By Alex Israel
New York City’s stay-at-home order has restricted bars and restaurants to delivery and takeout service since March 22. While they still don’t know when they will be allowed to open for dine-in service, local business owners are already considering how their operations will have to change in the aftermath of the coronavirus.
WSR spoke with Didier Pawlicki, owner of La Siréne, a French bistro on the southwest corner of 80th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, and Jake Poznak, owner of Moonrise Izakaya, a Japanese-style pub on the northwest corner of 98th Street and Amsterdam, to understand how local restaurants might look in the coming months.
La Siréne had been open for three years prior to the pandemic. Earlier this week Pawlicki decided to offer delivery and takeout service—a first for the business—to help support his staff, who had their hours cut as a result of the stay-at-home order. The extra “pocket money” coming in from the reopening (about $350 a day, he estimated) is nice for now, but he is uncertain he can sustain La Siréne once sit-down service resumes. He believes the state will limit bars and restaurants to 50 percent capacity, in the best case scenario, through 2020—which in turn will majorly limit his profit margins.
Poznak is considering similar issues at Moonrise Izakaya. The pub opened in October of 2019—only five months before being forced to shut its doors to sit-down service because of the virus. While it has remained closed throughout the duration of the stay-at-home order, Poznak is making plans to reopen for takeout and delivery via a sidewalk pickup window sometime during the week of May 11. “I want to get everyone back to work as soon as possible,” he said. It’s his assumption that when allowed to fully reopen, dine-in customers will be capped at 25 percent before being scaled up to 50 percent. “I don’t think we’ll see full capacity for a while. Even if it was allowed, I don’t see consumers wanting to eat at a fully crowded restaurant.”
Both said they are anxiously awaiting official guidelines from the city or state for when—and how—restaurants can resume in-person dining. In the meantime, they’re already exploring some new approaches.
At the end of the day, “it doesn’t matter much when we open,” Pawlicki told WSR. “It matters how we open. We have to show people that we care,” he said. He plans to implement several new tactics to make diners feel safe—beyond requiring washable cotton masks and gloves for all employees (“of course”) and regular disinfection of the restaurant and physical distancing of the tables (“this is obvious”).
One of Pawlicki’s ideas is to host two separate dining services within set time frames—one from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m., and the next from 7:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. This would help maximize the amount of possible patrons over the course of an evening in the case of a mandated capacity cap, he said.
Pawlicki is also turning to technology to help bolster customer and employee safety. He is currently exploring mobile applications that would allow diners to send orders directly to the kitchen from their own device, to avoid back-and-forth menu handling. He’s also been approached by a company selling walk-through scanners that would take temperature and spray disinfectant outside the door.
Poznak is focusing on physical safety for now. “We will do everything we can to keep everyone safe and healthy,” he said. He plans to install sanitizer stations in the entryway, outside the bathrooms, and in the middle of the restaurant. He’s also exploring more robust washing stations, namely sinks with soap to sit outside of the pub’s entrance and bathrooms. And in terms of masks, he wants to get creative. “We’re going to try to get some logo masks, so that it doesn’t just look like a surgical mask or a bandana—we can be on brand while being safe.”
Despite their plans, business owners remains face a looming challenge: making rent.
Luckily, Poznak is collaborating with his landlords, a father and son duo, to determine a modified payment plan based on incoming stimulus money and loans. “They have been extremely amazing to work with,” he said. “Even though they’re in the business of selling space, given the economy right now they want as many people succeeding in their spaces as they can.”
While Pawlicki said he “can’t complain” about the relationship with his landlord over the last few weeks, he is most worried about rent in a future where restrictions limit the amount of people allowed inside. “The rent has to be renegotiated,” he said. “Already, $20,000 for 1,100 square feet wasn’t cheap. But with half capacity, it would be impossible to make any profit,” he said. He hopes to negotiate a 50 percent rent cut—and if he cannot reach an agreement with his landlord, he will be forced to move, he added.
At the core of any planning is a desire to bring back their employees, while keeping them safe, too—something both owners are anxious to do.
“It takes time to find the right team,” said Pawlicki, praising his staff, who he has had to furlough or reduce to very limited hours. “They love to work with me, and they love to work together, so it should not be a big deal to reunite them again.”
“They are very eager to get back to work,” said Poznak about his team, most of whom have also been temporarily laid off. “A lot of them have told me that they’re bored, and they begged me to open earlier,” he said. “I just want to make sure that we’re in a good place to take all safety precautions before getting to that point.”
Both owners believe a presumed return to normalcy can only come with a vaccine. But in the meantime, they’re hopeful that they can make the most out of the situation.
“We’re going to do our best to adapt,” said Pawlicki. “We’re looking towards the future, to try to learn something out of this crisis.”
“I’m excited to go back to work,” said Poznak. “This is the longest vacation I’ve ever had.”