In the weeks before the coronavirus lockdown began in mid-March, Carolina Kitchen in Medford was doing bang-up business. The pastel-tiled soul-food eatery on Route 112 had only opened in December, but sold out of fried chicken on its first night of business and for many days thereafter.
Owners Kha and Shelley Wheeler were thrilled, having drawn on family recipes for the menu and spent tens of thousands of dollars gutting the space to create Carolina Kitchen. Then came coronavirus and the dine-in shutdown. Concerned about safety, the Wheelers closed Carolina Kitchen and remained shuttered through the spring. In June, they reopened kitchen briefly for takeout, but closed again when food supplies were interrupted, insurance issues arose and most staff had not yet returned to work. "Unfortunately, this is taking a hard financial toll," Kha Wheeler texted in early June. He posted a GoFundMe campaign to cover back rent and kept the inside of Carolina Kitchen set up, ready for customers. "I can't lose this restaurant; I've worked way too hard," he added.
While many restaurants have reopened after New York's coronavirus surge — and others, such as Ginza in Massapequa, have closed for good — still another group, at least a few in each town, exist in a limbo. They're not yet open, but not permanently closed, either.
"We were operating at full capacity for 11 years, and this was the first time we've closed for more than five or six consecutive days," said Lenny Messina, chef du cuisine of Lola in Great Neck, which has not yet reopened. "Restaurants are living, breathing animals and everyone in the industry knows that it's very hard to cease operations and regain some momentum."
Executive chef Michael Ginor opened Lola in 2009 with a menu of Middle Eastern and North African-inspired plates such as roasted cauliflower salad with tahini or za'atar-roasted chicken. (Ginor also owns Hudson Valley Foie Gras, and serves a duck frites in the restaurant). Lola has consistently earned a spot on Newsday's Top 100 list.
Explaining Lola's decision to remain closed, Messina cited a number of factors — including the "health and safety as other states skyrocket in numbers," he said. (Before lockdown, Lola had 15 staff members). "The priority for us is the health and safety of our employees, whether or not they're permitting indoor dining or outdoor dining. We don't feel pushing our servers so that the only way they can take care their family is risking their family's health."
Messina pointed out there are numerous less-obvious factors that figure into the reopening calculus — for instance, equipment that has fallen into neglect. "We have nine refrigerators we haven't turned on in months. Those motors are constantly spinning [when Lola is open], 12 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week," he said. "People don't realize the labor it will take to get them running to their normal state."
With many people still working from home, a drop in day-to-day traffic is figuring into some reopening plans. In December, chef-owner Ken Arnone opened his Melville restaurant, Arrosto Italian Rotisserie, and like everyone else had to close or pivot to takeout three months later. He reopened briefly for takeout, but now remains closed. "Number one, we certainly had concerns about the health and safety of our employees with regards to the second wave." said Arnone. "The other biggest piece is business returning to the area. There is dramatically less traffic on [Route] 110 at 5 o'clock than there was prior to covid."
Before lockdown, Arnone said the restaurant had a busy lunch trade that segued into an early-evening dinner crowd, and most of that dissipated when nearby workplaces closed. Because Arrosto was relatively new, and still building a customer base, reopening plans have become more complex, Arnone said.
"Since we didn't [already] have existing takeout traffic, we were hit very hard," said Arnone. As a former instructor at the Culinary Institute of American in Hyde Park and a certified master chef, he is carefully plotting every aspect of the next few weeks and months, including how customer comfort levels and rising food and cleaning costs — such as the cost of gloves, which have doubled — will impact Arrosto when it reopens, likely in August. "It was the right decision for some people to reopen, and we're erring on the side of caution, and making sure we're making the right decisions," he said.
In the meantime, Arnone has been going over the menu to make it more efficient, rejiggering processes and making adjustments such as the extension of an existing Plexiglass barrier in front of the open kitchen. Renovation has also been on the cards inside the still-shuttered Hicksville Sweet Shop, the 95-year-old luncheonette owned by the Zouros family since 1974. "We've been sprucing the place up," said Harry Zouros, who runs the place with his parents, Phillip and Eva Zouros. They opened the shop for takeout in the spring, but quickly closed again, said Zouros.
"[Because of safety], my mom was having anxiety every time a customer would come in. It wasn't really worth it for us to be open for takeout," said Zouros. With a facade a few feet from busy Broadway and a less-than-ideal area behind the shop, outdoor dining was not an option, either. "Our place is an experience. You come in and sit down and customers get to know each other. We have to figure out how to make it safest for them. We miss them."
Zouros said he and his family plan to reopen possibly later this summer. "We're getting there. We'll figure it out within a couple of weeks."