In the new reality presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurant and food service workers have found themselves on the front lines, stocking shelves and preparing deliver orders to keep communities fed.
In one Brooklyn neighborhood, a number of restaurant owners found themselves with unexpected responsibilities: whether or not too stay open, a decision influenced by income needs of employees and a public that needs to be protected from the further spread of the novel coronavirus.
Bedford-Stuyvesant's growing restaurant community welcomed a number of new faces in the past few months, including Bar Camillo, a restaurant just 5 weeks old at the time the coronavirus pandemic hit New York City. Following guidance from the governor, its staff has been cut significantly and its owners are trying to stay open through take-out and delivery orders and an unusual drink menu.
In additional to their typical food offerings, Bar Camillo is selling its special negroni cocktail by the liter. It's a tactic being employed by other proprietors in Brooklyn, alongside pleas to purchase gift cards or even assistance employees directly through Venmo or other money-transfer apps.
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Michael Schall is one of the co-owners of Bar Camillo, who struggled over the decision to keep his employees paid and the restaurant's lights' on, a decision he did not expect to have to make when business before the pandemic was regular, good even.
Schall doesn’t know whether they’ll weather the storm, but he’s optimistic the regulars Bar Camillo has already amassed will see them through.
Standing outside of the eatery on Wednesday were some of the customers already considering themselves regulars to the new restaurant, Erin and Michael. The roommates were waiting outside for their pizza order, possibly their last trip before self-isolating.
It's not yet clear how restaurant attendance has been impacted over the past week, or how it will shift over the coming weeks and months, but since Governor Cuomo ordered dining facilities to move to take-out and delivery a significant number of restaurants in the state have decided to close down.
New York State Restaurant Association President Melissa Fleischut says nearly 30 percent of its member businesses have closed while the other 70 percent are attempting to stay open through take-out and delivery, that number is based on ongoing data collected from its members.
Over on Madison Street, still in Bed-Stuy, Boca Santa had been fortunate with steady business since its opening in late November. But owner and chef Natalie Hernandez made the similar decision to close the restaurant on Monday.
"Early Sunday, I felt so guilty. I can’t have them in my store one more day. … I’m condoning people staying outside," Hernandez said. "I can’t condone the spread of something that I have the ability to prevent.”
So she closed the store and one by one, told her employees of the decision and offered them what money she could as well as food stock from the restaurant. Hernandez knows there's a need for food in her community, but worries about the ability to offer it in a safe way. She is also looking to delivery, something she had not previously offered, and if she reopens, plans to handle all the cooking between herself and her partner. Hernandez said she can't justify asking staff to travel into work knowing the risk of catching the coronavirus.
A few blocks away, fellow newcomer to the neighborhood Greenberg's Bagels faced similar decisions. Ultimately, partners Julian Cavin and Jamison Blankenship decided to close down their operation on Monday.
"Initially we closed, we’re taking this very seriously. We want to part of the solution and not the problem," Cavin said over the phone.
But their story is not over just yet. Cavin says customers have been calling in and reaching out over social media looking to place orders. The bagel proprietors decided to modify the store's operational strategy and pivot to delivery orders only, no take-out, a service they weren't previously offering before. The shop's front doors will remain closed to customers, but come Saturday, the shop plans to open online orders through its website.
With just two employees staffed in the kitchen, Cavin says, the bagel shop will take every precaution when preparing and distributing its bagel orders. The employees will wear masks and gloves while observing social distancing, and orders will be placed where delivery workers can collect without making person-to-person contact.
"Other bagel shops are losing money by being open, they’re doing it for the community because people want to eat," Cavin said.
It's a difficult decision plaguing most restaurant owners. Schall echoed a similar sentiment, and ultimately knew that keeping the doors open would keep a handful of staff employed.
It's clear that restaurant owners do not take their newfound responsibility lightly, weighing things like customer safety and employee benefits over the profits of their restaurants. What's not clear is what assistance these restaurant owners could receive.
“I don’t want more debt, I want what the banks got,” he said, referring to the 2008 financial crisis bailouts.
Organizations like Fleischut's are calling for immediate assistance, starting with the delay of sales tax payments due Friday. And at the national level, advocates have asked Congress and the president to approve the Foodservice Industry Recovery Fund to give restaurants immediate relief during this crisis.
"We're basically asking every level of gov. to defer payments and wave fines and fees, anything they can do to make it bearable," Fleischut said.