NEWARK, NJ — On a balmy Thursday evening in the Ironbound, the disaffected echoing of bossa nova singer Astrud Gilberto can be heard emanating from the corner of Ferry and Jefferson streets, drawing passersby to a quaint sidewalk dining setup that brings a classic Brazil to mind.
Luiz Campos, one of the owners of the family-run Sabor Unido, just purchased and arranged the wicker furniture, white florals and glowing string lights in preparation for his restaurant’s grand outdoor dining reopening, an event marking the return of sit-down service for restaurants across the state since coronavirus closed their doors in March.
For Newark’s famous Ferry Street food and nightlife scene, the restrictions imposed by the virus brought the normally bustling enterprise to a standstill. Campos, whose family has been operating on the same corner for eight years, said takeout orders brought in just 15 to 20 percent of the business they were doing before the pandemic upended everyone's life.
Some funds from the Economic Injury Disaster Loan helped make it so the family was just able to pay rent and the one employee they have outside their family. As of June 15, with the cooperation of the neighboring church, Sabor Unido is doing more business than ever under the city’s expanded permissions for outdoor dining, which allowed Campos to put down 18 tables along the sidewalk.
“People are really taking notice now, and they’re coming and trying the food,” he said.
Mayor Ras Baraka signed an executive order ahead of the outdoor dining reopening that allows Newark’s newfound “streateries” to utilize parking lot, sidewalk and additional outdoor space for their coronavirus world layouts. While not all the city’s restaurants are created equally when it comes to outdoor dining, those along the more spacious Ferry Street seem to be adjusting accordingly.
Last week, the city shut down the street to traffic, but local owners said the initiative was too poorly promoted and rushed to have an impact. In fact, many were not aware it was happening until the barricades went up.
Ariel Basada, owner of VIVO Tapas Kitchen and Lounge and its adjoining bakery, said he’s seen his business start to stabilize again. A COVID-19 survivor, he was fortunate to have his bakery as an essential business throughout the pandemic, where he also sold essentials for the community like masks, hand sanitizer and staple groceries.
“If I had just VIVO, then yes, it would have been a catastrophe,” Basada said. “What it did though is add another facet to the business where we started doing deliveries, which we didn’t do before. We started a campaign on Facebook and Instagram and all of that.”
Many of Newark’s establishments, forced out of their routines and comfort zones by COVID-19’s economic disruption, are for the first time meeting the demands of a digital, deliver-to-the-door marketplace. VIVO also did not have any outdoor seating prior to this summer, so Basada is dressing things up with lights, speakers and fans.
Over at the aesthetic-driven Adega Grill, the purple glow of its sign now presides over an outdoor dining kingdom, some of its tables sheltered by a long canopy lined with twinkling bulbs. Inside, impeccably dress bartenders and wait staff have a new mandatory component to their uniform in the form of a mask.
Owner Marco Oliveira opened the establishment’s bar back in 2002 and the lounge the following year.
The lounge area was supposed to be unveiled as a new bistro on April 3, but those plans were sidelined. The new lounge, a banquet hall for 150 people, will not see action for the foreseeable future.
“We invested a lot of money next store, and it’s tough. We had close to about 80 parties we had to do between communions and graduations and so on, where we had to give everybody’s deposit back,” Oliveira said. “I have 42 employees on my payroll, thank God I was able to get everybody back that was working here. I’m happy for that.”
Right now, Adega is about 40 percent of what it was when its full facilities were available, which could mean more than 300 dinners on a Friday evening. What kills them, according to Oliveira, is the 9:30 p.m. curfew, which some customers have been less than understanding about, especially after a few drinks.
Avoiding fines, and even being shut down, is a primary concern for financially affected eateries under the state’s first set of coronavirus reopening measures. Police patrol Ferry Street watchfully, tasked with enforcing public health in New Jersey’s virus epicenter.
Despite the headaches, it’s giving him and his employees, he believes the curfew is still absolutely necessary. Oliveira said last week he was looking forward to the July 2 reopening of indoor dining, which Gov. Phil Murphy put an abrupt stop to this Monday after concerning lack of social distancing from customers at outdoor bars and restaurants.
But after months of enduring, and continuing to endure in many cases, reduced revenue, it's anything but business as usual in Newark’s most iconic restaurant district, indefinitely.