Lunch spots scramble to adjust to new coronavirus takeout edict

Restaurants restricted to takeouts, delivery
Gloria Griskowitz, co-owner of Putnam Market in Saratoga Springs, serves food for customer Mary Lou Pakatar on Monday.
Gloria Griskowitz, co-owner of Putnam Market in Saratoga Springs, serves food for customer Mary Lou Pakatar on Monday.

SCHENECTADY — Storm clouds have been gathering for days. 

Local restaurateurs acknowledged it was all but inevitable they would be ordered to scale back operations as officials scramble to contain the spread of coronavirus.

New state guidelines issued Monday have ordered restaurants and bars to stop in-house dining and move to take-out and delivery only for the foreseeable future.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued the directive in conjunction with New Jersey and Connecticut as part of a regional approach designed to slow the spread of the virus.

“We were planning on doing that starting today,” said George Plakas, owner of Newest Lunch in Schenectady. “But we have a lot of regular customers and wanted to let them know.”

Patrons milled about on Monday, savoring the final moments before what may be a lengthy disruption in business.

“I’m nervous, but glad everyone is taking it seriously,” said Henry Beasley, a landscaper, as he ate his usual double hamburger — tomatoes, bacon. No lettuce.

The three states also limited crowd sizes to 50 people effective Monday night.

On Monday, the restaurant industry reacted by exchanging group texts, calls with colleagues and staff meetings.

Visits to over a dozen working class lunch spots on Monday revealed a similar themes.

While they’re generally supportive of the guidelines, restaurant owners wondered how long they could walk the tightrope between protecting public safety and staying financially solvent and keeping their staff employed.

“We’ll let it ride until they tell us to shut it down,” said Phil Menagias, owner of Broadway Lunch.

The restaurant will set up a separate phone number for orders and curbside pickup, and will offer new specials, cash discounts and family packages.

Others were still digesting the directive.

“It’s gonna hurt,” said Francisca Cruz, owner of the Point Cafe in the city’s Bellevue neighborhood.

Cruz, who estimated that 75 percent of the Mexican eateries business is breakfast-based, will pivot to publicizing takeouts. So will Newest Lunch and More Perraca’s, which will promote new family-style, to-go meals that it will leave on customers’ doorsteps, no contact required.

Mike’s Hot Dogs will convert their front window into a drive-thru.

“We’ve been here for over 70 years and we plan on being here for another 70,” said owner John Mantis.

Anxiety levels appeared to correlate with how much of their daily business is dine-in or takeout.

Business has been steadily declining at Morrette’s Restaurant since last week, where manager Rachel Shorti estimated 80 percent of their clientele dines in.

By mid-afternoon, Shorti had waited on just two tables.

The iconic Erie Boulevard restaurant will accommodate take-out, Shorti said. But tips are the industry’s lifeblood, and people generally don’t tip on takeout orders.

“It’s really just going to hurt everyone.”

Lunchtime regulars trickled out of Mami’s Restaurant on Crane Street, where manager Fermin Fabian estimated 95 percent of his business was take-out.

Beginning Tuesday, he’ll remove the three tables from the tiny restaurant.

“We knew this was coming,” said Fabian, who has been watching the situation evolve in Italy, where hospitals are overwhelmed and the entire country is in lockdown.

Mami’s is among the small restaurants that cannot rely on food delivery apps like Grubhub and DoorDash, citing the high fees.

But Fabian is confident loyal customers will keep the Spanish restaurant afloat.

“They’ve been coming here for the past 12 years, and they will continue to do that,” Fabian said.

Others are pointing at niche services.

Tiffany’s West Indian Restaurant is the only venue in the city that offers a Caribbean breakfast, said co-owner Frederick Bishunath.

“I got good customers. I got quality food — they’re gonna come,” he said.

Bishunath is among those nervously monitoring disruptions in the restaurant supply chain. He pointed at prices inching up at bulk suppliers, citing the rising cost of staples like rice, oil and flour.

“This thing is affecting the whole economy,” he said. “It’s depressing, but what are you going to do?”

David Khan, owner of Dave’s Gourmet Burgers and More in the city’s Bellevue neighborhood, said ground beef at one local wholesaler has been “absolutely wiped out.”

“If we’re going to shut down, it’s because we’ll run out of beef,” Khan said.

Business was brisk at Restaurant Depot in Albany on Monday afternoon as restaurant workers scrambled to stock up on takeout containers and plastic silverware.

Mohammad Qareshi, owner of Crown Fried Chicken & Pizza on Central Avenue in Albany, sighed as he scanned the shelves.

“I know everyone’s scared, but believe in God and Allah,” he said.

Solomon Winternitz, kitchen manager at Texas Roadhouse on Wolf Road in Albany, rolled a cart filled with 1,500 takeout containers toward the checkout.

“We’re just going to weather the storm the best we can and see what comes next,” he said.

Jan Siemiginowski, co-owner of Muza in Troy, pointed at dwindling supplies of potatoes.

“I’m glad to see the governor taking it very seriously,” Siemiginowski said. “The more serious up front, the less we have to fight later.”

Several owners said they would try to prevent staff layoffs for as long as possible.

Others have already been forced to let people go, including More Perraca’s, which laid off eight staff on Monday.

Owner Maria Papa said she will hire back the employees once coronavirus dissipates and encouraged them to fill out unemployment forms immediately.

“A week ago, we had the luxury of taking it day by day,” Papa said. “Now it’s hour-by-hour. The trick is to react immediately.”

Menagias, the Broadway Lunch owner, has no plans to reduce staff, but will scale back hours and start rotating workers in order to spread the sacrifice around.

“At least my staff still has a chance to bring in some money,” Menagias said.

Movie theaters, gyms and casinos have been also been temporarily closed down statewide, joining libraries, universities and government offices across a patchwork of municipalities that have been closed in recent days.

Cuomo on Monday also ordered the statewide closure of schools for the next two weeks.

“Our primary goal right now is to slow the spread of this virus so that the wave of new infections doesn’t crash our healthcare system, and everyone agrees social distancing is the best way to do that,” Cuomo said.

Broadway Lunch waitress Christine Osuba said while she was worried about her hours being slashed, she was more worried about impact to vulnerable populations.

Osuba pointed at an elderly couple making their way to a table.

The couple, who declined to give their names to a reporter in order to speak candidly, said they circulate regularly among four local diners, and resented the state directives, which they said makes them feel like children.

President Donald Trump on Monday also advised Americans to avoid discretionary travel and limit gatherings to 10 people.

“I think the whole thing’s stupid,” said the woman. “Let me decide what to do — not stupid politicians. It’s going to make me hate my government.”

As a waitress brought him two hot dogs, the man said he had a heart bypass surgery about a year ago.

“The media is causing a lot of this problem,” he said. 

Correction 3:27 p.m. 3/17/20: An earlier version of this story misidentified the restaurant co-owned by Jan Siemiginowski. Siemiginowski co-owns the restaurant Muza in Troy.

Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie, News, Saratoga County, Schenectady County

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