At the end of each month, we send the magazine to the printer confident that, when it lands in your mailbox or local magazine rack a few weeks later, everyday life in New Jersey will not have changed in any fundamental way. This time it’s different. At the end of March, when we put the May issue (where this piece appears) to bed, the coronavirus emergency had sent New Jersey’s $12 billion restaurant-and-hospitality industry into a contraction from which full recovery is unlikely anytime soon.
Many restaurants have closed for the duration. Many others are soldiering on, offering curbside pickup of takeout meals, and sometimes delivery as well. (Click here for a daily-updated list of restaurants’ takeout and delivery options; click here for wide-ranging coverage of all the latest Jersey restaurant news.)
Restaurants that closed largely gave away their stocks of food to staff, a welcome if short-term consolation in the face of indefinite unemployment. Layoffs have been massive. Even restaurants that have stayed open for takeout have trimmed their staffs to a bare minimum while increasing hand-washing and sanitizing of the premises.
With reduced staffs, restaurants are not offering their normal menus for takeout, but posting small daily lists online. At Serenade, a fine-dining destination in Chatham, chef/owner James Laird offered takeout portions bigger than usual and priced lower—entrées, normally about $44, were about $15–$20 less.
Beyond trying to survive, restaurants have been trying to help others survive. Before closing its five locations in March, Ani Ramen House gave away free ramen kits (broth, noodles, veggies and a protein) at three of its locations. Modine in Asbury Park joined forces with Asbury Park Dinner Table, a nonprofit founded in March, to raise money for restaurants to cook meals that can be distributed through local churches to support those in need. In late March, Modine began partnering with the local chamber of commerce to make meals for health care workers.
Restaurants are the most visible part of the food chain affected by the coronavirus. But the damage goes back to the source. Seafood distributor Local 130, to cite one example, sells mainly to restaurants. It lost 80 percent of its business in March, says owner Eric Morris, because it could not get fish. “Fewer fishing boats were leaving port,” Morris said, “because prices in the marketplace have bottomed out.” Morris has been donating inventory to soup kitchens.
A sense of humor can help ease the tension. In South Orange, Bistro d’Azur dubbed itself Bistro d’Go and offered Quarantine Casseroles, with salad, bread and dessert to feed four, for $85.
Early in the crisis, chef David Burke had a laugh at his own expense. His three New Jersey properties (Ventanas in Fort Lee, David Burke at Orange Lawn in South Orange and Drifthouse in Sea Bright) were open, offering takeout and delivery, but he was troubled by the number of layoffs he had had to make. “I couldn’t call my friends and ask them to hire my employees,” he says, “because they’re all closed themselves.”
He went to his new condo in Fort Lee and decided to get acquainted with its kitchen, which he had never used before.
“I was searing off a steak,” he says. “Next thing I know, the smoke alarm goes off and the fire department is there. You’d think I would know how to cook, but I couldn’t figure out where the switch for the exhaust fan was. I got to meet the police and the fire department. It was pretty funny.”
Local 130’s Eric Morris offers this advice: “Try to wake up with a smile and pass it on to the next person, because smiles are contagious.”Click here to leave a comment