by Susan E. Campbell
Saratoga restaurants are handling the challenges of the coronavirus crisis with a sense of family, social responsibility, and grace.
When the governor’s mandate to close sit-down services for all restaurants and bars went into effect on March 16, establishments across the state were forced to deal with the hardship. Many have had to shut down completely and await the fate of their business as the pandemic continues.
The option for restaurants is making take-out available for curbside pickup, or delivering. Some restaurants who were previously not involved in either practice are implementing them to stay afloat.
New York state’s restaurant industry is among the most impacted, losing $1.9 billion and more than 250,000 jobs, according to a recent report by the National Restaurant Association. A nationwide survey of more than 4,500 restaurant operators, conducted from March through 26, found that an estimated $25 billion in sales and more than 3 million jobs were lost in the industry in the first 22 days of March 2020.
In New York, an estimated $1.9 billion in sales and more than 250,000 jobs were lost in the same time period.
“While our industry nationwide is deeply impacted, New York state restaurants are among the hardest hit,” New York State Restaurant Association President and CEO Melissa Fleischut said in a news release.
An estimated 3 percent of restaurant operators nationwide, and 5 percent in New York, have permanently closed their doors. Yet another 11 percent, and 12 percent in New York, anticipated eventually having to closing their restaurant by the end of April.
“Many restaurants have already closed and will never reopen, and restaurant employees are out of work, trying to figure out what’s next,” Fleischut said.
Locally, there is still restaurant activity.
The Olde Bryan Inn in Saratoga Springs had a successful weekend preparing traditional St. Patrick’s Day dinners, according to Robin Kelsey, manager for 25 years.
“We typically have a busy take-out service and just as when eating in, every item is made to order,” said Kelsey. There had been some 160 items available for pickup normally and the chefs have pared down to about 30.
Olde Bryan Inn also trimmed its staff. Bartenders and servers were laid off with pay, while some of the salaried positions are on-site for projects, according to Kelsey.
“The atmosphere has been good, and we are being cautious by turning the building inside out and doing a thorough cleaning,” she said.
Takeout had been priority for the week when on March 24 owner Steve Sullivan announced he would close the restaurant completely for a short time, Kelsey said.
“We had some interior work to do, so we just pushed up those plans,” said Kelsey. Some projects included re-grouting, treating the hardwood with linseed oil, and putting polyurethane on the bar, she said.
Kelsey said the owner “went above and beyond” for the crew, many of whom have been with the restaurant a dozen years or more. Staff turnover is very low, she said.
“We have a phone tree and check in with a few at a time regularly,” she said. “Plus, I send messages through the internet every day. We will get through this together,” said Kelsey.
At Augie’s Family Style Italian Restaurant in Ballston Spa, owner Augie Vitiello said that after an initial “sense of despair” he was “breathing a sigh of relief and feeling grateful to still be open to do curbside and take-out. Augie’s was always geared to take-out service and big family-sized portions, so the transition for us has been seamless,” he said.
The business also has Augie’s To Go in Saratoga Springs. That has always been operating as a take-out venue, so it operates as usual.
“We are excited about doing what restaurants are supposed to be doing, and have been cautious with sanitizing, using gloves, appropriate distancing, as well as bringing food out to the car,” Vitiello said. “The customers have been loyal and we have a steady swath of business.”
Vitiello said he feels fortunate he hasn’t been forced to shutter his restaurant.
“I have friends with clothing and retail stores who are out of business for now,” he said. “Some restaurants in the area have had to close because it is difficult to do a volume of take-out if not used to it.”
The wait staff and busboys at Augie’s are “taking the biggest hit, and the people here are working hard,” he said.
Vitiello is “trying to be fair by cutting back across the board” on shifts and hours, he said. For example, if a waiter typically worked three nights a week, now their shift might be once every 10 days, he said. “We get that we have to roll up our sleeves. This is not the first time the country has gone through something.”
“We have to live life and look after each other, and support all our local restaurants,” he said.
Marino’s Pizza in Saratoga Springs is in its 40th year of business. Owner Gary Latte admits this year poses the most difficult challenges he has faced.
Shortly after the mandate to close earlier and discontinue table service, it was business as usual at Marino’s. He has very few tables and relies on take-out. But the following week there was a 30 percent drop in business.
“We reduced the hours for each of our 13 employees by about three hours a week,” he said. “We have a good staff who have been with us a while and are now multi-tasking different positions.”
Latte said he was not worried about breaking even. He continued to serve loyal customers. He also realized that financially a cut-back was a concern for everyone, but reasoned that reducing staff “would help cut down the risk of infection.”
Meanwhile coronavirus cases started to rise. After discussing it with his two managers, Latte decided to close during the week of April 2 and re-evaluate thereafter.
“In preparation of the peak I am putting health first,” he said. “We questioned: Is it really wise to continue to be open during this health crisis?”
“How important it is for the government to fulfill its promise for financial assistance, because small businesses need the help now,” he said.
The New York State Restaurant Association is supporting its members by working with Gov. Andrew Cuomo in advocating for a delay in sales tax payments, a moratorium on evictions and adjustments in State Liquor Authority regulations. This has allowed some operators to keep their doors open during this crisis.
The Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, in partnership with the Saratoga County Prosperity Partnership, Saratoga Economic Development Corporation, Discover Saratoga, the Saratoga Springs City Center and the Saratoga Springs Downtown Business Association, aims to keep restaurateurs informed via email of the various programs being offered to the local owners and their employees who have become unemployed through no fault of their own.