New York eating places hope to keep away from heartbreak on Valentine’s Day weekend
Scottadito Osteria Toscana Restaurant is a quintessential Brooklyn spot with high ceilings and dark wood. In the front door there is a table with a white cloth. It’s stacked with round plates, wine glasses, and two silver jugs of water. There are also clear plastic pump dispensers with hand sanitizer and a thermometer.
“When people come in, we take their temperature,” says owner Donald Minerva. “Getting people into it is quite a challenge. But that’s what we have to do.”
Minerva is standing next to an iPad screen that is filled with a table. The state encourages the restaurant to record contact information for everyone who eats inside.
“Take her temperature. Take her address. Take her phone number,” he says.
What Minerva would really like to take is more reservations for Valentine’s Day, which is usually one of the restaurant industry’s busiest holidays of the year.
In a regular year, he says, his restaurant would have 250 reservations for February 14th. However, this year, bookings are only down to a third as people worry about COVID-19. And he says the math is complicated. Even if a restaurant is technically allowed to fill 25% of its tables, that usually means less than a quarter of your normal capacity if you put those tables two meters apart.
In New York, restaurants have been banned from indoor seating since December. When Governor Andrew Cuomo cleared her up for a 25% capacity indoor dinner just before Valentine’s Day, reservations for the vacation quadrupled, according to OpenTable, a restaurant reservation agent. But they’re still only half what they were last year.
The CDC rates indoor dining in restaurants as a higher risk. And only a tiny percentage of New York food service workers have received the vaccine. Proponents say serving indoors puts them at risk. All of this means that the restaurant business is unpredictable. That’s why head chef Raffaele Spadavecchia leans a few meters away in the kitchen over a large aluminum foil pan with fried potatoes and Italian sausage. Nowadays the kitchen is often given extra food. So Spadavecchia sprinkles some chopped, lively, fresh green basil on the pan with the warm potatoes. He picks it up and he and Minerva go outside and go next door, where they ring the buzzer next to their neighbour’s bright red garage door. It’s a fire station: FDNY Squad 1. “Hey guys, we’re bringing you some snacks,” says Spadavecchia as the door opens.
“You are the best,” replies a firefighter, reaching for the aluminum tray.
But restaurants should sell food, not give it away. Minerva had to raise $ 275,000 in PPP and disaster relief loans to stay afloat. And yet he had to let almost half of his employees go.
Every sixth restaurant has closed since the pandemic began, according to the New York State Restaurant Association.
Across the city in Queens, Dan Connor is also thinking hard about Valentine’s Day. He is a co-owner of a restaurant that had a huge hit on another holiday when the pandemic started.
“The first night we were closed was March 16, 2020. Then they told us to close the doors without warning,” he says.
The next day was St. Patrick’s Day. And Connors Restaurant is called Donovan’s. It’s an Irish pub.
“We had three thousand pounds of corned beef ready. And that’s lost,” he says.
A lot of corned beef ended up in the trash. But he could go on. A non-profit organization ordered lunch and dinner for doctors and other front-line workers in the pub. Nevertheless, Connor says that he just wants to settle his bills this Valentine’s Day – so that his employees can keep working. A year ago the pub had 16 employees, he says. Now it’s running to five.
Connor says smart restaurateurs will carefully order for Valentine’s Day. You can’t afford to be stuck with its equivalent of thousands of pounds of corned beef.
And he hopes the pub will survive. Connor and his staff made a video to apply for an Emergency Small Business Grant and posted it on YouTube. A customer saw it and made a Go Fund Me page for the pub. It has been viewed thousands of times and raised tens of thousands of dollars – with every tiny electronic ping a kind of Valentine’s Day, expressing the style of a love pandemic.
Back at the Scottadito Osteria Toscana in Brooklyn, the head bartender stuffs envelopes. Inside are paper menus – including Valentines – to be sent to local residents in the hopes of recruiting them back. “We need a lot of love,” says Spadavecchia.
Copyright NPR 2021.