NEW JERSEY — During the typical holiday season, hundreds of thousands of dollars flow through the Rail Yard Tavern in Fairlawn.
From Thanksgiving to New Years, hundreds bustle in and out of the restaurant every weekend. By this time, its 186 seats are reserved months in advance for Christmas parties, one of the most lucrative times of the year.
But not this year.
“We have absolutely no parties booked,” said Bob Piccoli, the restaurant’s owner. “Zero.”
It’s a ghastly thought for those in the restaurant business: An empty dining room during the holiday season. But as temperatures drop across the state and customers remain wary of indoor dining, restaurant owners like Piccoli fear what can be financially ruinous upcoming months.
“When I talk to a fellow restaurateur, the only conversation we have is how much longer you think you got before you're gonna close the doors,” he said. “And its weeks, not months.”
Since the start of the pandemic, restaurants have buoyed themselves by pivoting to takeout orders, delivery and al fresco dining. Now, restaurateurs are looking to adapt yet again, to survive a make-or-break winter.
In South Plainfield, Walter Kurilew is doing just that. Kurilew, the owner of KC’s Korner, has installed a new filtration system and purchased heat lamps. He’s prepared to turn to takeout and delivery again, and even reduce hours if necessary.
Still, he’s concerned. November to January makes up roughly 60 percent of his yearly revenue. He anticipates losing Thanksgiving evening — one of the biggest nights of the year. And mounting utility expenses like heat to operate a restaurant capped at 25 percent indoor capacity isn’t financially practical.
“Just the sheer math alone is not feasible,” he said. “That's why you'll probably see so many places starting to fold.”
According to the National Restaurant Association, 100,000 restaurants have closed since the start of the pandemic. And in the Garden State, the President of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, Marilou Halvorsen, estimates that 37 percent of restaurants could close by the end of the year.
“This is unprecedented,” she said of the potential apocalyptic winter for the restaurant industry. “We’ve had labor shortages, but nothing like this.”
Halvorsen said the closures can ripple throughout the state’s economy, impacting local tax revenues and the roughly 348,000 residents working in restaurants. And whether it be increased indoor capacities or government assistance, she said the industry needed more government help.
“The $35 million we got from the CARES Act was good,” she said. “But it’s really not enough.”
But even policy changes like an increased indoor capacity is not an end-all solution for restaurants. With current guidelines requiring parties to be six feet apart, some businesses don’t have enough space to take advantage of expanded indoor dining.
“Even if indoor dining is at 50 percent, if you need a six-foot rule, most restaurants will still be at 25 percent,” said Jim Elenis, co-owner of the Westfield Diner. While his diner was big enough to benefit from expanded capacities, he said, for others it was a moot point.
“I’ve heard from a couple of friends of mine who own smaller restaurants that they can't do anything,” he said. “Capacity won’t actually double.”
For other restaurants, it’s a problem of getting customers indoors in the first place.
“I had an older couple last night and they were wearing winter jackets, hoods, caps and mittens trying to eat dinner outside,” said Piccoli, owner of the Rail Yard Tavern. “Because they were afraid to come inside.”
Piccoli worried that the scenario was a harbinger of what’s to come in the winter: Customers afraid to eat indoors. And if that’s the case, he said he’ll be forced to close down.
“I've lost over $500,000 in revenue this year,” he said. “There's no more money. I'm one step away from saying goodbye. I'm just going to shut the doors.”
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