Conditions seem to be in place for the return of meaningful traffic to the region’s hard-hit restaurant industry, Mark Eagan, CEO of the Capital Region Chamber of Commerce, said last week.
“I have noticed, just in the last three weeks, that people’s outlook has improved,” Eagan said of eatery struggles during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is now past the 12-month mark.
“I think it’s a combination of spring coming, Daylight Saving Time, and that so many people thought they might not get a vaccine until June or July, but now, as the supply is increasing, a lot of people now got them in April and May instead.”
The pandemic’s impact on large performance venues, such as Proctors, the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, and the Palace Theatre and Times Union Center in Albany has had an adverse ripple effect on nearby restaurants, Eagan said.
“Every time they had an event, so often those people went to a restaurant before or after the event,” he said. “So for a lot of restaurants, as they reopened, a number have told me this past year there were times when they were making no money or they were losing money. But they wanted to remain open because they didn’t want customers to forget about them and go somewhere else. That’s why this spring and summer is so critical to them.”
Within Schenectady, 56 restaurant operations closed for good since March 16, 2020, Erin Roberts, a Schenectady County spokesperson, said.
Conversely, 18 opened during the same time, as indicated by Schenectady County Public Health’s pre-operational inspections for new operators of old facilities or operators of new facilities in Schenectady, Roberts said in an email.
Nationwide, National Restaurant Association spokeswoman Vanessa Sink said roughly 110,000 restaurants, about 17 percent of the industry, were closed permanently or long-term 12 months into the pandemic.
In addition, restaurant and food-service sales are down $270 billion from expected levels, and restaurants are still down 2 million jobs, or 16 percent below their pre-pandemic level.
The vast majority of permanently closed restaurants were well-established businesses and fixtures in their communities, Sink said. On average, these restaurants had been in business for 16 years, and 16 percent had been open for at least 30 years.
In downtown Schenectady, Jack Kowalski is set to open Buds on Jay, his second foray into the industry after the pandemic forced his first venture, Square One Cafe in the same location, to close in October.
Square One had opened in January 2020, just a couple of months before the pandemic began to ravage restaurants.
While the cafe had a vegan menu, Buds on Jay is more of what Kowalski described as a retro-style cafe.
It will open with four employees, some of whom worked for Kowalski at the former cafe.
The new venture will feature a full coffee menu, Italian sodas, nitro cold brew, and a breakfast menu with vegan and gluten-free options.
It will also introduce grab-and-go lunch items such as paninis and wraps.
“We know that a lot of the folks that used to work down there, and who we anticipate will be coming back to work down there, are looking for a place where they can get a good meal in the limited time they have for lunch,” Kowalski said.
The reset will also have a charitable dimension, Kowalski said, with arcade machines to play Pac-Man and Donkey Kong on cocktail tables as patrons eat. Proceeds from the games will go to a different charity once a month.
The timing of opening the cafe during the throes of the pandemic was in some ways a benefit, Kowalski said.
Operating during COVID-19, with higher expenses, low customer counts and unpredictability, is the only way he knows how to run things.
“I’m the kind of guy that’s like the glass is half full instead of half empty,” he said. “So I look at it as a learning experience, and now I have the life experience and the skills in order to navigate essentially when the world is ending.”
Kowalski said he was unable to get federal relief last year because his business was new. He said he didn’t have sales to demonstrate the pandemic adversely impacted his business.
He called that an oversight by the government, though somewhat understandable.
“I ended up pulling over $65,000 in personal loans to keep the last business afloat, most of which [is] being used to relaunch Buds on Jay,” he said.
On the other end of the Jay Street alley, the minority-owned Executive Lounge continues to struggle during the pandemic.
Kenneth Manmohan, owner of the Trinidadian restaurant across the street from City Hall, said he has resolved to persevere until business is back to normal.
A late-afternoon peek at the restaurant last week revealed a nonexistent lunch scene. No customers came in during the hourlong visit, and the phone rang just once for an order.
Manmohan and his wife, Susan Singh, are the restaurant’s only workers. They said they can’t afford to pay a staff. They’ve closed the bar because of increased liability insurance during the pandemic.
For Manmohan, the pandemic has been yet another hurdle for the business, which opened in September 2013 but was forced to close in March 2015 because of a fire next door.
It reopened from the fire in November of 2018.
Events, such as the lounge’s monthly “old school” nights that catered to couples 35 and older who were looking for a drama-free evening out, have been on pause since March 2020, Manmohan said.
If not for their love of cooking, Manmohan said, there were many times he considered shuttering the business.
He thanked his wife for being understanding during trying times.
Manmohan, too, was unsuccessful in getting a federal loan. He said he was told the funds were exhausted by the time his application was read.
He said he’s had to raise the price of menu items because the cost of food is going up. Some meats, such as oxtail, a staple for a Caribbean restaurant, have almost doubled during the pandemic.
He said he understands that a lot of customers don’t have extra money, or even a job, because of the pandemic.
“I’m trying to rely on them. I’m not trying to chase them away,” he said.
Manmohan said he tries to donate food that he doesn’t sell to the City Mission of Schenectady once a week.
He said he’s glad just to be open and stay afloat.
“I know one day it’s gonna get better,” he said. “It’s not gonna always remain like this.”