HAWTHORNE, NJ – Linda and Michael Passaro own and operate Hawthorne’s Primo Amore, an Italian restaurant that hosted parties and banquets prior to the coronavirus pandemic which upended the restaurant industry.  In the days that followed, restaurants of all types had to rapidly reinvent themselves to stay afloat, offering take-out, delivery, and road-side pick up to reduce the amount of physical contact between patrons and staff.

Primo Amore continues to operate, but Linda told TAPinto Hawthorne that her business, like all restaurants, is facing huge struggles in light of COVID-19.  She was critical of the governmental response, saying that money promised to small businesses was unavailable, and that large restaurant firms had managed to take a chunk of the pie that would have otherwise helped the family owned operations which need it most.

“I look forward to continuing to spread the news of severe needs of restaurants during and post COVID-19,” she told TAPinto Hawthorne.  “A $240 billion loss nationally is projected according to Restaurant Association. I read 1 in 3 restaurants will stay standing. I project only 1 in 10, as our area in northern New Jersey and New York will be impacted through the year, at minimum.” 

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Shortly after being unrolled, the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) run by the Small Business Administration announced it had run out of money on April 16, according to Bloomberg, and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan had dried up as well. 

“The large restaurant companies seem to get funding,” Passaro said.  “It seems small business owners are left to their own abilities to be creative and fund ourselves. How long can most of us rely on ourselves?”

As states start to consider their next step towards reopening, a balance between protecting public health and allowing businesses to resume is a difficult path to chart for politicians and policymakers.  The risk of a second-wave as a result of reopening too aggressively means that the future path will likely be incremental in New Jersey.  At the same time, employers and employees who depend on their businesses for their livelihoods are facing hard times.  “Beyond severe health risks, the business risks for many small business owners will lead to financial ruin,” Passaro said.  “Life and health matter more, but these businesses will face financial mayhem. Funding support is just not there. And the social distancing is not easy to adhere to for fine dining restaurants.”

What the future may hold for the restaurant industry is not exactly clear, as the pandemic continues to slog on.  Governor Phil Murphy frequently refers to it as a “war” and that sacrifices have to be made to finally win that war and gradually return to some semblance of normalcy.  Social distancing behavior is anticipated to be required for the foreseeable future, and traditional dine-in facilities will need to adapt.  “We are blessed with large dining rooms, so we can alternate tables more easily once we are safe to open,” Passaro said.  Having a large space could allow for social distancing behaviors, and she said that while her staff is already trained in advanced hygienic practices and sanitation, businesses as a whole will need to do so as well, and some new behaviors will be expected going forward.  Things such as hand sanitizers in the restaurants and new ways to handle food around patrons may well become de rigeuer.  Buffets, particularly the self-serve variety where patrons handle utensils to take their own portions, may become the stuff of memories.

Passaro, who said that she and her husband were fortunate to have other jobs to help support their business and family, has a plan for the future.  Some of the steps will include socially distant al fresco dining, distancing within the dining room itself, regularly screening the health of the workers in the restaurant, and pushing “catering trays” for when families and friends start to gather again and want to eat together.

She also emphasized that patrons should consider whether or not they are dining at a place where the owners are actually present.  The Passaros “can assure safer hygiene is followed” at a place where the owners are in the restaurant itself.

“The future of the restaurant industry is uncertain,” she said.  “We take it day by day trying to keep the lights on. No one is mentioning the double whammy of this season April- June in our business pays for slower summer months. So in reality we need to bridge to Fall at best.”  Passaro said that previously, take-out had accounted for a small fraction of business, but “our take out is roughly 10% of normal revenue. Bleak. We appreciate every order every customer places every week. Challenging math.”

Passaro profusely thanked her customers, many of whom were regulars she said had told her they wanted to see Primo Amore continue to operate and survive, and continued to order from them.

Despite all the difficulties, the Passaro family has found a way to help out.  Linda said that her son, Luke, had wanted to help out others on the front lines of the pandemic, and that it made them feel good to do something for them.  It was a way of handling the stress of a bad situation while doing their bit to lend a hand in the crisis.

That’s where their Primo Amore #HelpUsFeedThem operation came into play. 

“We have always used #FoodIsLove as our company's motto,” Linda said.  They have since been providing meals to healthcare workers, raising funds from donors privately and on their GoFundMe page.

Passaro said that the community response has been “amazing” and that $10 towards meals can cover their costs to bring healthy food to healthcare workers.

Her niece, Hayley, works as an emergency room nurse at St. Clare’s Health System and they found there had been times she and others had gone over ten hours without eating.  Primo Amore has delivered food there as well as to other surrounding hospitals to ensure those working to protect the lives of patients have the fuel to carry on.  At the time of her interview with TAPinto Hawthorne, Passaro said that between online and private fundraising, they had managed to raise in excess of $7,500 and delivered 800 meals to St. Clare’s, St. Joseph’s, Valley Hospital, Holy Name, Hackensack University Medical Center, HMUC Pascack Valley, and Englewood Hospital.


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