Winter is coming

Daniel J. Munoz//August 23, 2021

Winter is coming

As the delta variant spreads, anxiety rises among New Jersey restaurant owners

Daniel J. Munoz//August 23, 2021

Restaurateurs and caterers around the state admit to feeling a sense of anxiety about the effects of the delta variant on their businesses. Delays in restoring supply chains and labor shortages continue to plague the restaurant industry and hinder its full recovery.

“There is a feeling that restaurant owners are singled out, and that’s a problem,” said Dana Lancellotti, head of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, a statewide trade group for those two industries.

“They aren’t sure what is going to happen. They are all a little confused or scared,” said Ranbir Bhatia, general manager of Benares, Indian Restaurant, which has one location in Tribeca and another in Wyckoff. On top of sit-down dining, which waned for much of the pandemic, his business frequently catered outside events, which became almost exclusively Benares’ income source in the midst of the restrictions. He delivered pre-packaged meals for Zoom dinners, Mother’s Day, birthday parties and religious celebrations, throughout the pandemic and into well into the reopening this summer, he said.

Catering prepared at Benares during the pandemic. - BENARES NJ
Catering prepared at Benares during the pandemic. – BENARES NJ

But there have been some hiccups. “We have had a few events getting cancelled, and then a lot of events reigning in the number of people,” Bhatia said.

Lori Wood Montague, owner of Wood Legacy Productions, a caterer that operates mainly in and around Montclair, has fared similarly. She’s seen a number of clients cancel their plans, reduce the size of their events, or try to have them outdoors as much as possible.

Initially there was an “upsurge of events” in June, when the public sentiment was that COVID-19 was finally in the rearview mirror, though interest in booking events remains. “For me, it is the uncertainty of what is to come that makes it difficult,” she lamented.

Jeanne Cretella, owner of Landmark Hospitality, which operates several wedding venues and restaurants across the state, said she is optimistic. “Because of the sheer number of people that are vaccinated, we are looking at the future as being nothing but bright,” she said in a phone interview. “At some point in time, just like the flu never goes away, it always has different strains, but people take precautions and go about living their lives.”

New restrictions?

Indoor dining and large wedding events were largely banned for most of the pandemic. In September 2020, indoor dining was permitted at 25% capacity, after being entirely off limits. It stayed that way until restrictions were gradually loosened over the winter and spring.

Barside seating was prohibited for most of the pandemic, while wedding receptions could only operate with restriction on crowd size, mask requirements and social distancing.

Wood Legacy Productions’ grab and go catering. - LORI WOOD MONTAGUE
Wood Legacy Productions’ grab and go catering. – LORI WOOD MONTAGUE

Most public health experts are skeptical that those levels of restrictions would return to the Garden State with officials focused getting people vaccinated. “What I think is the right thing” for “entry into any enclosed venue, to require proof of vaccination. That is just good public health,” said Perry Halkitis, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health, who has advised the Murphy administration on its COVID-19 response. “In a civil society, when you agree to be part of a society, you give up certain things in order to establish the well-being of the whole.” The level of restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the delta variant, or any other strains, could depend on how the virus pans out “over the next four to six weeks.”

Public health officials expect a surge in infectious diseases like the flu and cold, which were virtually absent last year with most New Jerseyans masked and socially distanced. And once the cold weather hits, the virus could more easily spread among those who opt to gather indoors rather than outside.

But for now, with no guidance possible restrictions, Moshe Atzbi, owner of Hailey’s Harp and Pub in Metuchen, said he has no choice but to push “full steam ahead.” Atzbi said he fears that something as simple as a mask mandate could hurt public confidence in restaurants. “It would have an impact on the psyche of the general public,” he said.

Murphy signed an order at the end of July “strongly recommending” that masks be worn indoors wherever COVID-19 is spreading quickly, which is now the entire state. “Any decisions he does make, going forward, it’s made in the context that he knows he’s running for reelection,” Patrick Murray, who runs the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said in a July interview. “At this point, any change would take you backwards, so that has to be justifiable.”

Kirk Ruoff, founder and chief executive officer of Turning Point Restaurants, which owns and operates 12 eateries in New Jersey, and eight more across Delaware and Pennsylvania, said he already brought back a mask mandate for his staff when they’re indoors. Ruoff called a reintroduction of public mask mandates “inevitable.”

“If we can kind of be proactive, then hopefully put off the governor limiting capacities, separating tables again, and doing all that crazy stuff,” he added. “The staff understood.”

Bhatia said his Wyckoff and Tribeca locations also have mask requirements. A vaccine mandate for customers affects the latter establishment, following an order New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed mandating that as of Aug. 16, people seeking admission for indoor dining, gyms and other venues need to be vaccinated. “Most of the people who are coming in, they are all vaccinated,” he said. “People are not very happy about disclosing their record. Not to us, in general they are saying ‘why the hell do I have to do this.’”

His staff at the Wyckoff site must be vaccinated. Other restaurant owners said they would not require customers to show proof of vaccination.

“That’s a huge invasion of privacy,” Atzbi said “To start the requirements for that, is going to make the few hold-outs even more resistant.”

And in Ruoff’s opinion, to have a “16-year-old hostess ask a grown man for his vaccine card when you enter the restaurant … Is that realistic? Is that something you want a minor to do?”

The delta difference

Stephen Chrisomalis, owner of Steve’s Burgers, which just opened its third location in Garfield, said his burgers, fries and cheesesteaks easily lend themselves to takeout. So while his venues all offer sit-down dining, his mainstay has been take-out. Rather than sit in for dining, he said most of his customers simply opted to walk in, place an order, wait in the car and have a staff member bring it out to them.

Ribbon-cutting for Steve’s Burgers North Bergen location. - STEVE’S BURGERS
Ribbon-cutting for Steve’s Burgers North Bergen location. – STEVE’S BURGERS

Most patrons prefer to eat outdoors, weather permitting, but outdoor dining set-ups are expensive, because of the cost of the equipment and because of regulatory issues. “It was getting back to normal, I believe it was, mostly, until this thing,” he said of the delta variant. Once winter ends outdoor dining, then should the resurgence of the virus prompt new restrictions, he could very easily return to the takeout-only model.

Bhatia and Montague both were confident of their pandemic-friendly, grab-and-go catering operations, expensive as they are. “I did birthday parties that were drive-by, people that wanted to have their food, cupcakes prepackaged, or fried chicken and macaroni and cheese in a container to go with forks and they would just hand their guests these packages,” Montague said. “I’ve actually become an expert in how to execute it and how to customize labels and really build upon that.”