FULTON COUNTY -- When the Fulton Montgomery Regional Chamber of Commerce decided to hold its first-ever Restaurant Week, it thought the typically slow-business second week in March, right after Schenectady's Restaurant Week, would be the best time to do it. At the time, no one could have foreseen that the inaugural event would also coincide with the outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus. In an effort to curb its spread, New York State issued an emergency order limiting occupancy in venues to 50 percent capacity, adding to deep economic uncertainty about the weeks ahead, particularly in the hospitality industry.
"It was kind of a wild time to have a restaurant week, such an unprecedented, unanticipated situation that we're dealing with right now," said Anne Boles, tourism director for the chamber. "That's why I'm so grateful that people came out anyway and were aware that our businesses always have their protocols to make sure things are sanitized and clean."
Boles administers the $118,000 tourism budget provided to the chamber by the Fulton County Board of Supervisors. Although the chamber represents both Fulton and Montgomery counties, this first restaurant week was only for 16 participating Fulton County restaurants. Boles said the cost of the marketing for the tourism event was about $2,000, which included a digital billboard in Schenectady, print and radio ads and social media efforts. Participating venues assembled special three-course dinner entrees with signature menu items for $20.20, a nod to the event's inaugural year.
One of the venues was the Johnstown-Gloversville Holiday Inn Restaurant. Jim Landrio, the general manager of the facility and a member of the chamber's board, said normally March is a time that a lot of senior citizens leave Fulton County for warmer areas and restaurant week helped stimulate much-needed traffic, bumping the number of patrons from about 40 per week night to about 60.
Landrio said he believes news of the virus may have incentivized some people to get out while they're able to do so, considering the lockdown rules that have been imposed in other countries, such as Italy. He said he did what he could to help ease people's minds, placing Purell dispensers at the front entrance to the hotel and restaurant to reassure customers of the ability to sanitize themselves amid the virus concerns.
"This has been a trying week as far as the news media is concerned because of the outbreak of the virus, and people are very skeptical and nervous about what the outcome will be, and how long this will go on," he said.
Megan Saltsman, one of the chefs at Union Hall in Johnstown, said a typical second week in March might net 11 dinner customers for the 18th century vintage restaurant, but restaurant week bumped customers up to 50. She said Fulton County's restaurant week couldn't have come at a better time considering she doesn't know how the COVID-19 virus will affect Easter and Mother's Day, two of the biggest days of the year for her restaurant, which has a seating capacity of 77. Saltsman said Union Hall typically exceeds 50 percent of its seating capacity three days a week.
"It's so unknown as to exactly what is going to go on, and how it's going to affect us," she said. "We've had a few parties already cancel due to all of this, and we're hoping with all of the things we have slated to do for the rest of the month. Easter only comes once a year, once it's gone, it's gone."
Fulton Montgomery Regional Chamber of Commerce President Mark Kilmer said he was sick "with the flu" during restaurant week, so he didn't experience it first hand, but he heard that things went well.
"We won't have actual metrics until the thing is over, we'll survey all of the restaurants," he said. "But I did talk to one of the restaurant owners, and he said it was fantastic, and much better than how things usually are at this time of year."
Payton Sardella, a bartender and manager at the Brass Monkey in Gloversville, said business was steady throughout restaurant week, but only three of the Brass Monkey's $20.20 entrees were sold.
"We were busy, just no one really went for the special," she said. "It's hard to say how things will go [with the virus]. They're kind of shutting the whole world down."
Boles said she asked the Fulton County Restaurant Week venues to keep track of all of the out-of-county patrons during the week so as to gauge the effectiveness of the chamber's marketing campaign. She said she plans to present the stats to the Fulton County Board of Supervisors, either at the board's March or April meeting.