How are restaurants surviving COVID-19?

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 9/30/20

REGION — Restauranteurs in the Catskills and Poconos are no strangers to powering through slow months until business picks back up in the summertime, according to Randy Resnick, who owns …

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How are restaurants surviving COVID-19?

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REGION — Restauranteurs in the Catskills and Poconos are no strangers to powering through slow months until business picks back up in the summertime, according to Randy Resnick, who owns Bernie’s Holiday Restaurant and Crust Italian Eatery, among several other businesses throughout Sullivan County.

“You know that, if you’ve been in business in Sullivan County, you need to save up in the summer in order to get to next summer every year,” Resnick said.

But there has been little precedent for just how slow things have been in 2020, which Resnick described as “definitely scary, with little to no income coming in” earlier in the year. In Wayne County, Leonard and Margery Schwartz have owned Hotel Wayne in downtown Honesdale for more than three decades, and they call this year the hardest one yet.

Ever since Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Gov. Tom Wolf shut down “non-essential” or “non-life-sustaining” businesses in late-March, the states’ hospitality industries have faced specifically tight restrictions, even as other industries began opening back up. Pennsylvania has ranked among the “most restrictive” throughout the months. A September survey from the New York State Restaurant Association found that 64 percent of owners said they are likely to close by the end of the year due to lost business.

For weeks in March and April, restaurants’ only option was take-out and delivery. Unless they were already set up as a take-out restaurant, making this transition presented its own challenges.

“The food costs went up, then everything you sold had to go out in a take-out container, so you had the tremendous costs of take-out containers that you didn’t have prior to the pandemic,” Resnick said. “It took about a month to get your legs on.”

For the Schwartzes, who own a number of food and lodging businesses throughout the county, “business was down, but it wasn’t a disaster, and never to the point that we had to shut down.” They said that owning the hotel-adjacent Wine Room, for which they have a wine-to-go permit, was a big help during the initial shut down.

“The state closed the state liquor stores [Fine Wine and Good Spirits]... we sold a lot of wine,” Leonard said. “So the on-premise food business was dead, take-out did not catch up to what the on-premise was, but the ability to sell wine-to-go when they couldn’t get it anywhere else helped significantly.” He noted that the real challenge was not selling the wine, but buying it from the state, which was “chaotic.”

Restaurants were eventually permitted to do outdoor dining—which proved successful for Hotel Wayne, with ample space for seating on its porch and sidewalk.

“We were very lucky,” Margery said. “Everybody wanted to sit outside, and they were so happy that they were able to do it.”

For Resnick’s establishments, outdoor dining was not such a boon—at least not right away.

“It didn’t really affect the business that much,” he said. “Outdoor seating added costs to operations because now you’ve got to get set up outside; you’ve got to have QR code, or washable, or disposable menus; you’re bringing on serving staff that you didn’t have when you were doing take-out only.”

By summer, Resnick saw outdoor dining pick up substantially, and he suspects that establishments that only opened seasonally did very well this year.

With days getting shorter and temperatures cooler, outdoor dining will not be an option much longer, and restrictions still limit indoor seating capabilities. In New York (not including New York City), restaurants cannot exceed 50-percent occupancy. In Pennsylvania, indoor occupancy has fluctuated between 25 and 50 percent. Most recently, PA establishments have the option to “self-certify,” to be allowed to meet half of its seating capabilities. Wolf’s administration also placed restrictions on alcohol sales, which must end at 11 p.m. and can only be done when a meal is ordered. Leonard, an active member of the PA Restaurant and Lodging Association, actually recommended the definition of a meal as “food prepared on the premises.”

With winter coming, Resnick and the Schwartzes are preparing to transition to more indoor customers while still abiding by state regulations and maintaining social distancing. Resnick said he will be seating people under tents, using heaters and air filters to make them comfortable. Leonard said he saw the “writing on the wall” early on, and purchased a great deal of cleaning materials to keep the restaurants’ surfaces sanitary. They also have been strictly enforcing face-covering and social-distancing requirements.

“We’ve been very diligent, and virtually everybody has been cooperative,” Leonard said.

Not all of the challenges can be linked to state restrictions. Resnick said the pandemic has divided his customer base into three categories: people who won’t eat out at all until there is a cure; people who don’t believe that the virus is real or threatening; and people who are willing to go out, as long as social distancing guidelines are in place. All in all, he estimates that he’s doing 50 percent of the business he would be doing in a normal year.

Another challenge has been keeping a staff on board, “the most expensive part of operating a restaurant,” as Resnick called it. The Schwartzes avoided this issue when they temporarily shut down one of their restaurants, Wayne on the Hill, for eight weeks. Instead of losing their key employees, however, they transferred them to the hotel restaurant to work during those two months.

As the restrictions and challenges surrounding the restaurant industry continue to evolve, so will restaurant owners’ approaches to surviving the pandemic. For Wayne and Sullivan counties, where infection rates have been comparatively low, the Schwartzes say that things have been looking better and better. Resnick, however, noted that it can be tough to predict what the future will look like.

“There’s a clear path from where we’ve been but no clear path to where we’re going.”

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