CAPITAL REGION — At many restaurants across upstate New York, your table is ready.
After three months in which quick handoffs of bagged takeout food by masked cashiers were the only option, diners can sit down and eat again in the Capital Region.
The state allowed outdoor restaurant dining to resume in Phase 2 of reopening of the economy and indoor dining to resume in Phase 3.
That clearance comes with a long list of caveats, including limits on number of tables and distance between them, which badly constricts potential revenue. But restaurants that were able to reopen after the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic say they’re glad to be back, even if they’re not fully back, even though they have no idea how the rest of the year will unfold, and even though some customers are still hesitant to unmask and eat.
Four Capital Region restaurateurs whose properties range from quick-serve to local landmark updated The Daily Gazette this past week on the situation.
A MARATHON, NOT A SPRINT
“It’s time for dinner now let’s go eat.” — Lyle Lovett
Johnny’s, the downtown Schenectady Italian restaurant operated by the Mallozzi family, had been selling takeout exclusively for three months before reopening its doors June 17 with reduced seating on a reduced schedule.
“It’s going to be a while before things are back to normal,” said Bobby Mallozzi.
And he’s OK with that — the entire industry is operating in uncharted territory, and perhaps a little rusty in places after a three-month layoff.
He would rather get the reopening right than make mistakes that would scare off customers.
It’s more a marathon than a sprint, Mallozzi said.
The Mallozzis still don’t know when they will be able to resume their operation at Rivers Casino & Resort — the state hasn’t said when casinos will be allowed to reopen — and their catering business has suffered with so many events canceled.
“We’ll get through,” Mallozzi said. And he believes the restaurant industry will pull through as well, without prompting the state to reimpose limitations.
“I think everyone, generally speaking, is giving it the effort needed to weather this thing.”
“We all eat, and it would be a sad waste of opportunity to eat badly.” — Anna Thomas
White Management’s portfolio of restaurants runs the gamut from quick serve (Dunkin and KFC) to fast casual (Bountiful Bread) to sit-down dinner (Butcher Block, Log Jam) to dessert (Cold Stone Creamery).
President Brian White said the pandemic all but wiped out the sit-down side of the business but the fast food side thrived.
When the first stimulus checks landed in people’s bank accounts in April, business there surged.
“The early learning in COVID was that drive-thrus were king,” he said. “So we have some KFCs and Dunkin’s and they were not off nearly the numbers the independents were.”
The dining public for the most part didn’t want the sit-down experience and he couldn’t provide it for the few who did. Now he has to rebuild that business at Log Jam and Butcher Block.
“We’re steadily coming back, people are steadily coming back,” White said, though adding: “There’s no question people are scared.”
White said stage 1 (the pandemic crisis) is passing, but there’s still a potential stage 2 (a second wave of infections) and stage 3 (an economic recession) yet to come.
“The worst of stage 1 is over,” he said. “I don’t think any of us knows what stage 2 and stage 3 is.”
Places like the Coldstone Creamery and Bountiful Bread in Stuyvesant Plaza in Guilderland found a sort of middle ground during the pandemic restrictions, White said. Coldstone’s ice cream creations were an easy takeout treat, and Bountiful had a well-established electronic order/in-person pickup business that continued. He estimated they dropped to about 40% of normal sales volume, and are rebounding quickly with the return of sit-down options.
White’s newest projects — Annabel’s, a wood-fired pizzeria, and another Bountiful Bread, both in Schenectady’s Mill Artisan District — went into hibernation during the crisis but work on them is back underway.
“We believe we’ll be able to open the doors to the taproom pretty soon,” he said. “Things are picking up there.”
STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY
“You don’t need a silver fork to eat good food.” — Paul Prudhomme
The Savoy Taproom spent most of the pandemic preparing food for Feed Albany, the non-profit collective that Savoy owners Jason and Kay Pierce co-founded to assist those thrown into hard times by the pandemic and resulting economic shutdown. It also offered takeout and delivery for paying customers.
Jason Pierce said as reopening neared, the Lark Street restaurant reconfigured its space to provide properly distanced seating for 38 inside and 60 outside.
Once the state green-lighted outdoor dining during Phase 2 reopening, Savoy’s outdoor space was continually full to capacity.
“The outdoor dining went so well that we were busier with just the outdoor dining this year than we were with the whole restaurant at the same time last year,” Pierce said.
When indoor dining resumed with Phase 3, the outdoor space had a bit of a lull, perhaps due to a heat wave underway simultaneously.
“The moment the sun started to drop we filled up our dining room and patios and almost immediately had a wait list,” Pierce said. “We saw a lot of regulars who expressed how happy they were to be able to again join us inside, along with a lot of new faces.”
Savoy Taproom is among the restaurants now using disposable cutlery and tableware. A commercial dishwasher will sterilize any stainless steel fork or spoon run through it, but the concern is more about contact transmission on the table.
“There’s no indication that COVID-19 can be spread via food,” Pierce explained. “But it certainly can be spread by touching a contaminated surface and then touching your eye. We want to minimize contact between our staff and items people are using, we want to minimize contact among members of the party.”
Savoy also installed a HEPA filtration system that exchanges all the inside air every 30 minutes.
Next on the wish list: the return of live music to the Savoy’s stage.
“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” — Virginia Woolf
Hattie’s Restaurant in Saratoga Springs was closed through the height of the pandemic, though its satellite in Wilton was open for takeout.
Co-owner Beth Alexander said the Phila Street landmark is open again for inside and outside sit-down dining but business is far from normal.
“It’s been rough,” she said. “People aren’t really rushing to sit inside, as you can imagine. But we’re following the COVID guidelines and we’re taking it all very seriously.”
This summer will see no throngs of spectators heading to SPAC or the track, which is a very worrisome development, Alexander said. Beyond summer, the long cold months will mean the end of outdoor dining.
“It’s scary but we’re trying all we can,” she said. “The public has been great but there’s just so much you can count on the community for. The community’s hurting as well.”
The city has helped by allowing more outdoor seating, she added. But the small interior has even fewer tables than normal, as restaurants are limited to 50% patron capacity.
And always in the background is the pandemic — there are not a lot of infections locally, at the moment, but there are a large number of precautionary measures. There’s also the occasional diner refusing to follow rules such as masking up when not seated.
“People have understood,” Alexander said. “But there’s always one or two that refuse and then we have to make the decision whether to serve them.”
The Hattie’s team hopes the state will allow restaurants to max out at 75% occupancy, rather than the current 50% — which is an odd thing to hope for in any circumstances other than the current situation.
“This is not just us, it’s everyone,” Alexander said.
“If I could have dinner with anyone who lived in history, it would depend on the restaurant.” — Rodney Dangerfield
Melissa Fleischutt, CEO of the New York State Restaurant Association, said restaurants face multiple challenges as they reopen — complying with state rules, reconfiguring their space and business plans, rehiring staff and keeping customers safe.
“A lot of this is perception with your customer base and what makes them feel comfortable,” she said.
About 80 percent of the state’s restaurant workforce was furloughed during the depths of the crisis, she said, adding: “Devastating is probably the universal word everyone would use.
“I would say they’re very tentative, very concerned about the long-term viability.”
The trade association worked with state officials to come up with rules that would protect restaurant staff and guests from transmission of disease, and a lot of creative solutions were developed, such as printing menus on placemats to comply with the state’s recommendation for single-use menus.
The association also pushed for the state to allow outdoor seating at an earlier date than originally planned and presented evidence that it could be done safely. The state agreed, providing a nice boost for eateries that could offer outdoor seating, Fleischutt said.
“The weather has certainly cooperated, so we’re grateful for that so far,” she said.
The association also is seeking another type of cooperation: by its members with the state guidelines for reopening.
“We’ve been encouraging all our members to read and affirm those guidelines,” she said.