By Sydney Stoller
With temperatures dropping and COVID-19 cases on the rise, local restaurants are struggling now more than ever to adapt to the continued challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Since March, restaurants have been among the businesses hardest hit by the health crisis, being forced to survive through forced closures and restricted business practices, including limited seating capacity, transforming parking lots or sidewalks into dining rooms with tents and at one point solely relying on curbside pickup and delivery orders.
Eating locally is more important than ever as establishments try to stay afloat with what promises to be a difficult winter. While restaurants being permitted to open indoor dining to 50 percent capacity since June has granted a much-needed respite for many, some owners have opted to avoid the risk.
Ngawang Sherpa, manager of Jewel of Himalaya in Yorktown, said that while the country’s health has been impacted by the virus, mentally, he believes, everyone is still scared. The Yorktown business is still only offering takeout and curbside service. Safety and comfort are Sherpa’s prime concerns.
“We are all scared and (taking these precautions) gives our customers peace of mind that they are in a safe zone,” Sherpa said. “It is not only important for us to run and survive in the business but to run the business very safely.”
Despite a dip in infection rates through the summer, coronavirus cases have surged locally and nationally since Halloween, with many people disregarding the advice of health professionals to limit large gatherings and avoid travel. The rise in case numbers has shown that fewer patrons are willing to eat indoors or go out at all, business owners say.
With the threat indoor seating capacity could be lowered or suspended if an area is designated a COVID-19 hotspot, Isi Albanese, owner of Exit 4 Food Hall in Mount Kisco, is prepared for whatever may come. But for now, he’s adapted to the situation with indoor dining an option for patrons, as well as some outdoor seating.
The restaurant currently has tables set up on the sidewalk with a tarp erected over it and heating lamps in place to ease the chill of the winter weather.
However, while Albanese has been fortunate to see his patronage increase since the start of the pandemic despite the expected downturn in in-person diners, he noted the importance of building an online presence through social media platforms. Due to that, the restaurant has amassed a sizable group of takeout and delivery customers who have adjusted to ordering meals online.
“Customers need to know that they can shop online and still shop locally,” Albanese said. “Especially in these times when you may not want to go into a store, not having a strong digital presence can really prevent you from moving forward and surviving through the pandemic.”
Like Exit 4 and Jewel of Himalaya, several other area restaurants have tailored their daily routine to use platforms such as Facebook and Instagram to inform followers about updates and promotions, including holiday menus, specialty meal kits, specials and unexpected closings and openings.
“In this day and age, it is so important to have an online presence,” Albanese noted.
Eateries like Bango Bowls, a popular chain in lower Westchester that offers acai and pitaya bowls, poke bowls, oatmeal bowls and smoothies, has had an easier transition than most with sales predominantly focused on takeout orders prior to the pandemic.
Ryan Thorman, Bango Bowls’ co-founder and president, noted that it’s been beneficial to the chain to have previously created an online presence. However, to further bolster customer engagement, Thorman said efforts have been made to upgrade the restaurant’s website and improve its loyalty program through the implementation of Bango Bucks.
For others, the struggle to adapt, keep workers employed and maintain outdoor and indoor dining has come at a cost. Despite a limited cashflow, restaurants must allot funds to supply masks, sanitizing stations and other safety equipment, while also handling price increases from suppliers and increased wages for employees risking their health to work.
Furthermore, restaurants face new expenditures that come with an increase in delivery orders, whether it be hiring more drivers or paying the steep fees charged by companies such as Grubhub and Uber Eats.
“Delivery was always a big part of our business, but the increased volume through our delivery partners has definitely been challenging,” Thorman said. “We have called the local legislator to support the new measure in place to cap the delivery charges at 15 percent.”
Regardless of these numerous challenges, Westchester’s restaurant owners are determined to survive and maintain morale among customers and employees.
“We are not in very good shape at this moment,” Sherpa said. “Business has collapsed completely, and it’s been a very hard journey till this date, not just us but every other business existing, but we are in no position to complain or lose hope.”