For some restaurants, the decision was relatively easy: Keep going. Pizzerias and other takeout-friendly establishments already had in place the menus, staffing and procedures that would enable them to continue in the face of coronavirus. But most businesses struggled to balance the benefits of staying open (revenue, activity) with very real drawbacks (health risks, the difficulty of transforming the dine-in experience for a takeout world).
Now, six weeks after Gov. Cuomo mandated the end of all dine-in service, some eateries that initially closed their doors are reopening them. Over the last two weeks, restaurants that have come back on line include Vulcano 081 in Rockville Centre, Thyme in Roslyn, Lido Deli in Long Beach, B Greek Kitchen in Lynbrook, Holy Smoke in Wantagh, Big Daddy's in Massapequa, Beijing House in Syosset, Prime in Huntington, Vicky's Casa del Sabor in Lindenhurst, Lily Flanagan's, The Local and The Villager in Babylon and Carolina Kitchen in Medford.
The decision to reopen, owners say, involves a careful balance.
Rolando Mizaku decided to close his acclaimed modern Italian restaurant, Huntington’s Piccolo Mondo, on March 29. “It was the peak of the virus,” he said, “and I was concerned about the safety of my employees.” For Christina Sorrentino, owner, with her husband Salvatore, of ITA Kitchen in Bay Shore, the pandemic had already hit close to home — older relatives had been diagnosed with covid 19 — and, she said, “we wanted to play our part in social distancing.” They closed on April 1 and, after a brief reappearance for Easter, closed again.
In the early weeks of pandemic panic, Swell Taco (locations in Babylon and Patchogue) was doing land-office business. And that was a problem, said Brooke Jankow, who owns the company with her brother, Steve Zoerner. “The volume was jamming up our operational side,” she said. “We weren’t sure how to be safe, and when we realized how intense it was getting out there, we decided it was better for our staff and our community to take a break.” They closed on April 7 and, like Piccolo Mondo and ITA Kitchen, reopened on Wednesday.
Before they would reopen Swell Taco, the siblings not only sanitized the kitchen, they rearranged its layout so that cooks could maintain the requisite distancing. “We got rid of years’ worth of stuff we weren’t using, cleaned out a storage room to utilize that space, too. We instituted online ordering so we didn’t have to take payment.”
Mehmet Ocal, owner of Pasha Kebob and Grill in Lindenhurst, deep-cleaned the kitchen and erected a plexiglass sheet to shield his open kitchen from customers and instituted one-way aisles in the grocery section of the shop before he reopened on April 14. “It’s just me, my wife and maybe one helper,” he said. And no one comes in without a mask.”
At ITA Kitchen, Sorrentino cleaned and sanitized, stocked up on masks and gloves. She noted that such measures only work if the whole team is committed to safety. “To reopen,” she said, “we had to know that all our employees were doing their part. The two people on the line with my husband are like family, we know they haven’t left their houses in weeks.” To facilitate ordering, she has the restaurant’s phone transferred to her cellphone during off hours. “That way people can order even if we are not open.”
Swell Taco’s menu adapted just fine to takeout, although Jankow said that, for the time being, there would be no daily specials.
But Piccolo Mondo’s menu was a different story. “All the time I was home,” Mizaku said, “I was working on creating dishes that would work better for takeout.” He axed the swordfish alla plancha with sweet potato purée, white bean-escarole stew and sun-dried tomatoes, as well as the seared ahi tuna with haricots verts, frisée and Pecorino Romano. “People wanted the 14-ounce Berkshire pork chop with roasted potatoes and caramelized onions.” The green-tomato and burrata salad with Tuscan olive streusel morphed into a more conventional Roma tomato-mozzarella Caprese with prosciutto.
ITA Kitchen kept a handful of a la carte items, but focused the menu on family meals for two, four and six people. The four courses comprise a salad, choice of starter (such as rice balls or stuffed mushrooms), pasta (penne with marinara, vodka, filetto sauce or baked) and a choice of entree (such as chicken Francese, Parm or Marsala or sausage and peppers). For the time being, the kitchen is not making fresh pasta.
At Pasha, Ocal has 86-ed the stuffed grape leaves (“they take hours to make”) and has reduced the number of soups and stews, but kebabs continue to sear on the grill. He confessed he’s getting a little nervous about his doner kebab, the spit-roasted stack of lamb and beef that is shaved off and served in a pita or on a platter. “I need lamb breast to make it,” he said. “Last week I bought $600 of frozen lamb and when I defrosted it I saw — smelled — that it had gone bad.” He’s also hearing from his produce supplier that certain vegetables are getting scarce and does not want to contemplate making Turkish food without eggplant.
THE BOTTOM LINE
For now, though, Ocal says he has enough business to survive. “I’m off by about a quarter,” he said (up from about 50 percent when the pandemic first hit) but he can absorb the loss because staffing is down: one of his cooks went to Maryland to ride out the quarantine.
A small restaurant whose owner (and his wife) can cook always has an advantage, but larger operations have to consider their employees. “Even though we applied for and got the PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] and EIDL [Economic Injury Disaster Loan],” said Sorrentino, “we have employees that couldn’t get unemployment. And, in the end, we have to balance health against the fact that we have a business to support.”
This sentiment was echoed by Jankow. “Our decision to reopen came in large part from the staff really needing their jobs,” she said. Swell Taco did not manage to secure any business loans and she said that she and her brother decided that “our best option for surviving is to adapt.”
At Piccolo Mondo, Mizaku isn’t looking for profits. “If we break even it will be OK,” he said.
Mizaku said that uppermost in his mind were his customers. “Those weeks I was closed, the calls were nonstop,” he said. “‘We miss the pork chop, we miss the salmon.’ They really wanted us to reopen, and we want to cook for them.”
Ocal’s phone was also ringing. “Everyone wanted to know that we were OK,” he said. “But they also needed us to be open. I have a lot of single Turkish guys who come here, guys working construction, working in gas stations — they’ve been coming here for 14 years and didn’t know what to do.”
“At a time like this restaurants are comfort," Sorrentino said.
Jankow concurred. “All I hear from my customers is ‘thank you for being open’ and “taking this dinner home feels like a little bit of normal.’”
ITA KITCHEN: 45 W Main St., Bay Shore, 631-267-5916, itakitchenbayshore.com
PASHA KEBOB AND GRILL: 656 NY-109, Lindenhurst, 631-225-7499, kebobtonight.com
PICCOLO MONDO: 1870 E. Jericho Tpke., Huntington, 631-462-0718, piccolomondoli.com
SWELL TACO: 135 Deer Park Ave., Babylon, 631-482-1299 and 30 E. Main St., Patchogue, 631-627-6710, swelltacoli.com