At 12:30 on a recent Wednesday, 10 people stood in line to pay for their lunches of panini sandwiches, pizza and tossed salads at Suburban Eats in Melville. Two cashiers rang up the orders; the telephone was silent.
Two years ago, before the coronavirus forced office employees to work from home, 30 to 40 people would be waiting to pay at the deli’s four cash registers. Delivery orders would be coming in constantly via fax and phone calls.
"A lot of businesses aren’t back in the office at all, and the ones that are have some departments like human resources and finance that are working from home permanently," said Suburban Eats owner Timothy Caras. "Customers that I used to see five times a week now come in once or twice a week… My business is struggling," he said.
The 20-year-old deli is among the restaurants and coffee shops in the Route 110 corridor that cater to office personnel and have been decimated by workers’ prolonged absence because of the pandemic.
Some eateries have laid off half their staff and cut other overhead expenses in an effort to survive. Others have closed, unable to hang on until the day when — or if — office workers return in large numbers.
At Suburban Eats, sales are down 40%, Caras said. The number of lunch deliveries has fallen from 30 to 40 per day to 20. Catering orders have gone from 12 to 15 per day to three to five – and they’re smaller, for groups of six to 12 people instead of 40 to 100 people before the virus struck.
Caras has reduced his workforce to 12 from the pre-pandemic level of 25 to 30. But he’s fallen behind on rent payments and has reluctantly put the deli up for sale.
The 110 corridor, stretching for 15 miles in Huntington and Babylon towns, is where more than 150,000 people used to work, according to studies by Babylon and the think-tank Regional Plan Association in Manhattan.
The biggest offices are between the Northern State Parkway and the Southern State Parkway. The corridor is the largest concentration of office space in Suffolk County, with nearly 9 million square feet, according to commercial real estate brokers.
The 110 office parks, like other centers of work that were deemed "nonessential" in the pandemic’s worst days, shut down on Sunday, March 22, 2020 at 8 p.m. by order of then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. He lifted what he called "New York State on PAUSE" after 12 weeks, but most offices stayed deserted for another year or more as new COVID-19 variants forced employers to repeatedly change their return-to-office timetables.
"We were hooked on the Route 110 corridor because of the potential to do big business from the people who work in the corridor and the people who drive by," said Caras, referring to discussions with his father, also a deli owner, about where to open Suburban Eats in 2001. "The business was set up and doing very well under a system of work, that because of no fault of my own, has changed — and I’m now about to lose everything."
Experts predicted that working from home is here to stay, though likely in combination with a couple of days in the office each week for many.
Richard Chan, a professor at Stony Brook University who is studying changes in business operations, said COVID introduced remote work to office personnel – and many found it appealing.
'People like the idea of flexible hours, not commuting and not having to change into office attire.'
-Richard Chan, a professor at Stony Brook University’s College of Business
"People like the idea of flexible hours, not commuting and not having to change into office attire," said Chan, director of the Center of Entrepreneurial Finance & Innovation in the College of Business. "I’ve read national surveys where one-third of the respondents said they would quit their job if remote working wasn’t an option."
At least one large employer in the 110 corridor, MSC Industrial Direct Co., has moved to remote work permanently. The distributor of industrial supplies shrank its Melville headquarters by 85%, putting up for sale a 170,000-square-foot office and warehouse at 75 Maxess Rd. and renting 26,000 square feet at 515 Broad Hollow Rd. The public company had 370 employees and 60 contractors locally in December 2020.
MSC opened the smaller office on Monday. When staff members need to come in, they use a mobile app to reserve a desk under a system called "hotel seating." They also can reserve a meeting room via the app.
Landlords said MSC is an outlier in fully embracing remote work during the pandemic’s first year and downsizing its physical space so dramatically. But they said they are seeing tenants rearrange floor plans to allow for hotel seating and scheduling employees outside of the traditional 9-to-5 period.
"The smaller, entrepreneurial companies have been quicker to return to the office than the larger corporations," said Harold Rechler, a principal at The We’re Group. The company owns five buildings in the 110 corridor, including 1 & 2 Huntington Quadrangle and Newsday’s headquarters at 6 Corporate Center Dr.
"The number of people in a building in any given hour is still pretty low… About 50% of capacity," Rechler said. "However, I’m encouraged because the vast majority of our tenants have their doors open and the lights are on. That’s an improvement."
The Levine Organization, owner of four buildings in the 110 corridor, is receiving requests from tenants for more frequent office cleanings and some have set up hotel seating, according to Adam Levine, managing partner of the commercial real estate company.
Still, he doesn’t see a lot of cars in the parking lots of his Melville buildings. "It’s certainly emptier than it had been," he said.
Only 46% of the 458 parking spaces at Levine’s 265 Broad Hollow Rd. were occupied in the late morning on a recent Tuesday. That was the highest concentration of vehicles among the seven parking areas surveyed by Newsday on March 1 and 2 between 10 and 11 a.m.
The lowest concentrations of parked cars were found at medical supplies seller Henry Schein Inc., with 2.8% of the spots in use out of 1,216, and at Capital One bank, 5.7% out of 795 spots.
Henry Schein, Long Island’s largest public company by revenue, once had 1,250 employees in its two-building headquarters at the corner of Baylis and Duryea Roads.
Henry Schein hasn’t set a date to return to the office. However, "upon the re-opening of our Melville facility, we estimate that more than half of our team will be assigned a hybrid schedule, working both remotely and in our Melville office," said company spokeswoman Ann Marie Gothard. "The remaining employees will be split between [those] working remotely full time or working in the office full time."
Capital One, which is based in McLean, Virginia, sees its "future as a hybrid work company," said spokeswoman Stacy Jones.
The bank postponed plans to reopen its U.S. offices, including 1307 Walt Whitman Rd. in Melville, on Nov. 2, 2021 because of the omicron variant. Once Capital One reopens, "the majority of [employees] at our Melville office will be eligible to spend some of their time in the office and some of their time working virtually," she said.
Less than a mile north of the Capital One facility is Gemini Deli, where owner Alan Gaspin said he hopes the bank and other large employers return to in-person work soon.
'These companies need to come back for the small businesses around here to recover.'
-Alan Gaspin, owner of Gemini Deli in Melville
"These companies need to come back for the small businesses around here to recover," he said.
Office workers picking up breakfast or lunch and catering orders for meetings made up 90% of Gemini’s 2019 sales. There were 35 to 40 catering orders per week; now there are two to five, according to Gaspin, who purchased the deli in 2009.
"My parking lot has 25 spots and they were all filled all of the time before the pandemic," he said, gesturing toward the lot where eight cars were parked at lunchtime on a recent Wednesday.
"I don’t need [office workers] to come back in full strength because I’ve lowered my overhead," Gaspin said, referring to smaller orders of supplies and going from about 20 employees to nine. "But I need the office workers to come back more than they are now."
National chain restaurants also are hurting.
Moe's Southwest Grill on Broad Hollow Road only has about 40% of the catering sales that it had before the pandemic, seven to eight orders per week compared with 18, said catering director Tricia Catalani, adding the restaurant has increased its outreach to office employers and introduced catering options such as individual hot meals.
Moe's "took a very big hit during the pandemic," she said, citing a 30% reduction in the eatery's workforce. "We truly depend on office workers."
Independent restaurateur Ken Arnone decided on Monday that he couldn’t hold out any longer for the return of more office personnel and permanently closed Arrosto Italian Rotisserie.
The fast-casual eatery opened in December 2019 in a strip plaza behind the gas station at the intersection of Route 110 and Smith Street in Farmingdale. The restaurant employed eight to nine people in its last weeks.
"I talked to people about when they were returning to the office and they told me they weren’t coming back yet," he said. "There comes a point where it just doesn’t make sense to continue."
Arnone said Arrosto Italian’s recovery was hindered by its lack of a drive-thru window and the opening of at least six competitors, most of them national chain restaurants, in the past two years. He said his staff would routinely bring out orders of rotisserie chicken, porchetta pork roast, pasta and sandwiches to customers waiting in their vehicles, but some may have felt safer using a rival’s drive thru.
"The dynamics of the business changed," Arnone said. "You have less people making less trips and they have more choices."
Like other eateries on the 110 corridor, Arrosto Italian benefited from government-run pandemic relief programs, most notably the Paycheck Protection Program loans, but missed out on the aid program designed specifically for them: Restaurant Revitalization Fund grants. Restaurant owners have renewed their calls on Congress to authorize an additional $48 billion to provide grants to applicants that didn’t receive them last year when the RRF ran out of money in a couple of weeks.
Another pandemic casualty in the 110 corridor is the Black Forest Brew Haus. The restaurant and bar on New Highway in Farmingdale, which was popular for lunch and drinks after work, closed last year.
Owner Todd Waite sold the property to Vogue Fabrics, which plans to build a warehouse. Waite did not respond to a request for comment.
Down the street is Georgio’s Coffee Roasters, where co-founder Georgio Testani credits the store’s survival to its pivot to online sales of exotic coffees.
'People weren’t coming in, so we cut our hours and pushed coffee beans ... The orders took off.'
-Georgio Testani, co-founder of Georgio’s Coffee Roasters with his wife, Lydia.
He said the number of people stopping by for coffee, tea and espresso drinks plummeted in 2020. So, he and wife Lydia reduced the store’s monthly operating schedule by 50 hours.
"People weren’t coming in, so we cut our hours and pushed coffee beans" via georgioscoffee.com, which debuted in January 2020, recalled Georgio Testani. "The orders took off because customers want rare coffees in downtimes. They want to treat themselves," he said.
The web orders led the store’s overall sales to rise 5% in 2020 compared with 2019 and 15% last year, said Testani, adding he was able to call back the one employee that he’d laid off because of the pandemic. The store now has five workers.
"You’ve got to adapt to the changes," Testani said. "I don’t believe [the Route 110 corridor] will ever be the same as before."