back into to-go,” he said. Takeout had accounted for about 2 percent of McLoone’s revenues before the pandemic. “And yet I would look across the street from our office and see the neighborhood Dunkin’ Donuts with a line of 25 cars waiting to go through their drive-through.”
While the restaurateurs welcomed the advent of outdoor dining, they said the capacity reductions might only be sustainable if indoor service is permitted by the fall. “Our goal was we wanted to still be standing on June 1 of next year,” McLoone said.
Suggs credited federal Paycheck Protection Program loans with helping keep Delta’s afloat. And he looks forward to having the loans forgiven. “If they really are all forgiven,” he said, “then maybe we can see some profits.”
Burke 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.
He is skeptical that changes to heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems would be worthwhile. “We can’t rebuild our restaurants,” he said. Hair salons, Burke added, had been allowed to welcome customers back inside. “Do you think they have upgraded their air conditioning,” he asked. “I don’t think so.”
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. One of his restaurants, Rum Runner in Sea Bright, is “doing better than before,” after adding outdoor seats under a carport.
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.