When the coronavirus pandemic hit for real last March, forcing restaurants and other businesses to close their doors, it felt like a scene from a bad Tom Cruise movie where aliens were invading and life as we know had ceased to exist.
For restauranteurs, many with a small to non-existent safety net to begin with, the situation was dire to say the least. But for me, and many of my fellow small business owners, the possibility of closing our doors never crossed my mind.
I immediately leaned into my new status as an “essential worker” and rallied myself and my remaining staff to face whatever came next. And if anyone was suited for this struggle it was small business entrepreneurs whose survival skills are constantly being tested.
My restaurant and bar Hi-Life on Manhattan’s Upper West Side had never closed its doors since our grand opening back in March of 1991. We’ve stayed open without interruption on countless occasions when we possibly should have taken the night off: on 9/11, during the blackout in 2003, during Hurricane Sandy, a half dozen times when the city was stunned by blizzards, and even after a fire tore through our kitchen and basement. That’s not to mention never succumbing to increasing rents, staff turnover, competition from other restaurants and all the daily pressures that come with the territory.
After more than three decades in business, I had both lived the Hi-Life and survived the low life while owning and operating multiple restaurants. The lows of running a restaurant business are well documented and even in the best of times there is an almost magical combination of elusive ingredients required for a restaurant to be financially successful and for it to endure. But fighting to survive the pandemic set a new bar in what often feels like a never ending saga to survive in this business. We were all in the fight of our lives.
Fast forward a year and a half—what a roller coaster ride it’s been! Sadly, there have been substantial losses in our industry. Location, style of service and the vagaries of various government bailout programs have led to some outcomes that are truly unfortunate and unfair.
Navigating government mandates and regulations were enough to give you whiplash, thanks to wild swings in sentiment and guidance. On the one hand, it was “go for it,” with outdoor street structures and to-go cocktails attempting to put people back to work and kick-start the economy. On the other hand, you had recently deputized government agents looking to crack down on minor discrepancies and paperwork errors—with consequences that could be as random and as devastating as Covid.
Despite the trauma of the pandemic, looking at the proverbial half-full Martini glass, 2020 included some unexpected blessings for the industry, as restaurants and their customers fought back against the virus together to make the best of a tough situation.
Sidewalk and street seating setups emerged as a signature element of the pandemic, a beacon for those thirsty for a sense of community and entertainment. But during the winter, our restaurant’s installation of electric and propane heaters, plywood walls, sand bags and marine vinyl would have been wasted had our patrons not donned their mittens to drink unheard of quantities of Hot Toddy’s and icy Martinis on the freezing streets. The enthusiasm with which our customers met us halfway to dine in these often creative and ingenious—but nonetheless freezing and hastily erected—street setups was heartwarming and a reminder of why we are in this business in the first place. Right on cue, street music troubadours joined the scene, their songs collectively announcing “life would go on!”
Restaurateurs and their teams of cooks, servers, bartenders and delivery people—the small army it takes for even the humblest of restaurants to function—were lauded for their efforts, tipped generously and generally rewarded for their hard work.
The day-to-day drudgery required of us in the restaurant industry, particularly those on the front lines and behind the scenes, has typically gone unrecognized or even pitied. For servers, delivery people, line cooks and bartenders to be given special recognition—to be considered essential—felt very good!
As the winter snow thawed, vaccinations became available, and restrictions on indoor dining and gatherings gradually lifted, a flood of pent-up demand led to many restaurants and bars around the country hitting new highs in sales. For Hi-Life, those spring months ranked among our best in a 30-year span that has included some pretty good stretches.
But even before the emergence of the Delta variant and its pernicious effects, I could see trouble on the horizon. While there’s always trouble on the horizon in my world if you look hard and far enough, soaring food costs and customer resistance to price increases are real now. There is the battle to rehire staff in a marketplace that is both exploding with demand as restaurants reopen and where numerous factors give many in the restaurant business a good reason to stay on the sidelines. Bottom lines will shrink as food and labor costs rise. The mandate in NYC and in others areas that restaurants verify vaccination for all indoor diners is undoubtedly the right move, but will be fraught with issues and be a major bummer to say the least. And even the most optimistic must worry that pent-up demand will be tempered by new fears and Covid fatigue.
Unlike the typical big-budget apocalyptic thriller that is resolved with a toothy grin and hugs all around, the Delta variant is likely just the first indication that this Covid business is not over. This story will not have an ending clearly defined by any one event or medical breakthrough.
So must we resign ourselves to accept a life with new dangerous variants and restrictions—what many are calling a “new normal”? These are things we can’t totally foresee or control; my staff and I will embrace any new rules and safety measures as they come. But as a mindset, I’m trying to move past seeing these variants, troubling outbreaks and business setbacks as a “new normal.” Instead, I’m viewing them as simply normal. I will be ready to accept whatever lies ahead for me and my staff. Ups and downs in an industry that is both precarious and thrilling is what those of us in the restaurant business signed up for.
The roller coaster ride will continue for all of us. I for one am exhausted, but also relieved that we’re still here and energized by a fight well fought. Now, we’ve got to get back to a business, where nothing is guaranteed, the customer is essential and we only benefit by keeping those two things in mind. That’s normal. And make mine a double, please.