Indoor Dining Resumes This Friday

On Monday, Governor Murphy okayed indoor seating at 25 percent of normal capacity. Here's how chefs and restaurateurs are feeling about the decision.

Photo courtesy of Pexels

For the first time since the onset of the pandemic in mid-March, people will be permitted to dine at a table inside a restaurant that is not necessarily open on two sides to the outdoors.

On Monday, Governor Phil Murphy announced that starting this Friday, September 4, restaurants will be permitted to seat patrons indoors at 25 percent of prior capacity.

“I think the governor realized that, with the end of summer, something had to change,” says Marilou Halvorsen, president and CEO of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association (NJRHA), which pushed for the resumption of indoor dining. “We hope that by the time it gets too cold to sit outdoors we can be at 50 percent capacity. But after the last five months, this is a good day.”

The resumption of indoor dining comes with several stipulations. Staff, with temperatures taken at the start of every shift, must wear masks at all times. Customers must wear masks except when actually eating. Tables and chairs must be disinfected between seatings. You must be seated at a table before you order and all food must be consumed at the table.

Reaction among chefs reached for comment Monday was generally positive.

“We’re very happy it’s happening before Labor Day weekend, in case we get bad weather,” says Marilyn Schlossbach, who owns Pop’s Garage and Langosta Lounge in Asbury Park and is chairwoman of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association (NJRHA). “It’s a little too late to save the summer on the Shore, but at least it takes the anxiety off having to watch the weather every day.

“My perspective,” she added, “is if we don’t get state and federal funding there will continue to be a lot of people out of work and revenue lost and passion squashed. And that’s not even to mention all the postponed weddings and parties. Most of us aren’t big corporate structures. We do this because it’s what we love. Staffing is difficult, and the supply chains are really slow. I couldn’t even get toilet paper today. So it’s a great move forward, but the federal government needs to come up with another CARES package. It can’t stop here.”

Chef Joseph Voller of Il Nido in Marlboro has the advantage of occupying three adjacent storefronts in a strip mall. “We will take full advantage” of the indoor reopening, he says. “We were incredibly distanced between tables from the start. We had 112 seats inside. Now we’ll have about 30. With outdoor seating we get to about 85.

“One thing we’re doing,” he added, “is not turning tables as fast as we used to. We don’t want people to see others get up from a table and immediately be seated at the same table. We’re taking an extra 15 to 20 minutes to allow for additional cleaning.”

Early in the shutdown, many restaurateurs questioned whether they could survive if they were permitted to reopen at 50 percent capacity. The feeling was, half the revenue with the same level of fixed costs—rent, wages, taxes, utilities, supplies, etc.—was simply a losing proposition. Now 25 percent is the new normal, at least for awhile.

“For me, 25 percent is only eight to 10 people,” says Joey Baldino, chef/owner of Zeppoli, a BYO and NJM Top 30 restaurant in Collingswood. a good first start. “I have four or five tables out in front and a little garden in back with two tables. It helps. I’m happy to be able to feed people in my dining room again, but once we get to 50 percent indoors we’ll all be in a better position to survive.”

Perhaps as many as 35 percent of restaurants across the country will ultimately not reopen, it’s commonly estimated. But many places have soldiered on, first with takeout and delivery, and, since June 15, with outdoor dining.

“I was surprised to see the reopening announced in conjunction with school opening,” says chef Christopher Albrecht of the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station, “because you’d think you’d want to see how that goes before you do the restaurants.”

The Ryland has been closed since the pandemic began, and it is not rushing to reopen.

“On a business level, 25 percent is a dramatic cutback on potential revenue,” Albrecht says. “One of the things that sets Ryland apart is our kitchen team. We have some good young cooks and they thrive off each other. It’s a team environment. We’ve stayed in contact with the majority of our cooks.

“We could bring back a la carte dining in a short period of time, but without our banquet business Ryland’s location [on a highway in a sparsely populated area] is difficult. Before the pandemic, it wasn’t a problem because we had events, and a la carte satisfied our creative desires and our desire for guest interaction. Last year I taught 24 classes, which included dinner, and they sold out in advance, with as many as 50 people at each one. These were demonstration classes with some hands on participation.

“On September fourth, we’ll start bringing in people to do tastings for their weddings later in the year. As for a la carte, it takes a lot of energy to get things up and running. We want to go full steam, because we know the potential. But the one thing we don’t want is to start and have to stop. So we’re going to wait at least a couple of weeks to see what happens.”

More reactions:

Bruce Lefebvre, Chef/owner of The Frog and the Peach in New Brunswick:

“I’m happy with it, and I’m relieved. It would have been nice if it happened a little sooner, but I think it’s appropriate at this time from a health standpoint and an economic one. We’re fortunate to have an outdoor dining room with a roof overhead. We lost Easter and Mother’s Day, which are huge, and also the school graduations. But If we can go from 25 percent to 50 percent before Thanksgiving, I think we can be okay.”

Anthony Mangieri, chef/owner of Una Pizza Napoletana in Atlantic Highlands:

“It’s good, but it’s a little tricky for us. We don’t have the space for more than a few tables, and we’re doing so good with takeout. I make about 300 pizzas a weekend and my partner handles the phone and front counter and we both do prep. We’ve had no employees since the shutdown. In 25 years of doing business in New York, I never did takeaway. But here we opened in a shutdown and the community has been tremendously supportive. We’re doing a little better than expected, and I’m very grateful.

“If I do open for limited indoor dining, I’d probably go to a reservation-only policy, because I want people to have a nice dining experience and not have to wait an hour to get in. Fine dining, even before Covid, has been getting tougher and less profitable. The amount of staff you need, all highly trained, and the amount of prep time and the cost of goods makes it even tougher. But pizza always works. Great Mexican works. Burgers work. There’s so much crap out there that if you do regular food but use better ingredients and have an eye for detail and care about people, I think you can have a solid business.

“But I’m concerned about the fall. As the regular flu season kicks in, people will get sick. And this year people will freak out, even if it’s the regular flu. I think it’s going to be a tough end of year for everybody.”

Tim McLoone, owner of Pier House in Long Branch, the Rum Runner in Sea Bright and 10 other restaurants.

Of my 12 places, six are closed now, two permanently, but I intend to bring back the other four. At Pier House [in Pier Village in Long Branch] we have very limited outdoor seating, and we were not sustainable with outdoor dining, as busy as we were beforehand, so 25 percent indoors is a game changer. The only place that actually improved was the Rum Runner; the rest are running around 70 percent of normal. We had an incredible summer, an almost miraculous 29 days in July with no rain. Even when that hurricane came through that I can’t pronounce [Isaias] we were open at 4 o’clock and didn’t miss a day.

“With our banquet business, we can probably satisfy demand at 25 percent capacity because people have lowered their expectations and maybe are feeling they shouldn’t spend so much money anyway.”

Joe Mooney, executive chef, Mistral, Princeton:

“With outdoor dining, Princeton was very good to us, adjusting Witherspoon Street so we could put tables out there. I think people are feeling a little bit safer now, so I’m excited about [resuming] indoor dining. When the weather changes, you have to let people inside to let restaurants survive.

“We have a semi-enclosed patio that is heated and we use all year anyway. I think within the next two months indoor dining will be up to 50 percent capacity, and at 50 percent we’ll do just fine. What we’re really missing is the bar business. Overall, it won’t be as good as last year, but we won’t be closing our doors.”

Gloria La Grassa, owner of the Pluckemin Inn, Bedminster:

“We haven’t fired anybody, we kept the staff on, and we have a good staff. We can’t hold parties and the corporate business is down. It’s sad that so many people are out of work. But people still seem eager to go out. The only problem is weather, and luckily it hasn’t been too bad. We were able to put out about 15 tables outdoors. We space out the tables and our clients are happy and feel safe. Our chef, Jason Ramos, has done a fantastic job of changing the menu. You can come in every day and find something different. And the food he produces is excellent.

“We’ve had an increase in wine sales, at least 25 percent over last year. People have time to read our emails and they want to take advantage of the good buys we’re offering. Brian Hider and Chris Cree have worked very hard on handling all that, including doing Zoom wine sessions. We started that about a month ago. People can buy the wine wherever they want, but we usually wind up very competitive.”

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