Not counting staff, food costs, or any sense of when she’ll serve her next meal (or pay herself), it costs Amanda Cohen $30,000 per month to run a restaurant in New York City. Thanks to rent, insurance and utilities, the five-figure overhead on the chef-owner’s Lower East Side vegan sanctuary, Dirt Candy, is an unfathomable, but very real, cost of running a restaurant in the Big Apple. An industry that likely will not exist as we know it after the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the past few weeks, Cohen, like thousands of restaurateurs across New York, laid off her staff. While her servers are paid $25 per hour (the restaurant doesn’t accept tips), and receive 70% of their salaries from unemployment, Cohen’s been experiencing blowback from the public, and has received critical emails asking how she could lay off her entire team. “I didn’t really have much choice,” she says. “Everybody understood, there’s nothing we can do… And I have no idea what’s about to happen.” If she has to pay that $30,000 next month, plus taxes from first quarter sales, “there’s not enough money in the bank,” for Cohen, who is diligent about paying bills to avoid debt, to reopen. Rent and utilities would have to be forgiven and “a huge bailout,” would be necessary.
Running a Restaurant During COVID-19
Though restaurants can still operate via takeout and delivery in New York City, staffing a kitchen encourages the use of public transportation, putting workers at risk. Most restaurants, like Cohen’s, which serve only tasting menus, were not designed for takeout, and the marginal profits from catering-style dishes may barely cover operating costs. Her larger competitors, including restaurant groups run by major players like Andrew Carmellini, Danny Meyer and David Chang, have shuttered their restaurants indefinitely, organizing staff relief funds for the thousands of hourly employees who are now out of work.
Uchu Hospitality (which includes the very affordable Sushi on Jones and very exclusive omakase spot, Uchu), founder Derek Feldman says this crisis counters everything intrinsic to the industry. “All we want to do as hospitality owners and restaurateurs is bring people together and this virus is the exact opposite of that, he says.” He’s keeping his casual restaurant open for takeout, and selling vouchers that allow customers to redeem them for a welcome drink when restaurants reopen, but his solution for the time being aligns with the CDC: Stay home.
“I can’t stress enough how important it is for everyone to do their part collectively and stay home. Until we see the number of cases go down, the hospitality industry will continue to suffer,” he says.
Encouraging clients to stay home, takeout from top-rated restaurants has become a way for restaurants to stay relevant, and in business. Altamarea Group, which includes chef Michael White’s acclaimed restaurants like Osteria Morini and Marea are “working with a skeleton crew” after laying off almost the entire workforce, says Ahmass Fakahany, Altamarea Group’s Founder and CEO.
“With no timeline or set relief plan, we had no choice,” he says of the decision. Management is washing dishes and doing whatever it takes to hold it together to “give our few remaining employees some purpose and to still serve clients and communities.” A new Marea At Home program is set to launch this week, bringing the Michelin-star cuisine into the homes of Manhattanites, but will that be enough to sustain the restaurant group?
Daniel Boulud, who runs the Dinex Group restaurant empire and a catering company, knows the challenges of alternate types of food service firsthand. “Catering will never make up [restaurant] revenue, it’s more a question of if anyone wishes to work, can we afford something?” Boulud says. Not wanting to put his team at risk of contracting the illness, two weeks ago Boulud sent his staff home with all the ingredients they could carry, and donated the excess food to City Harvest and CityMeals on Wheels.
While he would have considered staying open, a letter from the Department of Health sharing that the Director of Port Authority (who tested positive for COVID-19) had dined at a Boulud restaurant pushed the chef to closing. “I was very worried, but this is best for the community,” he says, optimistic that Dinex can bounce back. “If we close for two weeks, it’s not dramatic. If we close for two months, it’s very dramatic. We have to get organized.”
Staff will be paid for two weeks and for sick days, and go on unemployment until Boulud decides on next steps, perhaps curbside service or delivery from one location, similar options to what Cohen is considering, to create jobs. “This industry is built on people who work very hard, but live paycheck to paycheck.” Boulud says. “A city like New York is a struggle already in normal times, so imagine in this time how hard it is.” He’s working on creating an emergency fund for staff. Like many other chefs and owners, he wants to see the government increase unemployment wages and benefits.
Why Restaurants Need Government Support to Survive
While consumers are helping to support restaurants by purchasing gift cards and dining bonds, as well as swag and nonperishable inventory, individuals aren’t going to fix this crisis. “I’m so touched that so many of my guests want to do that, but I don’t know if there’s going to be a restaurant to return to, and I’d need more gift certificates than I could ask for,” Cohen says. “The bumps of money will help, but they’re bandaids, the nicest Hello Kitty bandaids on a bigger problem. If I reopen, getting inundated with gift certificates isn’t going to help. I need to really make money. The best thing I can say is be there for us when we reopen. We’re going to need so much support to get back up to where we were.”
Chefs and restaurateurs agree that the government needs to help the industry. In the past three years, escalation of costs, wages and taxes have already put undue burden on restaurants as small businesses, and forced closures. The COVID-19 pandemic would act as a final blow to an already unstable system. “I’m pretty upset, because as an industry, we kind of let this happen,” Cohen says. “We’ve kept prices down, we’ve kept [staff] on the tipping system, and this has to change. We have an industry that doesn’t have health insurance. I barely make a living.”
“We’re such an important part of NYC and America, but we’re not particularly unified. Small business owners don’t have a big enough voice,” says Wylie Dufresne, who closed his Williamsburg bakery, Du’s Donuts, shortly after his wholesale customers stopped placing orders in mid-March. “The landscape is forever altered. Massive numbers of small restaurants are going to be completely obliterated, never to return. We’re going to lose a tremendous amount of our restaurant community, the small businesses that make New York such a wonderful place.”
With the nation’s economic future so uncertain, Dufresne said he didn’t feel right asking consumers for help. “It has to come from the government: local, state, federal. Because how can I in good conscience ask anyone concerned with their future to spend $500 on gift cards at five different restaurants?”
He’s heartened by the grassroots support he’s seen circulating online, but simultaneously terrified that the voices of the small business owners will go unheard. With majorly influential and knowledgeable voices (Danny Meyer, David Chang) seemingly ignored by the government, how can restaurants even hope for relief or support?
“It’s not totally clear this won’t be totally catastrophic,” Dufresne says. “As restaurateurs, we have a hard time wrapping our heads around situations that can’t be fixed by outworking. That’s our thing. It runs counter to our DNA, to everything we believe in and are willing to do. We’re willing to do anything except the one thing that’s best, which is to go home. We’re just not wired like that.”
A new organization, The Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC), is working on recouping the $880 billion American revenue, via grassroots lobbying and petitions. “The industry has been devastated. We need practical and organized relief that quickly gets to the small restaurant businesses,” Fakahany says. With over nine million jobs at stake, big name chefs, like Wolfgang Puck, Nancy Silverton and many more, are organizing to lobby and influence the government and the public to get on the industry’s side.
Looking Forward to Making Reservations
Predicting an era when the restaurant can finally open again, Boulud expects a “new beginning” in which hours, menu size and price may drastically change for high-end restaurants like his, with consumers and companies struggling financially.
Dining out may become a special treat, rather than an everyday occurrence. Brunch may be an annual, rather than a weekly affair. Your favorite cocktail spot may become a Duane Reade. Cohen, who built her tasting menu to be accessible (and sacrificed higher profits for pleasing guests), knows that if and when she reopens, prices will have to increase. She’s also worried about producers, who may also go out of business without regular orders from restaurants. There’s a lot to speculate over, but not much to do, except sign grassroots petitions and try to support local restaurants in any way you can.
“One thing we’re not going to lose is our talent, our ambition, and our staff who are there waiting,” says Boulud. “Together we will prevail and start again strong.”Sign up here for our daily NYC email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun New York has to offer.
As spring makes its way through New York City, not only do we get to enjoy beautiful weather, stunning cherry blossoms, and cool activities priced at $Free.99, but it’s also the perfect time for some limited-edition desserts.
With Easter fast approaching, bakeries are filling their shops with tons of chocolate eggs, carrot cake-flavoured everything and all types of flavours that offer both nostalgia and innovation within the city’s dessert landscape. After you’ve picked up a cake from the city’s best new bakeries, from Easter Bunny Churros to Carrot Cake Macarons, here are 8 Easter desserts to try in NYC right now.
Throughout April Various locations
There’s great news for devotees of Magnolia Bakery’s Classic Banana Pudding: For Easter, the spot is mixing up the iconic dessert’s vanilla pudding with some carrot cake. The Carrot Cake Pudding is filled with freshly grated carrots, coconuts, pineapples, raisins, and walnuts. And if both bananas and carrots aren’t your thing, they’ll be offering their Classic Vanilla Cupcakes in pastel colours with a Cadbury chocolate egg hidden inside.
Through Easter Sunday NoHo and Seaport
Known for their celebrity face and meme-worthy decorated cookies, fans of Funny Face Bakery know that a new fun design is always just around the corner. For Easter, they’ve created the adorable Hoppy Easter decorated cookie that resembles a classic box of marshmallow Peeps. Along with that, they also have the return of their fan-favourite Caramel Pretzel Chip cookie flavour, plus a set of three mini-decorated cookies perfect for gifting.
Friday, April 7 through Easter Sunday West Village
With the ever-changing flavours at The Doughnut Project, it’s super easy to miss out on trying out a new debut. But this Easter weekend, there will be two new flavours available. One is of course, a carrot cake doughnut topped with a cream cheese glaze, and the other is known as the Doughnut Nest-a French cruller “nest” with a cream-filled doughnut hole “egg” in the centre.
Wednesday, April 5 through Easter Sunday East Village
For stellar vegan desserts this holiday, head to The Fragile Flour, a plant-based bakery and dessert wine bar. They’re known for going all out for each holiday with a variety of new pastry options that you can pair perfectly with a glass of wine. This Easter, they’ll have a whole dessert menu that’s both delicious and gorgeous for posting on IG. The menu includes Stuffed Carrot Cake Cookies, a Lemon Cake (whole or by the slice), some festive cupcakes, and specialty macarons.
Through mid April Midtown
For a luxurious take on Easter chocolates, browse the selections available at Kreuther Handcrafted Chocolate. You can even pick the Easter Signature Chef’s Selection for a special box curated by award-winning chefs. For something other than chocolate, choose between the Carrot Cake Macarons or the cake flavored Easter Marshmallow Trio, both of which are almost too cute to eat.
Throughout April Nolita
This churro-centric spot is putting the cutest Easter spin on their crispy cinnamon churros by twisting them up into bunnies and bunny ears. At Churreria, choose from a Bunny Churro Lollipop topped with your choice of chocolate or dulce de leche and sprinkles, or the bunny ear churros in the Ube and Matcha ice cream sundae or the Ube Milkshake, both of which are made with ice cream from il laboratorio del gelato.
Throughout April NoHo
You’ve surely seen this croissant tons of times while scrolling through IG or TikTok, whether it’s the Pain au Chocolat one or the latest of the month. Known as Suprêmes, these filled croissants went viral and continue to live up to the hype each time a new flavour comes out. April’s flavour-sour cherry amaretto with a Luxardo custard and toasted almonds. While you’ll have to be super early and wait in line during one of their three drops of the day to get a taste, we promise you it’ll be worth it.
Seasonal Various locations
We all know the iconic cookies from Levain-they’re gigantic, perfectly crispy and chewy, and well worth the long lines. For spring, the shop is launching a new flavour: Caramel Coconut Chocolate Chip. Filled with gooey caramel chips, fresh shredded coconut, and melty dark chocolate, it’s one you’ve got to try while it’s still around. To further celebrate the new season, all of Levain’s storefronts will be decked out in spring floral displays, serving as the perfect backdrop for pictures.
Alaina Cintron is an Editorial Assistant at Thrillist. Her work can also be found in Westchester Magazine, Girls’ Life, and Spoon University. When she’s not at her desk typing away, you can find her exploring a local coffee shop or baking a new recipe.