For Rafael Palomino, owner and chef of Sonora in Port Chester, making ends meet in the restaurant business these days has little to do with what he prepares in the kitchen and places on the table. “It’s not about the food; it’s not about the ambience,” Palomino says. “Right now, we are selling people safety, and you need to be creative to get them to buy it.”
His industry colleague Constantine Kalandranis wouldn’t disagree. “I’m constantly throwing around ideas on how to keep my place, which is small, in business at half capacity and without the patio for the winter,” says Kalandranis, owner and chef of The Greekish in Harrison (recently renamed from 273 Kitchen).
They are not alone in their sober pronouncements. Restaurateurs across Westchester (and much of the globe) are going to great lengths to entice diners back to the table, with new and imaginative offerings coupled with the image of a clean and sterile environment — all while attempting to turn a profit, pay employees, and cover the costs of complying with government safety mandates.
The National Restaurant Association, a foodservice trade group based in Washington, DC, maintains that restaurants have suffered the most significant sales and job losses of any industry in the country as a result of the pandemic. Its research shows that between March and August 2020 (the most recent data at press time), sales were down more than $148 billion from expected levels, and, according to September stats, employment is off by more than 3 million jobs since February.
Locally, the New York State Restaurant Association predicts more than 63% of restaurants across the state will close their doors for good by the end of the year, and an August survey finds that nearly 90% of New York restaurant owners don’t expect to be profitable in the next six months.
Dozens of longstanding and adored establishments in Westchester were unable to weather the storm of the virus, but those that remain say surviving the new normal — particularly with the prospect of outdoor dining fading like the setting sun — is shaping up to be a very expensive proposition.
“We gotta play by the [new] rules. It’s a challenge, but I believe paradise is on the other side.”
— John Racanelli, Owner, First Generation Hospitality
One high-profile restaurant to fall victim to the industry nightmare and shutter its space for good was Winston in Mount Kisco. “It’s challenging enough running a restaurant at 100 percent capacity. How can you make it at half that?” wonders former general manager Jimmy Branigan. “We were relying on people wining and dining, and that wasn’t viable financially.”
He adds that at reduced capacity, Winston would’ve felt hauntingly empty. “The crowd is part of the ambience, the buzz, the vibe,” he explains. “And asking people to pay $75 to $100 for a meal, get all dressed up, and then put on a surgical mask, it just doesn’t work for formal dining.”
Although he predicts some 40% of restaurants will suffer the same fate as Winston, he still considers himself lucky. “I’d rather lose my job 100 times than lose my life,” he says.
Herb Lindstrom, owner and chef at Scarsdale’s Cooked & Co, had hope for his eatery — part coffee shop and café, part upscale table-service spot — when he received a Paycheck Protection Program loan. “We reopened with a new model, with just salads and sandwiches,” he explains.
But the recently expanded space was too big for this concept. “I kept trying different approaches, trying to make it work.” When the loan ran out, Lindstrom estimates he was probably losing $5,000 per week: “I had to stop the bleeding.”
Although his landlord tried to help, by cutting the rent in half, “the whole situation just wasn’t fun anymore. I didn’t have the fight in me,” Lindstrom admits. “If there was an end in sight, I may have taken the loss, but nobody had any answers.”
As a way of “selling people safety” and keeping his head above water, Palomino spent $10,000 to overhaul Sonora, making it as attractive as possible to leery diners. The most noticeable difference is the plexiglass that shields servers from patrons and their paella. In addition, all doors are fitted with kick openers, and restrooms are upgraded with touchless toilets, urinals, and faucets. “It’s an investment,” he says, “and it’s an effort to save your business while making your customers feel taken care of.” Palomino planned ahead, purchasing 30 propane heaters back in July, at $180 a pop, to lure folks to his two outdoor patios and sidewalk seats until the bitter end. “Nobody wants to eat inside,” he says, noting that those same heaters now cost between $700 and $800, and they’ve become almost as scarce as toilet paper was back in the early days of the pandemic. “If you can’t get one, you’re doomed.”
At The Greekish, Kalandranis dropped $7,000 adapting to the new norm, which included the creation of a dedicated walk-up takeout window. “It’s a small restaurant, so whatever we lost by going to 50 percent capacity, we were able to fudge it and make it up at the window.” Still, profits are down 15%.
Additionally, he picked up a high-tech air purifier for the basement (where most of the food prep occurs), bought “more wipeable” chairs, installed individual hand sinks for each of the cooks, put a tent over the patio, and hired two overnight cleaning crews to give a thorough sanitizing and sealing to the reclaimed wood and cracked brick that adorns the establishment. Plus, there’s the ongoing $300 to $400 weekly expense for gloves, masks, sanitizer, to-go bags, disposable cutlery, paper napkins, and the like. “That’s a lot of money when you don’t have that much coming in,” he notes.
Kalandranis had been planning to renovate the patio, but that project is on hold until spring 2021 at the earliest.
To improve viability, New Rochelle’s Michelin-rated Dubrovnik Restaurant hired delivery personnel for its award-winning Croatian fare and put down pavers in the garden area to expand outdoor-dining availability. More space outside meant more tables and chairs, as well as lights, speakers, planters, additional propane heaters, and more. Add to this to the loss of business, and “you’re looking at a price tag north of $10,000,” says general manager Matija Zarak.
Something nice for patrons to look at inside could go a long way toward getting them back indoors to dine, he says, which is why the restaurant is also embarking on a renovation of two dining rooms, to the tune of $13K to $15K.
Nick Livanos, owner and manager of the Livanos Restaurant Group, which includes City Limits in White Plains and Moderne Barn in Armonk, purchased state-of-the-art ionizing systems to filter the air at both of those eateries. “That was a $7,000 to $8,000 investment, but it gives people peace of mind,” he says.
He also opened the patio at City Limits for the first time since its 1992 debut, which translated to a $2,000 tab for 14 new tables, plus chairs. Moderne Barn’s patio is well used, but the expansion into the parking lot required the construction of a concrete barrier, along with new tables and chairs, which added another $5K. Plus, “we grabbed as many heaters as we could at Home Depot,” he adds.
Livanos says takeout has been very strong at each location, something he calls “impressive,” and with large spaces in both places, social distancing is easier to swallow. Still, he says, business is only about 60% of what it had been.
Believing it’s imperative that restaurateurs “get creative to survive,” Palomino has devised what he calls a “food court in the cloud,” to provide multiple meal concepts from Sonora’s kitchen. Online via www.nyfullkitchen.com or by calling the restaurant directly, customers can take out from a variety of mostly Latin-inspired menus, including one that is entirely vegan. And if they feel comfortable dining inside, they’ll have those options to choose from, too, along with Sonora’s typical fare.
Palomino says this new venture will require about four more cooks in the kitchen and additional delivery people, but that’s the cost of “COVID creativity.”
Kalandranis also has a bunch of ideas simmering under his toque: “I’m thinking make-at-home meal deals for families, or perhaps people can order their food in advance and walk right in and sit down in order to limit contact with employees. Or, maybe, the chef will make house calls.”
At Hudson Social in Dobbs Ferry, Matt Kay has hatched an idea to keep his diners warm and toasty outdoors until it’s no longer possible to do so: “I invested in branded hoodies, hats, and blankets for purchase, and if you bring them back to wear on your next visit, you get 10 percent off your check.” Naturally he hopes the $8,000 he dropped on 10 propane heaters and an 8-foot-high vinyl windscreen (clear, to block the breeze but not the Hudson vistas) will help, too.
He also installed a rotisserie oven to whip up satisfying and indulgent family-meal deals that consist of a whole roasted chicken, two sides, and a couple of “kitchen sink” cookies.
Thinking outside the box, John Racanelli, owner of First Generation Hospitality (Pizza & Brew and Via Forno Wood Fired Pizza & Vinoteca, both in Scarsdale, as well as Yonkers’ new Public Pizza Italian Restaurant & Bar at Ridge Hill), is launching a “large campaign” of takeout packages that offer a hefty array of food for a reasonable price, and he hopes to tempt customers with “extra hospitality,” like free drinks and dessert. In addition, he plans to flood social media with notes about the quality of his ingredients.
But Racanelli believes the real key to success is homegrown employees. He says he’s been promoting from within since COVID, and “that brings a whole new level of energy and positivity to the restaurant when a guest sees that Johnny, their favorite waiter, has been promoted to floor manager.”
Despite the healthy optimism that comes from creative thinking, planning, and executing, Palomino predicts half of restaurants in Westchester will close because “you don’t make money with only 50 percent capacity.” Racanelli believes it’ll be another year before things are back to normal. “We gotta play by the rules,” he says. “It’s a challenge, but I believe paradise is on the other side.”
Between now and then, he intends to ramp up the number of times he mentally recites his stay-strong mantra: “I don’t close restaurants; I operate restaurants.”