How Jersey Restaurants Are Surviving Right Now

Amid huge losses, eateries across the state continue to brace for new normals.

Meny Vaknin, chef/owner of Mishmish in Montclair, completes a takeout order and places it with others for pick up. “I’ve got no time for anything else,” he says. Photo by Erik Rank

“It’s a madhouse every minute of the day,” said Al Santillo, pushing another pizza into his century-old brick oven. “I’m 63, and my buddies say, ‘retire and come play cards,’ but I feel needed here.” The oven, 16 feet deep, is in the tiny house in Elizabeth where Santillo, the son of a baker, grew up. Since the pandemic began, he’s been putting in 15-hour days and has committed to donating seven pies a day to the local hospital and EMS squad “for the duration.”

“I’ve been here 30 years,” he said, “and I’ve never been this busy.”

With the restriction of restaurants to takeout and delivery in response to Covid-19, pizza—inexpensive, transportable and beloved—may be one of the few relative bright spots, at least for places like Santillo’s that were already takeout dynamos. “Pizzerias,” said Domenico Boccia, a salesman for Ferraro Foods in Piscataway and one of Santillo’s suppliers, “are surviving the best of anybody.” 

But if pizza is a bright spot, it bobs in a sea of darkness. As of early May, when this story went to press, “97 percent of restaurant operators in the state have laid off or furloughed employees,” said Marilou Halvorsen, executive director of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association. This amounts to about 222,000 people out of work in a restaurant and hospitality labor force that was about 350,000 strong, she said. The National Restaurant Association estimates there are 19,050 eating and drinking places in the state.  

For owners, the decision to close temporarily or soldier on was not easy. Shutting down meant not only loss of income, but giving away or throwing out precious inventory while continuing to shoulder fixed costs such as rent, taxes, utilities.

[RELATED: Coronavirus Update: These NJ Restaurants Are Offering Takeout and Delivery]

Staying open made sense only if the menu could be readily adapted to takeout—impractical for fine dining exemplars like Restaurant Nicholas in Red Bank or the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station. But restaurants run on passion. For many operators, staying open, or reopening after a brief closure—even with reduced staff, a reduced menu and reduced prices—was a bet worth making. 

“If we had kept closed,” said Meny Vaknin, whose flagship, Mishmish, is one of three restaurants he owns in Montclair, the risk of losing customers as well as valued staff would have increased, making it “harder to come back.” To boost revenue, a number of places, including South + Pine in Morristown, Viaggio in Wayne, and all Turning Point locations, began offering grocery items.

To ease the pain, Congress created the Paycheck Protection Program to make small-business loans that would be forgiven if at least 75 percent were applied to payroll. But the fine print imposed conditions that, for restaurants, were seen as hobbling. Chief among these was the requirement to spend all the money within eight weeks, a span in which normal operations were impossible. Still, several respected New Jersey restaurateurs took the loans, including Vaknin, Dan Richer of Razza in Jersey City, and Neilly Robinson of Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge. “It’s given us the confidence to operate with a full staff,” Robinson said. “It’s nothing to scoff at.”

On April 22, the National Restaurant Association released a pamphlet, Covid-19 Reopening Guidance, that confirmed a lot of speculation. In addition to heightened standards for sanitizing surfaces and employee hygiene, it recommended spacing tables at least six feet apart and placing partitions between them. Suggestions included, “Consider a reservations-only business model, … try not to allow guests to congregate in waiting areas or bar areas, … [and] discontinue self-serve buffets and salad bars.”

These restrictions will mean perhaps a 50 percent reduction in seating capacity and therefore revenue. It’s questionable whether small restaurants can survive under those terms. Whether people will flock to take those seats also remains to be seen. At some point, restaurants will again be allowed to seat people at tables. Whether people will readily take those seats and accept close proximity to others, even with partitions and such, remains to be seen.

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