Updated: The Week the Restaurants Closed

The coronavirus pandemic has forced restaurants to shutter and lay off employees. But chefs and sommeliers are getting creative to serve customers and rally the industry

Updated: The Week the Restaurants Closed
Grand Award to go: Canlis server Ryan Rhodes brings an order from the Seattle restaurant. The owners launched a drive-through burger joint in their parking lot. (Karen Ducey/Getty Images)
Mar 18, 2020

Updated March 19, 9:30 a.m.

Across the nation, restaurant owners are closing up shop, unsure of when or if they will reopen. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the hospitality industry into limbo, as governors and mayors order restaurants to close in efforts to limit the spread of the virus; staff report nearly empty dining rooms in states where restaurants remain open.

The turmoil is forcing restaurants to furlough or lay off employees or struggle to find a way to keep paying salaries and benefits without going out of business. Earlier today, restaurateur Danny Meyer of Union Square Hospitality Group announced that his company was laying off 2,000 people, more than 80 percent of its staff.

The pandemic is also inspiring many to find new ways of doing business and opportunities to help neighbors in need, as well as to lobby for help from governments and communities.

Last call

For Gotham Bar & Grill, which enjoyed 36 years in New York City and was a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner, the virus was the final blow. The restaurant closed for good after service Saturday night.

"The coronavirus didn't help the situation," said wine director Josh Lit, who says the restaurant had already been struggling. "It just really affected our business levels to be quite honest with you. In this particular climate we were unable to go on, because many people aren't leaving their house and aren't coming out."

"We had our last service on Saturday night and it was a great party, and we had a good time and we opened up a lot of great bottles of wine, and a lot of great people showed up for the restaurant industry and for Gotham."

The next day, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered all restaurants in the city to end dine-in service, allowing only takeout and delivery. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the governors of New Jersey and Connecticut expanded that to all three states soon afterward. As of today, officials in Colorado, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and the cities of Dallas, Los Angeles and Philadelphia have restricted restaurants to to-go service only. The orders, while hard on businesses, are designed to slow the spread of the virus in order to keep it from overwhelming the health system.

Even in states where restaurants remain open, chefs and owners report that business is down by up to 95 percent in many places. In just the past week, first it fell by half as conferences and business groups canceled. Now regular diners are canceling too.

Before Massachusetts ordered closures, Simeon Parsons, general manager of Lucca Back Bay, a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner in Boston, says the cancellations were mixed. "The biggest impact was on corporate dining. Every private function in the month of March canceled."

Florida has not closed restaurants yet. So Marcello Fiorentino, chef and co-owner of Grand Award winner Marcello's La Sirena, is taking extra cleaning steps and seating people farther apart. But it's a tricky balance.

Closed restaurant
Throughout New York City and the Tri-State region, restaurants are closed. (JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)

"It's very strange because my wife, Diane, works in the front of the house, and she's telling me that people are still coming up and hugging her and saying hello and all that good stuff," Fiorentino told Wine Spectator, "and we're in a weird situation, because we don't want to jump out of the way or push them away. But when I come out to the dining room, I am just greeting people, and not extending a hand or a hug."

Brooke Palmer Kuhl, director of public relations for Bern's Steak House, a longtime Grand Award winner in Tampa, says they are encouraging any staff member who feels unwell or needs personal time to take it. "We have increased scheduled deep cleanings of all areas, stockpiled additional sanitizers, disinfectants, handwashing signs and communicated proper procedures and the need to increase these procedures, including the use and proper disposal of gloves. We have suspended our kitchen and wine cellar tours." She reports that the number of large groups is down, but small groups are still coming.

In New York, many restaurants had already seen business dry up before the state order. "On Saturday, we were down like 95 percent. Our last week was probably off 80 percent," said Spiro Menegatos, co-owner of Nerai. "We actually decided to close Friday night. We went through service Saturday and Sunday only because we had an event Sunday."

Mark Shay of Indian Accent reported the same. "We were still doing a good business—not a great business—up until Wednesday," he said. "Thursday is when our business fell 50 percent."

Out West

On March 15, California Gov. Gavin Newsom requested that all bars and winery tasting rooms close temporarily and asked restaurants to limit their occupancy by 50 percent. The following day, six Bay Area counties, including San Francisco, Alameda and Santa Clara, announced "shelter in place" orders for residents. The order, which went into effect today, requires that all restaurants and cafés, regardless of their capacity, close except for delivery and take-out. Restaurants must remain closed through April 7.

"I'm just going to have to close my doors," Plumed Horse owner and general manager Josh Weeks told Wine Spectator. The Grand Award winner, in Santa Clara County, home to Silicon Valley, had already trimmed 60 percent of its tables and implemented additional measures to keep guests and staff safe.

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The shelter-in-place orders did not extend to restaurants in Napa and Sonoma counties at first, but restaurateurs there have taken additional safety measures. At Valette, a popular restaurant in Healdsburg, chef-owner Dustin Valette and his brother and business partner Aaron Garzini have reduced their number of tables by half. They have also reorganized the dining room to create at least six feet of space between tables.

The restaurant is taking additional measures such as requiring staff to wear latex gloves and clean surfaces and tables regularly in line with recommended protocols. They are also providing additional hand sanitizer by the door. The biggest concern for the brothers is that they don't do more harm than good. "We gave the opportunity for all of our staff to not come in to work if they didn't want to," said Garzini. But he says the staff wanted to continue working. "We all want to make sure we can bring joy to people that are here right now." (Sonoma issued its own shelter-in-place order starting at midnight on March 18.)

La Toque, another Grand Award winner, served its last meal on Sunday before shutting down indefinitely. "It's catastrophic from a business standpoint," executive chef and owner Ken Frank told Wine Spectator. He said the restaurant's team was considering its options but realized that they would have to cut way back on service to survive and decided to close. "Our aim is to survive and have jobs for our fantastic staff to come back to."

The team at the Restaurant at Meadowood also decided to close for now. "We feel it our responsibility to temporarily close for the foreseeable future in order to protect our team, guests, and community," they said in a statement. "We do not take this action lightly, as it greatly impacts our employees, vendors, and the local economy. Even though we have not been asked to close, it is our hope that by doing so, we are doing a small part in reducing the spread of COVID-19."

As the situation continues to unfold in Northern California, restaurants in the Los Angeles area are dealing with closures as well. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has ordered that restaurants halt dine-in service.

"Our city is not shutting down, we are not planning to do so and we never will," Garcetti assured Angelenos in a video press conference. He encouraged residents to continue to support restaurants by ordering from them and getting pick-up or delivery. The order will remain in place through March 31.

Bruce Marder, who operates five restaurants and a bakery in Los Angeles and Santa Monica, said that his French bistro Marvin and the Brentwood Restaurant & Lounge are closing for two weeks. He plans to reopen them March 31. Marder's properties in Santa Monica, including his Grand Award–winning Italian restaurant Capo, will remain open. He says Capo is trimming its occupancy by 45 percent and redesigning the seating to create more space.

In Washington state, many restaurants had already closed their doors prior to Gov. Jay Inslee's announcement Monday mandating that all restaurants shut down for two weeks, except for delivery and takeout.

Tom Douglas, one of Seattle's most well known chefs, announced on March 11 that he was temporarily shutting 12 of his 13 restaurants including Dahlia Lounge, Serious Pie and Etta's. The only restaurant that will remain open is the Dahlia Bakery, which will continue to serve take out.

Sales had declined 90 percent, according to spokesperson Madeline Dow Pennington, noting that the company had to lay off nearly all of its roughly 800 employees. "We had to give everybody notice," she said.

15 million impacted Americans

"Our government needs to provide clear and abundant relief to the most vulnerable industry immediately," says Harry Root, who runs Grassroots Wine, a small importer/distributor in Alabama and South Carolina that specializes in sales to restaurants. "We need it. There are 15 million restaurant employees."

As restaurant owners close their doors, the financial impact is immediate. Most are small businesses without the cash reserves to pay staff or rent for long. Many aren't sure they will reopen. "In my mind, it's temporary," said Jeremy Marshall, chef at New York's Aquagrill. "But if the government—state and local and the federal government—doesn't come through with some major protections for small business, it's gonna be difficult for us to ramp up. We're staring at the mountain."

Empty chairs at empty tables
Empty chairs at empty tables—many restaurants have had to lay off all their employees. (Gabriela Bhaskar/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Marshall says there was a lot of fear when they announced they were closing. "We're all devastated. I mean I have staff that's been with me for 24 years. People are bawling, they're crying."

Frank says La Toque will continue to support its staff during the crisis. "We've made a commitment to continue to pay their health insurance and benefits while we are closed," said Frank. But he knows not every business is going to be able to do the same for their employees.

Many have furloughed employees but are trying to maintain their benefits, including health insurance. Many restaurant workers don't have benefits to rely on. Both documented and undocumented foreign workers may be wary of seeking medical assistance—new immigration rules mean they would not be able to seek citizenship later if they accept federal assistance now.

"We did let go of a few employees, probably like three to five employees over the last couple weeks before we actually had to close," said Mengatos at Nerai. But now "we furloughed all of our employees."

USHG CEO Danny Meyer issued a statement on his company's layoffs. "In the 35-year history of Union Square Hospitality Group, this is, without a doubt, the most challenging period any of us has ever encountered as leaders. Reconciling who we are as a people-first company with this brutal moment is nearly impossible. In the absence of income, restaurants simply cannot pay our non-working team members for more than a short period of time without becoming insolvent. In that scenario, no one wins." Meyer has pledged that he will donate his entire salary to an employee relief fund. USHG will also continue to cover employee premiums for medical insurance through mid-April.

"We are doing everything we can to take care of our team," said Caleb Ganzer at La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturel in New York. "Offering food and wine from our stocks, helping them qualify for unemployment benefits, etc.—but as hourly employees in a business like ours with razor-thin margins, paying everyone just isn't a reality if we want to reopen again after the dust settles."

In New York, the NYC Hospitality Alliance is calling on the government for aid. "Due to this mandated closure, restaurants and bars will no longer be able to pay their employees, including paid sick leave for some, during this emergency once they are forced to close," the group said in a statement. "Employees must be taken care of and it is now up to government to provide for them when small businesses cannot."

On March 18, the National Restaurant Association called on President Trump and Congress to provide immediate relief. The organization stated that early economic forecasts predict the industry will sustain at least a $225 billion loss and be forced to eliminate between 5 to 7 million jobs over the next three-months. In a letter to the Administration and Congress, the Association outlined several options that can provide relief and aid recovery for the nation's one million restaurants and 15.6 million employees


On the day Louisiana shut down dining in, regular Commander's Palace customers got an email from the Grand Award winner: "Thought you could never get take-out at Commander's Palace?" Chef Tory McPhail is offering a limited menu, including many of the restaurant's best-known dishes, for takeout. "Even better—order a bottle of wine to go from our over 2,600 selections."

Many owners are having to decide if they want to go the same route. To-go service allows them to stay partially open, have some cash flow and keep at least some of their kitchen staff.

Canlis, a Grand Award-winning restaurant in Seattle, ceased its fine dining operations last week but launched a drive-through burger joint in its parking lot, along with an at-home dinner delivery service and a pop-up bagel shop. "It occurred to us that what the city doesn't need is fine dining," explained third-generation owner Mark Canlis, who runs the restaurant with his brother Brian. Canlis and his team decided to start from scratch using what they had at their disposal: the kitchen, the restaurant's wine cellar and their staff.

The inspiration for Canlis' Family Meal delivery service came from staff meals. It will offer one dish every night paired with a few different wine options at various price points. But Canlis says customers will also have access to the restaurant's full cellar, overseen by the restaurant's wine and spirits director Nelson Daquip. They will be able to call in ahead to place their order and then connect with a sommelier directly.

"It's the exact same conversation you would have at a table," explained Canlis.

Canlis says they will reopen their restaurant when the city is ready for fine dining again, and not a moment sooner. In the meantime he hopes the new concepts will encourage other restaurants to try similar methods. "This is our way of saying to Seattle that we got you," he said.

"We were thinking of doing it," said Menagatos. "It's difficult for us. Our food's not made to travel. Putting duck in a Tupperware and carrying it six blocks and serving it to someone, it's not going to be close to the same. So we would probably have to change the items that we serve."

New York, New Jersey and Connecticut bars and restaurants have been provided with a waiver for carry-out alcohol. Gov. Cuomo called the waivers a silver lining at his press conference announcing the rules. "Whatever you can order in a bar, restaurant, distillery or winery, you can purchase through takeout. We hope that goes a long way toward alleviating any economic hardship." Cuomo encouraged New Yorkers to "stay home and order from your favorite restaurant, bar, winery or whatever establishment you were thinking of patronizing. Just order it and stay home."

But takeout cannot provide the same level of revenue. And it's unclear whether customers will order wine for the convenience or simply opt for the cheaper prices of retail. Many wine stores have reported surging sales since the coronavirus restrictions began.

Shay at Indian Accent is opting to skip takeout. "No, absolutely not," he said. "Our cuisine is not typical Indian food. It's not deliverable. I would have to create a menu. I would have to test it to make sure that 40 minutes from now it's still tasting the way we want it. I would have to do containers, and buy them. So I really didn't want to do a quality of food that isn't consistent with Indian Accent."

At La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, Ganzer hopes to offer another service to folks staying in. "We are hoping to bring online Wine Boot Camps into peoples' homes," he said. "Our wine director, Sam Stoppelmoor, is also combing through the cellar to find some 'last bottles' we are going to make available to folks to pre-purchase at a discount so they can have something delicious to look forward to drinking in our space once we reopen."

Chefs and sommeliers have proven their creativity and resilience before. Despite closing Gotham Bar & Grill, Josh Lit remains hopeful. "The New York restaurant industry is going to rally. We have an amazing workforce of professionals that work their ass off tirelessly day-in and day-out, and I know that the restaurant industry will come back even stronger, after this coronavirus pandemic passes."

"And I'm looking forward to that day, because I have so many friends, so many colleagues within the industry, that I know that are going to bounce back, work and double down and work even harder to provide great service to guests, and I know the guests are going to come back too," Lit said. "Because everybody is going to go stir-crazy, and the moment that people can go back out, I think it's just going to be an amazing thing with guests and hospitality workers just being excited to come back to work."

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