Feast And Famine For The Restaurant Industry In The Summer Of COVID

The outdoor dining space behind the Sen restaurant in Sag Harbor created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. MICHAEL HELLER

In March, many restaurateurs feared the coronavirus pandemic would spell financial doom for the industry due to the forced closures of dining rooms.

But on the South Fork at least, after a summer that saw very few rainy days, crowds that did not seem to ebb and flow with the passing of weekends and a gradual easing of both fears about the spread of the virus and the restrictions protecting against it, concerns have eased for some.

For those whose business model or physical space lent itself to easy takeout fare or a robust outdoor seating plan, the summer of COVID-19 was a good one — a great one in certain cases.

But for others, especially those who could accommodate little or no outdoor seating, the loss of seats and, especially, bar crowds, left craters in their bottom line that loom large as the lean winter approaches.

Just how lean the winter will actually be, of course, is the question that all hope hangs on for those on the margins of financial solvency. Urban refugees turned full-timers, winter vacation plans in limbo, the claustrophobia of winter working-from-home could all mean a longer high season, a shallower drop-off in business as the days shorten, and perhaps an easing of the losses that summer profits usually insulate against. That is the unknown, for now.

Over the summer, though, what all restaurateurs came to know was that the key to profits was how many outdoor seats a restaurant could provide.

Local officials scrambling to ease the burdens on restaurants left reeling by forced closures in March and April lifted almost any restrictions on the use of outdoor space — allowing tables and chairs to migrate onto sidewalks and lawns, into side alleys and parking lots and, in some cases, even into the streets —and some restaurants were ultimately able to get nearly as many seats into play as they would have had normally. Some got even more.

“We were lucky to have such a great amount of space — it was a real blessing for us and our customers,” said Liz Pavlou, who opened Bistro Ete in Water Mill in 2017 with her husband and chef, Arie.

The restaurant’s landlord at the Water Mill Shoppes allowed them to spread their tables up the mall’s paved pathways and center green. Soon they were shopping for more chairs.

“The one positive thing that we hope comes from all this is that people liked outdoor dining,” Arie Pavlou added, estimating that the restaurant’s summer revenues were about on par with last year, possibly even a little higher. “I’m from Cyprus, we love eating outside. But here, you know, it’s too hot or there’s bugs or whatever. This year, we heard none of those complaints. As soon as they allowed us outdoor dining, we made up everything we lost.”

The outdoor dining space in the alley adjacent to Sag Pizza in Sag Harbor created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. MICHAEL HELLER

For some businesses, the evolving impacts of the pandemic were a boon for business. Take-out friendly food from pizza to tacos to barbecue saw summer crowds lined up from late March to tomorrow.

“When we reopened on March 23 or 24, that first weekend our numbers were comparable to what we’d do on a weekend in July and it stayed like that, straight through to Labor Day,” said Alexa Wolf of Smokin’ Wolf, a southwestern barbecue focused take-out and catering restaurant in East Hampton. “It was like nothing we’d ever imagined. We also, unfortunately, lost 95 percent of our catering, which was a big part of our business in summer, but, overall, we kept saying to ourselves how lucky we are.”

At the other end of the spectrum are those restaurants that had no option for outdoor seating and had to push takeout aside to accommodate seated customers. At the Coast Grill in North Sea, manager and chef couple Pamela and Peter Miller were hamstrung by their restaurant’s perch atop the repair shop of a marina. Takeout business kept the lights on through the spring until they were finally allowed to open their dining room at 50-percent capacity in June. Filling their 65 seats after that was never hard, and may have been even easier on weeknights than in past summers, but with no packed bar for Friday happy hour and fractions of the tables turned on weekend nights, their bottom line sits about 40 percent below last year.

“I will admit, dinner service was a lot less stressful than normal summers and everyone was so happy to actually sit down and be served that every night felt like a festive night,” Ms. Miller said. “But even though you were full, at the end of the night, you realize you were half full and that all the expenses were the same.”

Ms. Miller, a veteran of many dining rooms on the South Fork over the years, said that renegotiating their lease agreements to meet the seating and revenue capacity of their restaurant under the new restrictions will be the key to survival for many restaurant owners in her position.

The sentiment was echoed by another industry veteran who has a very similar dining room situation just up the road in Noyac. At Bell & Anchor the dining room was likewise hog tied when it came to creating outdoor seating and had to rely on takeout and making the most of what dinners could be served in the dining room through the summer.

“A lot of us are going to depend on how rents can be restructured this winter, I think,” said David Loewenberg, who co-owns Bell & Anchor, along with The Beacon in Sag Harbor and Fresno in East Hampton. “The restaurants you see on the map come the spring will be the ones that were innovative and have a good relationship with their landlords.

At Fresno, the large outdoor space served the business well throughout the late spring and summer and may continue to through the winter. At The Beacon, which runs a short season to begin with, reservations became a must and a carefully crafted dinner service with a two-course minimum filled the reduced number of tables. At Bell & Anchor, creative takeout variations made up for some of the loss in seats, but not many.

With winter comes a return to expectations that might be more like a normal off season. The somewhat winnowed crowds make the half-capacity limitation less painful since full-capacity would be less likely to be in demand anyway. Takeout will once again become a potentially profitable component of nightly business for those weary of cooking, but wary of dining rooms.

Lawmakers are busy working on more ways to allow restaurants some leeway from old rules to help their business. Tents over outdoor spaces so they can be heated are being talked about in some board rooms and dining rooms. Others are looking to space they already have.

“We have a large back dining room that we normally would close, but we’ll leave that open and spread out the tables so we’ll probably have about the same amount,” said Paula Marotta, who owns Baby Moon in Westhampton with his two sisters. “We had a good summer. The weather was amazing and the village let us put a lot of extra tables outdoors and we got big new umbrellas. And our seating will probably be about the same this winter. So we can’t complain.”

At the tiny Eastport Luncheonette, owner Keith Glynn said he actually ended up with more seats than he would normally have by taking advantage of an outdoor patio and courtyard. But come the winter, the tiny inside will be a tight fit for even half of its normal seating with 6-foot spacing requirements between tables.

“I honestly don’t know what we’re going to do for the winter,” Mr. Glynn said. “I don’t think a lot of people are ready to sit inside and eat. Maybe get tent. I don’t know.”

Regardless of their bottom lines, all restaurateurs said the summer of 2020 was one made difficult by evolving rules, the hurdles of keeping their staff and customer safe, federal assistance hoops to jump through and the constant stress of never knowing what would change next and undo all the successful adaptations. Few were not happy to see the summer of 2020 go.

“It was half the customers and half the revenue but double the energy,” Mr. Loewenberg said with a sigh. “It was a season for survival.”