How NJ Restaurants Are Responding to the Coronavirus Outbreak

Members of the Garden State food industry discuss how the COVID-19 outbreak is already affecting businesses—and what extra measures are being taken to make dining out less risky.

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Coronavirus Update: These NJ Restaurants Are Temporarily Closed

UPDATE: As of Monday, March 16, NJ restaurants can only offer takeout and delivery

NOTE: The health and safety of our readers is of the utmost importance. Given the current health-related state of emergency, restaurants we have heard from are taking special precautions to protect customers and employees. Many public events have been cancelled. We urge our readers to take all necessary precautions as advised by health experts.

As of this writing, there are 29 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the state of New Jersey. Given the problems surrounding proper testing for the virus, chances are that number is higher. And given the rate at which coronavirus seems to spread, the number of cases in New Jersey is also likely to grow. As we begin to settle back from the first round of panic—groceries stories putting limits on things like toilet paper—and adjust to a new, if temporary, era of suggested “social distancing,” there’s no question the New Jersey restaurant industry is going to be hit hard. Jersey City has already implemented a 10 pm curfew on bars and restaurants.

“If anything happens to the economy, or something crazy like this, we’re the first thing people cut out,” says chef Seth Warshaw of ETC. Steakhouse.

[RELATED: Coronavirus Resources: Prevention, Symptoms and More]

We reached out to several chefs and restaurateurs we know to get a better sense of both how the coronavirus is impacting business and how they are responding. Some, like Restaurant Nicholas, are implementing takeout and delivery options, in this case a “Nicholas To Go” menu ($12 for children, $27.50 for adults) that simply requires a day’s email notice for delivery, or noontime requests for pick-up. Fascino—like Restaurant Nicholas, one of NJM‘s Top 30 Best Restaurants—is also offering delivery to the Montclair/Glen Ridge area (a $50 minimum). Chances are restaurants in your area that previously hadn’t offered delivery are doing so. Check with any restaurants mentioned below, or any in your area, to explore delivery/to-go options.

In fact, as the response to coronavirus continues to evolve, we’re expecting more restaurants will adopt to-go menus. We’re also hearing more about increased sick leave for employees and heightened safety measures (the president of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association assured us she’s on top of disseminating all the right information to keep employees and diners safe).

Stay tuned as we update this post, and of course always follow any protocols put in place in advance of dining out.

Frank Cretella, founder, Landmark Hospitality Group

Impact?

“Where we are finding issues is with private dining events, groups of 30 or 40. That’s a big part of a restaurant’s business today. And we’re finding that there’s a lot of postponement on that. So we had to make our policies much laxer. Under an ‘Act of God’ clause they had 90 days to pick another date, but we made it 180. Or if you can’t find a date at the facility you booked, you can do one at any of our facilities. We’re trying to make it easy and less painful. Everybody’s upset. People put a lot of time into these events.

But back in 2008, with the recession, how difficult that was. I feel, obviously this is nowhere near as bad as that economically, but it could be. I see a lot of our places have been running flat for the past two weeks, doing the same as the same day last year. This week I’m seeing some places go up and some places go down compared to last year. I don’t know why. We’re trying to relate it to demographics in some areas. Maybe people in the suburbs feel less threatened than people in Jersey City? They cancelled the St. Patrick’s Day parade, but they’re still doing the St. Paddy’s Day dinner at Liberty House. They had to cancel the parade—that’s a permit from the city—but we’re not cancelling our celebration. I guess it’s two different mindsets.”

Steps taken?

“As far as our regular dining establishments, my wife Jeanne and I are gonna spend more time in the restaurants. We’ll try to hit three of our venues every day, just so people see us—as well as the regular management—on the floor, just to reassure people.

We have staff coming in earlier to clean more. We’re doing a lot in the way of sanitizing arm rests on chairs, sanitizing tables. We even have our office being sanitized every day. And internally, we have a health policy with paid time off that we’ve enhanced, so if anybody for any reason needs extra assistance—kid goes to school that closes down, they have to be under quarantine—we’re extending the amount of sick days they get. Everybody feels like in our industry, people are just forced to work! I view it a little differently. It’s people with careers that pay well, and obviously we’re enhancing their ability to stay home if they need to. You don’t want customers to think that everybody’s in the kitchen working with 102-degree fevers.

We increased the number of sanitizing stations in the front and back of the house. A part of our success is our staff have been with us for such a long time. They know all the customers. We’re just trying to be a little more thoughtful, doing less touching. And it’s hard for me. I’m a hugger! But we’re doing the elbow thing. We kid around, but we’re doing it now.”

Chris Viola, founder and CDO, Cul+ure Collective

Steps taken?

“We at Cul+ure Collective are staying on top of the frequently updated protocols and news reports.  The restaurant teams have increased their already diligent cleanliness, sanitation and food safety procedures. Our first and foremost priority is the health and safety of our team and our guests. We are committed to ensuring that our team members stay home if they are sick. With the financial hardships that are imminent, our goal throughout these difficult times is to safely create jobs for our team members while serving our community. On Monday morning we will be launching our takeout and delivery model to serve the community during these unsettling times.”

Jorge Arriola, chef/owner, Lokal Coffee & Co.

Impact?

“Knock on wood, we are still getting steady business. Luckily most people are being logical.”

Steps taken?

“Here at our business, our cleanliness model remains in place as it did when we first opened our doors. All public spaces, tables and counters get sanitized. All mugs, cups, plates and cutlery get washed in boiling water and then sanitized. Signs for hand-washing—effective hand-washing—are still in place, as they were on day one. Being a professional chef teaches you to keep your spaces as clean as possible, temperature-controlled, highly organized and date-marked daily. Also, we are a ServSafe Manager business and have satisfactory health department certificates at all times, across the board.”

Leia Gaccione of South + Pine and Central + Main

Impact?

“It’s turned pretty bad pretty quickly. We’re definitely seeing an impact since last Monday. Business has dropped quite a bit, and it’s been a lot slower during the week. It’s funny—yesterday I saw it start to go a little crazy. I got emails from Chase about downloading an app for online banking so you don’t have to go to the bank. Resy, the reservation system, sent out an email to all clients; there had been a drop in reservations, an increase in last-minute cancellations. Friday alone there was a 30 percent decrease in covers across the board. The Taste of Madison event has been cancelled. A Taste for Good has been cancelled as well. Eventbrite is not allowing anyone to create events or sell ticketed events through their site until future notice.

Actually, before that email, I had noticed, wow, our Friday was down 30 percent the last two weeks. And now it’s nationwide. So we are feeling it a little bit. We had a large party that has a reservation for the end of the month, they just cancelled … I mean, it’s scary the way the media is talking about it. And I get it. Listen, I’m a healthy 36-year-old. If I were to contract the virus, I’d be sick for a couple of weeks and probably get over it. But it’s not only myself or healthy younger people. We’re worried about people coming in who are not young, or who are immune-compromised, with health issues we maybe don’t know about. We understand the severity of it. And we also understand the protocols to try to make it safe for everyone.”

Steps taken?

“If any employees are sick, they’re definitely not coming to work. I actually had the flu last week. I didn’t go to work. It’s funny, in emails I had to specify: ‘It’s not the coronavirus!’ There’s this mass hysteria right now. So we have no sick employees at work, and they don’t come back before they’re ready. We also implemented a crazy increase in cleaning, sanitizing all door handles every hour, sanitizing our menu boards; our employees are excessively washing their hands. We’re pre-shifting with our staff about protocols on a daily basis.

Some restaurants in New York have employees and wait staff wearing gloves. I saw a former colleague who’s a general manager at a very popular restaurant in the city; they had servers request to wear face masks in the dining room. I mean, this is wild. Again, I do think the media is increasing the hysteria. Yes, this is very serious and we don’t want to downplay it. But clearly we need to do something to get this under control … Everyone is very informed, knows what to do—and we’re definitely above and beyond normal sanitation levels.”

Producers impacted?

“I have not had any issues getting product, but I am friendly with quite a few people that we order from and it seems like—I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus—but some people are having trouble getting payments because business is down. But I’m having no problems getting products. I think they have stopped importing stuff from Italy. Most of the stuff I do is seasonal American. We’re sourcing a lot here, which isn’t an issue yet.

Now it’s more important than ever to inform people that we’re handling things at the restaurant, taking necessary actions to prevent any spread of any disease or virus. The Montclair Bread Co. just put out a really lovely-worded statement, basically saying, ‘We’re all in this together; this is what we’re doing to make sure you as a guest and our staff are going to remain healthy.’ I think that’s exactly right.”

Marilou Halvorsen, president & CEO, New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association

Impact?

“It’s unfortunate, but yes, a lot of people are deciding not to go out. I did have a call with my executive committee to talk about this, and a lot of restaurants are really getting very nervous. They’re losing a lot of business. And we’re seeing a lot of corporate business cancellations as companies are restricting travel. We’ve had events at some of the banquet halls, weddings and the like, asking to push or postpone their dates. And it is starting to impact restaurants. The problem is, with a small business, they still have to pay their suppliers. So it’d be great if everybody could buy gift certificates to their favorite restaurants and then use them when they feel ready to! Don’t want to go out? You can always pick up their food and eat at home.

I think it’s important to know that in our industry, we want to make sure people are safe. And we want everyone to understand, we’re already so far out in front of good sanitation—we do know how to do it really well.”

Steps taken?

“Prior to the coronavirus—which I think everybody needs to take very seriously—our industry has really been at the forefront of excellent sanitation practices. Just owing to the nature of what we do, with people staying in our hotels and eating in restaurants. So we’re diligent already.

The industry is constantly evaluating its daily practices. We’re communicating with our national partners. And our vendors specialize in sanitation, like Ecolab. The safety of our guests is obviously a priority, but the safety of our employees is also a priority. And we want to make sure we’re educating our staff.

I represent all restaurants in the state. They’re all members. So we’ve been making sure we’re getting resources and education to them, to make sure they’re doing what they need to do. And like I said, we’re already at the forefront of good sanitation practices. There are really no new inflection points. That’s the stuff we’ve already been doing, with issues like cross-contamination. Coronavirus is not a foodborne illness, but it requires the same safety measures you’d practice to avoid foodborne illness. So, no cross-contamination with knives, handles, cutting boards, any frequently touched objects—always making sure things are sanitized before you touch them again.”

Seth Warshaw, ETC. Steakhouse

Impact?

“It is definitely impacting us. It’s in our area, where our restaurant is—in Bergen County. Everybody’s being precautious, which is good. When we spoke last time, we talked a lot about being adaptable to our environment. We gotta hunker down into survival mode, no question about that. I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but right now it’s still getting worse.”

Steps taken?

“With Passover coming up, we’ll try to do Passover menus, push the takeout thing, change our model from an eat-in, experiential type of place. We’re going to do what we have to do to survive. If that means making hamburgers or something, that’s fine. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But yeah, we’re going to have to tweak the DNA of the place. If everybody’s in quarantine or kids’ schools are closed, the first thought isn’t, “Hey, let’s go out for our anniversary.” But people need dinner, and some supermarkets are empty. People need to eat; I need to feed my family—hopefully we can all work together to make that happen.

As far as selling to diners, it’ll take a little convincing; we’re not the first person you think of when you want to feed your family. We sent out an email to customers on Wednesday, did Facebook and Instagram—the whole social media thing—letting them know we’re putting out a whole new menu, delivery and takeout options. And on top of that, we explained what we’re doing in terms of wiping down all the surfaces, per the health department’s guidelines. We called them and spoke to them about what we need to do. Nobody wants to be the epicenter of anything like this. It’s just crazy. On a personal level, I’m having trouble wrapping my head around it.”

Chef Jim Malaby, Blueplate

“Being in the food service industry, the safety of our guest is always the number one priority. Concerning any virus at all—the flu or the coronavirus, and the potential spread of the virus—we encourage all our employees and guests that feel sick or just under the weather to stay out of work or away from the public until they are sure they are healthy and not spreading any of their colds around to the public. That being said, we encourage all our guests who are healthy to join us, either to dine in the restaurant or to pick up food to go.

We are currently following the CDC and government officials on things we can do to help calm fears and, of course, to help stop the spread of any virus. We hope the public does the same, as well as anything in their power to support local businesses. Shopping local small businesses has never been more important.”

Elana Livneh, Livbreads

Impact?

“To date, we have not seen a decrease in business. In fact, I suspect that it’s similar to what’s happening in the supermarkets, where people are trying to stock up. But we’re a bakery, so it’s busy. People are nesting a bit—they want bread and cakes! We haven’t seen an increase, but we’re steady. And for today, we baked what we normally would bake for a very busy Friday. However, we are almost out of bread at 2 pm today—and it’s hard to know what will happen next week.

There’s definitely a decrease in our café. On a Friday, normally we would have a very full café, a lot of people eating in. But today it’s definitely quiet. A lot of people are taking out, though.”

Steps taken?

“Today is the first day we’ve started curbside pickup. We announced it yesterday. In general, it’s a nice benefit to our customers so they don’t have to park, even. People can call in and let us know what they want, or we’re happy to walk them through what’s available. We’ll bring their food out to them. It’s helpful to people not just who are anxious about coming into a public space, but to moms or dads who have their kids home suddenly and don’t want to deal with parking and dragging everyone out of the car. I’ve had quite a few customers in that boat.

We did make some changes inside. We already maintain a very sanitary space, but we did implement a couple changes. For example, we pulled back self-service flatware, so there are no hands going into that. And we were doing self-service milks for our coffee station; now we’re adding milk for customers. And we stepped up sanitizing door handles and all that.”


Some answers have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

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