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New York City restaurants struggle to recover

By BELINDA ROBINSON in New York | China Daily Global | Updated: 2022-09-13 09:35
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Kymme Williams-Davis takes an order at her Bushwick Grind Cafe in New York on Thursday. She has had to change the menu because she can't afford to hire a chef required for some dishes. AP

New York City's restaurant industry continues to face "widespread and overwhelming hardship" in the wake of COVID-19 and will have an uphill battle to fully recover.

That's according to research by the National Restaurant Association and New York State Restaurant Association (NYSRA).

Restaurants are one of the city's most important industries, worth more than $18.5 billion, but a recent survey by the NYSRA found that 41 percent of New York operators say business conditions are worse now than they were three months ago.

Only 20 percent of the 267 restaurants operators polled between July 14 and Aug 5 reported that business conditions had improved during the last three months.

Melissa Fleischut, president and CEO of NYSRA, told China Daily: "I would say that the main struggle [for restaurants] is the increased cost of everything that they're facing right now.

"Wholesale food prices have dramatically increased, you know, around 15 to 17 percent; their rent is increased; their utilities have increased; their labor costs have increased. So, all of their expenses across the board have dramatically increased due to supply chain issues and inflation."

At least 39 percent of New York restaurant operators surveyed said that business conditions will never return to normal, and 42 percent believe it will take more than a year.

Restauranteur Luca Di Pietro used to have five locations for Taralluci e Vino, his Italian restaurant and wine bar. He recently had to close one.

He is also co-founder of Feed the Frontlines NYC, a for-profit that led an initiative that delivered hundreds of thousands of meals to frontline workers, nurses and doctors at the height of the pandemic. Today, it is his industry that needs the help.

Di Pietro told China Daily: "We have locations in business districts on 18th Street and 28th Street that were really very hard hit; they're still hard hit. I had to basically shut down the restaurants for a few months from the middle of March 2020 to about the middle of May.

"I felt terrible. I felt badly because I felt that the people that were working for me were going to be really struggling. In all of our locations, we had about 115 staff. Now we have about 88 or so," he said.

Data from the office of the New York state comptroller in January found that employment in the restaurant, retail and recreation sectors was down by 169,700 jobs in November 2021 compared with November 2019. Overall, restaurants now employ 30 percent fewer workers than in 2019.

Di Pietro said that several other problems still exist for restaurateurs after the pandemic. Many of his New York customers who make up the bulk of his business are still working remotely and not in the city spending money on lunch or dinner.

He added that paying staff higher wages, inflation, food costs and a 30 to 40 percent increase in utility bills also are affecting profitability.

"I can tell you this summer, most of my businesses were in the red," he said.

After indoor dining was limited starting in 2020, many, including Di Pietro, created outdoor dining sheds on sidewalks and roadways and increased takeout services.

In mid-August, New York Mayor Eric Adams said, "outdoor dining is here to stay". He also defended the structures, saying that they had "saved 100,000 jobs" in the restaurant industry during the pandemic.

However, some residents who live near restaurants with outdoor dining structures don't like them. A group of New Yorkers is suing the city over the spaces.

In 2020, the city's Transportation Department issued guidelines to restaurants to create their outdoor spaces. The city hasn't yet updated the guidelines or made a formal announcement about their plight.

It is expected that the city's "Open Restaurants" program will become permanent. But it is being slowed due to litigation, according to The New York Times.

Some of the changes under the program may include restaurants having to pay a fee and apply for permission to carry on or create outdoor dining.

Meera Joshi, the city's deputy mayor of operations, said a task force will review complaints from nearby residential neighbors and those who filed the lawsuit. Those opposed say the outdoor dining sheds look dilapidated, and food droppings attract rats, generate trash, and the loud din from diners affects their quality of life.

As of Sept 2, the task force had removed 55 sheds that were either abandoned or ran afoul of city regulations.

The sheds' sidewalk locations also have been criticized by the plaintiffs, who argue that they interfere with pedestrian access.

Tanya Bonner, a plaintiff in the lawsuit and a professor in the communications department at St. John's University, who lives in Washington Heights, wants the Open Restaurants program to end.

"I understood the necessity of something like that at the height of the pandemic. But that's not where we are right now," she told the Times.

The NYSRA also found that approximately 77 percent of restaurants have reduced operating hours, and 47 percent have closed on days on which they would normally be open.

At least 49 percent of those surveyed said that they had stopped operating at full capacity. Fifty-three percent have cut staffing, while 32 percent postponed new hiring.

"I am an optimist in general, but I do believe that it's going to be hard in the next few months," Di Pietro said. "I think the city needs to bring people back to work. Crime needs to be under control."

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