STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Whether reading, writing about or experiencing it first hand, restaurant news has been pretty depressing since about March 15. On the Ides of March, ironically enough, when that announcement came of the dining room ban I thought, “What could this be — a few weeks, tops?” As this drags on, the words come across the transom — desperation, feelings of helplessness, imprisonment, terror and lack of closure on the coronavirus crisis. Those are the restaurant owners’ words in conversations — not mine.
“By next month, everyone’s going to feel it,” said Alan Dakhlallah of Laila in Richmond Valley. A cold, wet winter is predicted. And as he’s investigates options for the change of seasons he has discovered gas heaters are not permitted, as per the Fire Department.
Dakhlallah said, “There’s six or seven departments regulating and you can’t keep up with everybody. The politicians don’t care, the mayor and governor don’t care. They seem to want to hurt us.”
A Staten Island tavern owner said, “I have to tell you they’re breakin’ my faith. I have anxiety now which I never did — legit chest pains and aIl I do is sweat when I’m working, wondering when the SLA and State police are pulling up.”
He said, “It’s a horrible way to do business. Oh, and I’m off 80% — can you imagine? Nightmare.”
Another pizzeria owner wonders, “After we put the tents up and put the plastic is it still considered outdoors?” He laughed, “Everyone is in fear. We’re already getting hit with inspectors at this point.” There are the ironies with this crazy state of New York City affairs — he says he’s had visits from the liquor authority (which are a nuisance, not generating fines)…and he doesn’t have a liquor license.
On Spectrum’s NY1 Monday morning, Lois and Richard Nicotra of the Hilton Garden Inn brought up the mental health issue for restaurant owners in a call-in show. It was prefaced with a normally upbeat Richard expressing disgust for the state of the hospitality industry.
“Our hotel business is terrible. Our restaurant business — our wedding business…,” said Richard.
Indeed the optimist, Richard illustrated the long-term forecast for The Nicotra Group with its greatest asset in a pandemic — space. The 11-acre Bloomfield property will include a rooftop farm and on-ground pods in a vineyard for four to six people to have meetings and lunch.
But Richard also injected a sentiment expressed by dozens of other hospitality workers, particularly in the last few weeks.
He said, “I wanted to talk about mental health.” He mentioned that his friend, actor Chaz Palmentieri, talks about the working man and how stress affects people. It is real.
Said Richard, “And we are up people…we love each other, we work with each other. I love my employees, I love my guests…But this is depressing. It’s depressing for us. And friends of mine who are doctors are saying the next big thing is going to be depression.”
Richard invoked the time frame of six months that has passed in this holding pattern. And one doesn’t know what the future is going to bring.
Lois said, “When you’re planning for the future, you’re planning a wedding, you can’t just make that happen overnight.” She talked about the “ramp up” period, adjusting to guidelines to execute parties when they can happen once again.
Last week, a Port Richmond restaurant owner told me that he came to the United States for freedom. Now that he’s a proud New Yorker and American citizen he feels anything but that. Business is off by 70 percent from last year and the $100 or $200 in receipts that come in some days are demoralizing and downright terrifying. He’s got kids, rent and taxes to pay. The family has run through its savings and they’re going day by day. But time is not on his side.
Over the years I’ve been to many restaurant auctions. They are heart-wrenching, especially when the owner is on hand to see pennies paid on the dollar for equipment that cost him or her thousands. I went to one in Castleton Corners last year when a lease wasn’t renewed and the owner’s wife sobbed as fellow restaurant owners hauled off refrigerators and furniture, dismantling pieces of their livelihood from some 30 years in the business — sad.
Forget therapy — if dining rooms stay closed we are all going to need some grief counseling.
Keep in touch.
Pamela Silvestri is Advance Food Editor. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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