A Disastrous Winter That Never Came For Restaurants

Chef Ken Rafferty of the Springs Tavern, where the owners increased kitchen staff, expanded their menu offerings and retooled the website to compensate for the increased demand for easy-access take-out dinners over the winter .Kyril Bromley

A year ago, if you had told most restaurant owners that social distancing restrictions on their dining capacity would still be in effect more than 12 months later, many would have guessed they’d be out of business — or if not them, many of their colleagues.

But as the industry emerges from the winter of COVID-19, it turns out there may be fewer darkened dining rooms than after a normal off-season.

Only a couple of restaurants have shuttered since last summer — the Coast Grille in North Sea and Bel Mar in Springs, though neither appears to have been a victim of the pandemic — and some reported having better winters than they normally would have and high hopes for the promise of the coming summer, despite continued restrictions on seating indoors.

Take-out orders, a newfound tolerance among customers for dining outdoors, even in freezing temperatures, and robust crowds of customers who would typically be in other states or countries for vacations or the entire winter kept the industry afloat, those who earn their livings making others dinner said. For many, the summer nest egg that they always rely on to bridge the lean off-season was somewhat smaller than it normally would be when Labor Day passed, but continued to swell in the fall months, so that when the winter surge in new cases came and outdoor dining became more difficult, there was still a cushion — and a telephone that kept ringing with take-out requests.

“Going into winter we always expect bleak sales in January and February but … we were up in January,” said Charlene DeSmet, owner of The Springs Tavern in East Hampton. “And usually that would include the sales from the bar at night, but we didn’t have that, so we outsold last January even without that, just in food orders.”

Early in the pandemic, Ms. DeSmet said, she and her husband, Dan, were forced to overhaul what their business was entirely. Doing so gave them a foundation that she says allowed them to thrive through the winter and may prove to be a boon to the business’s bottom line long after the restrictions of the pandemic are in the history books.

“We had to get takeout supplies, we had to redesign our menu, we had to make a cocktail menu that people could take out, we needed to re-staff, we had to redesign our website to allow online ordering,” she said. “We had a whole new demographic, people who are used to being able to call an expensive restaurant in Manhattan and get takeout delivered to their door. We’ve realized that you can’t just do burgers, you have to have family-sized meals, for four or five people, that someone can pick up and take home and prepare. We put a link to the menu on our Instagram. You really had to beef up your technology. But if you did, now you’re all better off for it.”

Doug Gulija, owner of the Plaza Cafe in Southampton Village admits that he was one of the owners who thought the winter of 2020-21 might be the end of his long run. His restaurant is small and tucked out of sight in a back lot. His pricey, seafood-centric menu draws in a loyal cohort of regular clientele seeking refined preparations that don’t necessarily lend themselves well to take-out. The business has survived for 26 years, but had little cushion in the thin margins that the industry relies on.

But the chef, a Southampton native, said that the pandemic experience surprised him in a number of ways. It was a learning experience and an opportunity to grow. It was a “time for reflection” on what his business has been. It spotlighted the depth of empathy of generosity of the community. And it was a busier one than he ever thought would be possible considering the limitations. But the pandemic created a new reality, one that he says he doesn’t entirely dislike.

Despite fears that people would not be eager for a $55 lobster shepherd’s pie served in a cardboard travel container rather than a piping hot porcelain crock, take-out orders came rolling in and Mr. Gulija found himself scrambling to upgrade the restaurant’s website and organize a contactless food pick-up system in the restaurant’s driveway.

Then outdoor dining exploded across the region and, even though he is not on Main Street, where some restaurants were able to double or even triple their usual seating capacity on the streets and sidewalks, the Plaza Cafe found itself in the odd situation of not being able to fill tables — not for lack of demand, but for lack of staff to service them, a problem spurred by the hike in unemployment benefits, which kept many former restaurant staff from looking for work over the summer.

The summer income stream ended up not being as far behind the usual summer as expected. And come fall, the drop off in business never really materialized. In November, the restaurant’s “numbers” were up.

While he hopes things will gradually shift back toward “normal” with vaccinations and easing restrictions, Mr. Gulija said that some things, he hopes, will never go away.

“I hope the take-out thing will stay popular,” he said. “It was nice when the dining room was filling up and we also had a bunch of calls for take-out.”

Other changing habits, revealed a world that the veteran chef-owner, who rarely allows his kitchen to open without him in it — for the sake of payroll as much as for the quality control and the expectations of customers — ever knew existed.

“I was used to working until late at night and being spent when I got out, but all of a sudden, we were going home at 8:30 p.m. and I was getting to enjoy time with my mom and dad and my daughter and son,” Mr. Gulija said. “I don’t think I’ll ever open seven days a week anymore. I’m going to enjoy this beautiful village we live in. I really came to appreciate a lot of things I took for granted.”

When the pandemic set in, the Plaza Cafe’s longtime customers came to the rescue, not just with their hunger for his famous dishes, but with acts of forward thinking generosity. Some bought stacks of gift certificates during the early weeks when restaurants were not allowed any indoor seating and the future of the industry looked most bleak.

“One of them bought 15 gift certificates, and I said to him, ‘You know you’re not going to be able to use these,’ and he said, ‘I know you need the money right now and you can bet I’ll be in next summer to cash them in,’” the chef recalled. “That made me realize that people actually cared about us.”

Ms. DeSmet said that the pandemic was valuable crash-course in how to retool a business.

A few things will be key to the coming summer being another success, restaurateurs said. Most municipalities are already working on amending codes to make the use of sidewalks as dining space a permanent condition. The allowance on take-out alcoholic beverages and mixed drinks remains in place and there has been a broad call from the industry for it, too, to become a permanent allowance.

“Our trustees and mayor did an amazing job supporting restaurants by allowing us to use sidewalk dining, which everyone really enjoys, and I hope that will continue,” said Barry Bernstein, who owns Salt & Loft in Westhampton Beach, which relies largely on outdoor seating already. “People feel safe outside and I think the residents strongly support it. We stayed busy right through January when it got very cold.”

Like Mr. Bernstein, Ms. DeSmet says she hopes some of the rules from the pandemic days will remain. For her business, continuing to be allowed to offer large format take-out cocktails would be a help, she said. Mr. Gulija said he’d like to see some of the rules governing where he can send his food truck relaxed so that a business off the main drags like his can branch out.

Across the industry, the pandemic, 13 months and counting, has left owners thanking their lucky stars, grateful to customers and more confident in their ability to pivot, adapt and survive. ‘

“It was a learning experience and a time for reflection on what people are looking for and what we can provide them — we all really learned a lot about this business I think,” Mr. Gulija said. “But I do not want to do it again!”