NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – A few 40-somethings were nursing their Bud Lights while George State and Arkansas State were playing some meaningless game on a TV in the corner of the bar.
The scene at Olde Queens Tavern and other bars and restaurants on Easton Avenue was eerily quiet, especially considering Thursday night have always been the start of the weekend for droves of Rutgers students. Just a quiet walk down a darkened Easton Avenue shows what the pandemic has done to the strip – considered the main business artery for students seeking cheap pizza and cheaper beer.
But past the train station and crossing over Albany Street, it was a different world. Just a 10-minute walk from Olde Queens at 108 Easton Ave., the city was alive on this Thursday. George Street was filled with the sounds of a DJ scratching records on one end and a live band jamming on the other.
Lights strung above the street illuminated the night, and the full-priced drinks and the laughs and the food flowed as diners filled socially distant tables arranged smack dab in the middle of the street and on the sidewalks. Customers were generally unrelated to Rutgers. Rather they were drawn to the downtown, and the vibrancy that is so rare to see these days.
This is the tale of two cities – or, at least, two parts of the same city. Town and Gown: 2020 style.
They may still be yucking it up over at the Stress Factory on Church Street, where the laughs and the drinks continue to flow, but the owners of the bars, bodegas and bagel joints along Easton Avenue who spoke to TAPinto New Brunswick painted a picture of an area financially decimated since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March.
Even now, with safety guidelines relaxed to allow for limited indoor and outdoor dining, they spoke of mass staff layoffs, cutbacks on operating hours and menu limitations.
Some businesses, such as the Golden Rail at 66 Easton Ave., have closed their doors for now. Others, like Redd’s Biergarten at 5 Easton Ave., have only just re-opened them, hoping to pull some of the revelers from George Street to the college part of town.
And although the business owners downtown are surely seeing a downturn in profits, the ones targeting RU students on the half-mile stretch roughly between the Corner Tavern at the corner of Easton and Somerset Street and Olde Queens Tavern say they have been especially hard hit. You can’t just close off the street and hire a mariachi band or have a karaoke night.
First, there are no students and, second, Easton Avenue is a major artery, with major hospitals on both ends: Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital and Saint Peter’s University Hospital.
It’s also their bad luck that Rutgers sent home the 17,000 or so students who usually live on campus and initiated remote instruction.
There is some campus life at 40 College Ave., with The Yard hosting events, such as family yoga on Oct 28 and the fall family movie series, with The Addams Family being shown on Oct. 30. But while such events are certainly welcomed, they make little difference when you walk up Somerset Street and see the quiet eateries and bars on Easton Avenue; the struggle evident.
“My business is probably off 75 or 80%,” said “Huey” Huseth, owner of Huey’s Knight Club at 164 Easton Ave. “Tuesday nights, it was $2 Tuesdays. And, we'd have a line at the door people waiting to get in. And now we're lucky if we get 50 people through the door on a Tuesday night.”
Huseth said he is in a better position than most of the other business owners along Easton because he owns his building. He is hampered, however, by the fact that other bars, such as Olde Queens, are situated on a corner and are allowed to have some sidewalk seating.
“I'm worried about my manager and a couple of full-time employees that I have,” he said. “So, that's the only reason I'm opening. I'm making enough money to pay my electric bill and my cable bill and that's about it. I'm not making any money for my mortgage, that's for sure, or my insurance.”
The owner of Stuff Yer Face, the iconic restaurant and bar known for its 1970s décor and its signature boli selections, is also trying to keep the lights on, on Easton Avenue.
“I lost a bunch of employees, especially in the back of the house, to other businesses because I couldn't give them the hours that they needed to pay their bills just because I can't just put people on to stand around and do nothing,” owner Matt Poznick said. “I'm trying to save money as well, at the same time trying to keep everybody happy and, for the most part, employed. But the bartenders aren't making the money that they used to. The servers aren't making the money that they used to. I got nine tables outside. I got nine tables inside. That’s it.”
Poznick said not only losing the Rutgers crowd has hurt business, but he’s seen a big dip in his lunch crowd because the city’s larger employers such as Johnson & Johnson on nearby Albany Street have employees working remotely.
When he drives past the J&J parking garages and he sees the digital tote showing there are 700 or 800 parking spaces available, he begins to calculate how much that’s hurting his and other businesses on Easton Avenue.
When Poznick was asked if there will come a point when business is no longer sustainable, he sighed.
“We’re going to run it to the end until we can’t do it anymore,” he said.
One of the tipping points, Huseth said, may come when bars are asked to renew their liquor liability insurance.
“These bars pay anywhere between $40,000 and $80,000 a year for that insurance,” he said. “And I’m sitting here paying for insurance for whatever it is, $50,000, $60,000 a year and I’ve got no customers. And I’m up for renewal now and I’m like, ‘What do I do? What, am I going to pay another $40,000, $45,000 or whatever out of my pocket and I’m bringing in $1,000 a week for the next five months?’”
The financial downturn is especially heart wrenching because these long-time businesses are emotionally tied to New Brunswick and the generations of Rutgers students who have come through them.
Poznick, for example, worked his way up from cashier. He invested his life’s savings – and then some – into buying Stuff Yer Face at 49 Easton Ave.
With pride, he had the first dollar he earned framed and mounted on the wall of the restaurant.
“I just hope I don’t have to use it,” he said.