NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – City restaurant owners were noticing a dip in diners even before the state on Monday ordered a ban on dine-in services in response to the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19.
“It all happened so fast,” said Neil Glass, owner of Harvest Moon Café and Brewery on George Street. “Wednesday was fine, Thursday was off a little bit, but Friday, Saturday, Sunday, it was down 75% … Now, we’re not even allowed to be open.”
While they can continue to offer delivery and takeout services, Glass and other restaurant owners were still trying to figure out their next step.
New Brunswick has become a dining destination for those hungry for Moon nachos at Harvest Moon or a banh mi at Indochine or a plate of wild boar Bolognese at Catherine Lombardi. Foodies come here from far and wide for pub dip at Tavern on George, followed by an Oreo cookie with Reese's Peanut Butter Cups blend-in at Thomas Sweet.
For Ben Shim and others restaurant owners, they can only hope customers quickly transition to delivery and/or pickup services.
Shim, who manages Indochine, said his gourmet Vietnamese restaurant on George Street experienced a 20% drop in customers Friday. The dine-in crowd fell by 80% by Monday – the day Gov. Phil Murphy ordered the ban dining in.
“Be safe,” Shim said. “We’re closing off the dining area so everyone is safe. As far as delivery and pickup, we’re still available in the New Brunswick area. If they (people) don’t have any food at their house, we’re still available."
Harvest Moon and Indochine are available to be ordered through mobile food delivery services GrubHub, UberEats and Doordash.
Francis Schott, owner of Catherine Lombardi, Stage Left Steak and the online wine shop, Stage Left Wine Shop, said although Stage Left Steak is on a hiatus, the other two businesses have plans to attract more customers during this pandemic.
Catherine Lombardi will offer curbside pickup and free delivery to New Brunswick and Highland Park for orders of $50 or more. It will also be selling wine with the food at a packaged price, which is about half of the usual cost, Schott said.
“People can go online and look at the menu, and they can also see our wine list online and they can order a bottle of wine. So, they can order the full dinner like they would have if they were here,” he said.
In addition, one of the dining rooms at the restaurant is being transformed into a wine shop and liquor store for the time being.
“There’s no liquor store in the downtown and we’re it, so there will be. We will deliver wine and spirits in New Brunswick and Highland Park for free, and for a small charge, to other zip codes, Schott said. “We’re trying to make the best of a bad situation.”
Some of the drop off could be attributed to slower sales during spring break, when Rutgers students head for distant locales.
Most restaurant owners, however, point to the measures Murphy enacted Monday aimed at maintaining social distancing in the wake of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. Not only was dine-in services banned, but casinos, gyms, racetracks and other businesses were ordered to close. He also ordered the cancelation of all gatherings of more than 50 people.
The city is doing its part to help local bars and restaurants. On Tuesday, a press release from Mayor Jim Cahill’s office said that there would be a 15-minute grace period at on-street parking meters for patrons of eateries providing takeout and curbside pickup.
Pamela Stefanek, executive director of the New Brunswick City Center, said it’s a great time for people to buy gift cards from their local establishments. Also, if they order takeout or delivery, people should consider tipping more in an attempt to maintain wages of workers at businesses that might be struggling.
“They’re all operating for the convenience of the patrons and to also maintain staff,” Stefanek said. “Those are the ones that are going to be hit the hardest, the waitstaff in each of these establishments, because that’s their livelihood.”
Lina Llona, president and CEO of the Middlesex County Regional Chamber of Commerce, said this is an important time to continue to support local restaurants and their staffs.
“If you can, if you are thinking of you having a cup of coffee, get a cup from a local business,” she said. “If you’re thinking of ordering dinner for your home, go local. I think anything we can do that supports our neighbors will help make this easier.”