Long Island restaurants left reeling after loss of dine-in business

Alicia DiStefano, owner of Buttermilk's Kitchen in Patchogue, N.Y., chats with a customer, while server Lauren Young re-sanitizes surfaces. The restaurant, like every other still open, has had to rely solely on takeout and delivery since New York's PAUSE order on March 16.

By Nicholas Wurm

The dance floor and dining area at Recipe 7 Kitchen and Cocktails in Miller Place, N.Y. are vacant these days. What little staff remains takes care to clean the tables and bar, but they haven’t seen a regular or a party in weeks. The white phone behind the dry beer taps still rings for takeout, and delivery orders through DoorDash are still coming in — but for Recipe 7, they’re not exactly paying the bills.

Long Island’s independent restaurants will be subsisting on takeout and delivery until at least May 15, after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo extended the state’s PAUSE order for dine-in restaurants and other non-essential businesses. Just over half of New York State’s restaurants have moved to takeout and delivery only since March 16, according to a survey by the New York Restaurant Association. Around 80 percent of the state’s restaurant employees have lost their jobs since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At Recipe 7, only the kitchen staff, some bartenders and some management remain to help with takeout and delivery orders.

“Really we’re just running so that staff has somewhat of an income coming in,” Alison Schnoor, a manager at Recipe 7, said. “The shifts are cut, the hours are cut…we’ve had to cut a good portion of staff. We’re really just [staying open] to keep people employed.”

Some restaurants have been able to adapt to the shutdown better than others, but for niche eateries, like breakfast-centric Buttermilk’s Kitchen in Patchogue, N.Y., the transition hasn’t been as smooth. Owner Alicia DiStefano was forced to lay off 95 percent of her staff and limit her open times to four days, down from the seven-days-a-week schedule they’ve had since 2018. Without the revenue generated by dine-in business, DiStefano can’t afford a dedicated delivery driver and has been forced to rely on apps — like DoorDash — that take 20 to 30 percent from every order placed.

“They’re great services to use, but it comes at a price,” DiStefano said. “For us to be in a hard spot to begin with, then on top of that, have to give away 20 to 30 percent of [our] business to a company because we’re pigeonholed into only offering takeout or delivery services, it gets really rough.”

Profit margins for independent restaurants are often razor thin, averaging only three to five percent annually, according to research by Toast, creator of restaurant point of sale technology used by over 10,000 restaurants nationwide. Rocky Point, NY’s Broadway Market reinvented their business model to focus on takeout and delivery within days of the shutdown, but decided against partnering with any delivery apps due to the additional cost and seasonal nature of their menu. On a good day, independent restaurants, like Broadway Market, are just above water in the current climate, co-owner Shasho Pole said.

“In regards to profit, there is none,” he said. “There are two components to that. The part that hurts the most for us, is the familial part… that we had to lay off [dine-in staff]. The second part… the bottom line, is atrocious.”

Despite their struggles, restaurants still operating continue to work with and for their communities. In Port Jefferson, the Chamber of Commerce partnered with GreaterLongIsland.com to raise money to help local restaurants provide free meals for workers at St. Charles and John T. Mather Memorial, the village’s two hospitals. The Chamber also recently set aside $2,500 for deliveries to the Welcome Friends Soup Kitchen to allow the organization to open up another day during the week.

“[Welcome Friends] can’t have their…very much senior volunteers working and cooking,” Barbara Ransome, the Chamber’s director of operations, said.  “This [opens] up deliveries for a Tuesday program so the underserved can then benefit on a fourth day.”

Around 53 percent of all New York State Restaurants have temporarily closed since dine-in options were eliminated, according to a survey from New York State Restaurant Association. Some, like Stony Brook’s Country House, initially tried to transition to takeout before closing, while others, like Port Side Bar and Grill in Port Jefferson, NY, closed as soon as the dine-in shutdown was announced. For some of Port Side’s staff, March 16 was the last day they had a job.

“The last day I was supposed to work was St. Patrick’s Day,” Sammi McPhail, a furloughed bartender and waitress at Port Side, said. “I don’t really qualify for a lot of the [benefits]. I’m very fortunate I have my side business, where I make my crafts, but unfortunately a lot of that stuff is for weddings and events, and people just aren’t having those right now.”

New York recently expanded its unemployment benefits after President Trump signed the CARES Act into law, part of which provided for an additional $600 per week for those unemployed due to the virus. Two out of three restaurant employees have lost their jobs nationwide, according to the National Restaurant Association. Even with the additional benefits, at least one server would still choose their job over collecting unemployment.

“Frankly, I would rather be working,” Zachary Kurmel, a server at Country House, said. “I’m getting $600 extra a week on unemployment, and I honestly don’t think that’s fair. I have friends working in the banks, in the medical fields… and they’re putting their lives at risk and I’m just sitting home.”

Not everyone is sitting idly by, waiting for a bailout. Six days before dine-in services were shut down, Steven Hall and Helen Parakis launched the Dining Bond Initiative to help local, independent restaurants weather the storm. The bonds, discounted gift cards sold like savings or war bonds, are designed to provide an influx of cash to struggling restaurants immediately — with the added benefit for consumers of a discounted meal when places can reopen, Parakis said.

“We’re close to 500 restaurants [involved] worldwide,” Hall added. “We’re not taking any fees, we’re not charging anything for it. We’re simply trying to move money to where it’s needed right now.”

There is no fixed date for when dine-in service might resume in New York. Four percent of the state’s restaurants have closed permanently since the outbreak, while seven percent expect to close within the next 30 days, the New York State Restaurant Association said. Despite that, some in the industry remain hopeful for the future.

“I’d be a magician if I knew what the timeline was…but who knows what’s gonna happen,” Ann Olenick, co-owner of Broadway Market, said. “Best case scenario is [we reopen] sooner rather than later — but we’re not going anywhere. We have and we’ll continue to roll with the punches.”

About Nicholas Wurm 6 Articles
I am a junior Journalism major at Stony Brook University, with a concentration in science and the environment. My interests in reporting are focused on culture, science and technology. I am also the lead copyeditor for the Stony Brook Press, the university's on-campus feature magazine.