SCHENECTADY — Two out of three restaurants in New York state said they’re likely to close by the end of the year without a comprehensive relief package, according to a poll by an industry group.
More than 1,000 restaurants responded to a survey by the New York State Restaurant Association (NYSRA).
Absent relief, the industry could see a total collapse, said Melissa Fleischut, NYSRA’s CEO and president.
“These recent survey results illustrate just how dire the financial situation has become for most restaurants and it shows how critical it is that elected officials understand the urgency of the situation,” Fleischut said.
Other results reveal:
- Just 36.4 percent of restaurants said they are “likely or somewhat likely” to remain open.
- Of those likely to close, 54.8 percent will be forced to shut their doors before November.
A total of 1,042 restaurateurs responded to the survey in late August.
Interviews with a half-dozen Schenectady restaurants on Friday revealed while all acknowledged a challenging climate fraught with uncertainty, none indicated they were considering closing.
Yet all were on tenterhooks in a wait-and-see environment.
Peracca’s owner Maria Papa participated in the survey, and responded the Italian restaurant will “most likely” not close.
“That’s not to say I don’t have concerns about my business,” Papa said.
A key factor is that she owns her North Jay Street building in the city’s Little Italy neighborhood.
“If I did have to pay rent, I’d be in a completely different position,” said Papa, who took in just 53 percent of business between March and August compared to the same time period last year (Business, however, at Perreca’s Bakery is slightly up).
Indoor dining is limited to 50 percent of maximum capacity.
Jim Salengo, executive director of Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corporation (DSIC), acknowledges the decline in volume is detrimental to restaurant owners.
“Fortunately, by and large, the downtown restaurant scene continues to look very much like it did before COVID,” Salengo said.
Memphis King on Van Vranken Avenue rode out the dark days of spring -- navigating spikes in meat prices, supply chain issues and closure of their small in-house dining area -- but are now adapting to a new normal, pivoting to family-style packages and tweaking the menu.
While damage was somewhat muted because Memphis King is primarily take-out, their catering business evaporated.
“It’s a scary time,” said owner Brandon Canton, who took out federal loans early in the slowdown.
Canton is hopeful the return of Union College classes next week will revive catering, including to fraternities.
Home Style Pizza is also rebounding.
While its dining room remains closed, the restaurant in the city’s Upper Union Street neighborhood is holding on because they’ve long since diversified, offering a blend of pickup, delivery and catering, said owner Anthony Adonnino.
“We’ve managed to stay out of the weeds,” Adonnino said.
The association previously reported New York restaurants saw an estimated loss of $1.9 billion in sales and more than 250,000 jobs during a three-week span in March.
By the following month, the group found 80 percent of the state’s restaurant workforce had been laid off or furloughed since early March, totaling 527,000 jobs.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive orders to allow alcohol-to-go and outdoor dining has provided a lifeline, Fleischut said.
But it’s not enough, she said.
“Without further assistance, the restaurant industry as we know it could be gone in a New York minute.”
Restaurants participating in the survey flagged commercial rent relief, boosted capacity for indoor dining and payment of business interruption insurance claims as the top three answers.
A complex web of factors underpins the cut-throat industry, said Zen owner Andy Zheng, who cycled through the factors affecting traffic at his downtown fusion lounge.
Reduced unemployment checks, campus shutdowns and evictions all affect the amount of traffic coming through his door, making it difficult to staff and plan.
Then there are factors like how much food to prepare and staffing issues.
“If there’s no more support from the federal government or state, a lot of places are going to go out of business,” Zheng said. “Every day they drag on, it’s going to kill businesses.”
The restaurant group pointed at numerous pieces of legislation that would be beneficial, including the federal Restaurant Act. The act would create a recovery fund, as well as as a second round of loan programs like the Paycheck Protection Program, which offered small-business owners forgivable loans to stave off layoffs and keep their doors open.
A stabilized food supply chain and programming that will better connect restaurants with feeding low-income and vulnerable populations will also help restaurants, according to the National Restaurant Association.
DSIC is working with Discover Schenectady on #SchenectadyStrong, a campaign to promote local restaurants while also assuring a skittish public of stringent social distancing and sanitation safeguards.
The organization worked with restaurants throughout the spring and summer to help facilitate outdoor dining, and will help navigate city bureaucracy in dealing with colder weather business. For example, helping with outdoor heaters.
As temperatures drop, More Perreca’s will open private rooms upstairs.
“It’s not a question of thriving -- it’s a question of surviving,” Papa said.
While some restaurants cited the pandemic as a direct reason for their closure — including Cornells in Little Italy — others opened in spite of it, including Square One Cafe on the Jay Street Marketplace.
The restaurant has thrived despite the bleak landscape, said owner Chelsea Heilmann, in large part because of their niche market: vegan comfort food.
“We just tapped into a market no one has really tapped into in Schenectady,” Heilmann said.
Salengo pointed to other bright spots in the city’s culinary landscape, including the pending opening of the Nest in the former Slidin’ Dirty’s space and the relocation of Taj Mahal to the sprawling basement of the former St. Mary’s Church on Eastern Avenue.
While still in soft opening, business has been brisk, said co-owner Shammi Waheed, and driven largely by food delivery services like DoorDash and GrubHub.
“The future? It’s going to be very good,” Waheed said.