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The future of food

Public officials and eatery owners contemplate the coming changes in the restaurant business

When Gov. Phil Murphy on April 27 listed the six principles that will guide the state’s reopening, he said that the stay-at-home order that was enacted the previous month will continue on until further notice. Without mentioning restaurants or other businesses that have been operating under restrictions intended to slow the transmission of COVID-19, he did announce the continuation of social distancing measures.

Per Executive Order 104, “Bars and restaurants are locations where significant numbers of individuals gather in close proximity, making adherence to social distancing protocols impossible or impracticable.”
But whenever those restrictions are lifted—and they will be, at some point—what will the new landscape look like?

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop surmised in a tweet a week after the governor’s announcement that when restrictions are eased, restaurant occupancy limits will be forced downward to allow for social distancing. To replace a loss in indoor seating capacity, the mayor expects the city to give some parking spaces over to the restaurants for them to turn into outdoor seating areas.

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop.

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop. – AARON HOUSTON

It’s a COVID-19-related expansion of something Jersey City started last year, which resulted in four parklets, or mini-parks built as an extension of the sidewalk to enhance public space.

“Our goal on outdoor seating is to be proactive,” Fulop said. “The prior process you’d have to go through [to allow for outdoor seating was] a fairly lengthy approval process. [It depended on] width of a sidewalk, specific detailed plans … we want to move that forward and broaden the list of restaurants that can do outdoor business. It might not just be your restaurants, it could be other businesses as well, but we want to get more of them up and running when the weather’s warm.”

If seating takes up parking spaces, what happens to the cars?

“It’s a trade-off at the end of the day. If given the choice of having two additional parking spots in front of a restaurant or of the restaurant not being able to survive financially because they don’t have enough seating, you have to use common sense that the viability of the restaurant is more important,” Fulop said. “The restaurant employs a lot of people and provides a service to the community. If we have to sacrifice a few spots, that’s an investment we’re going to make.”

Parking space restaurant seating in Jersey City.

What does the future hold for restaurants? Perhaps more non-traditional seating. – CITY OF JERSEY CITY

Fulop hosts focus groups of the city’s small business sectors, like barber shops and nail salons, to give them a voice. The business owners know their own needs better than anyone else does, so the focus groups allow city officials to listen to them and implement changes that would help them thrive.

“We’re doing our best looking to what the professionals say and [making] government an ally in facilitation,” Fulop said.

Restaurant owners have their own ideas of how the business will change post-pandemic. David Burke, the chef-owner behind Ventanas in Fort Lee, David Burke Orange Lawn and DRIFTHOUSE in Sea Bright, noted that as business opens up, restaurants will likely have to eliminate tables and move them apart, as well as space out the dinner rush.

“We can’t have everyone coming at peak times. If you want to eat dinner out, then you’ll have to be flexible and come in during non-peak times like 5 to 5:30 or after 9,” Burke said via email. “We may consider using hourly pricing for incentives like 10 or 15 percent off for reservations at non-peak hours.”

Chef David Burke gives his keynote speech during FoodBizNJ in May 2018.

Burke

Before that happens, though, he noted, New Jersey will likely take longer to open up than southern states and places less affected by COVID-19. “We have to see what they do. Sit back and watch instead of spending all kinds of money building plexiglass rooms and such,” Burke said.

Luck Sarabhayavanija, owner at Ani Ramen, surmised that restaurants will have fewer cooks in the kitchen and reduced front of house staff.

“More jobs will have to become hybrids as we will not be able to hire back a full staff to execute all positions. Servers won’t have bussers, it will now be one position in order to maintain livable wages for all. Hire back 100 percent of your staff and everyone struggles, or 50 percent and we get back to ‘normal’ wages,” Sarabhayavanija said.

Joseph David, owner of the Ship Inn in Milford, said “the ‘new norm’ of heavy takeout might just transform our business for a little while. People might just continue that route which would hopefully require us to keep a full back of house staff.”

In that scenario, though, with fewer people coming in due to either a low occupancy limit or the “the new norm,” his front of house staff would be reduced.

David anticipates single-use menu requirements, and distancing requirements between tables, he noted “I have to admit I’m hard pressed to figure out where we’d stash our tables if we’re actually required to take any out.” He also anticipates mask requirements.

“Doing this in New Jersey as well as New York may be a bit tougher than the rest of the country as we’ve been hit harder than anyone else. But the focus will be to put our heads down, be as cautious and careful as we can be and be sensitive to the needs of our incredible guests … whether they are comfortable coming and dining with us or prefer to take it home until things quiet down a bit,” David said.

The New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association released a reopening plan for the state’s restaurants in early May. Considerations like automatic entrances and exits, touchless hand sanitizers, and touchless bathrooms with automatic doors, sinks, toilets, and stall doors were recommended.

The NJRHA proposed three phases of reopening, with incremental changes between each—eventually phasing out mask requirements for customer-facing employees, but keeping unwrapped lemons and straws out of self-serve drink stations and cleaning condiment containers between table uses or requiring personal-size condiment packaging.

Gabrielle Saulsbery
Albany, N.Y. native Gabrielle Saulsbery is a staff writer for NJBIZ and the newest thing in New Jersey. You can contact her at [email protected].

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