Starving for Answers

Starving for Answers

After more than two months of being shut down, local restaurant owners are frustrated and scared about what the future may hold.

Nunzio Patruno is one of the people that helped pave the way for Collingswood’s beloved restaurant row, laying a foundation when he left Philadelphia to open his eponymous Italian eatery in the heart of Haddon Avenue in 2003. Since then, Patruno’s chef-driven concept has been celebrated for its high quality dishes and impeccable service. But now in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the veteran chef is just hoping he can open his doors one more time.

 
“Honestly, if you ask me which way things are going to go, I don’t know,” Patruno says of the near future of the local dining scene. “A lot of restaurants won’t be able to open up and I could be one of them. You tell me how this is going to be positive for us.”
 
The level of frustration in Patruno’s voice is evident and understandable. As restaurants become faced with the challenges of everything from halving their capacity to potentially having to take the temperature of any patron coming through the door, the uneasiness of the situation only magnifies.
 
In an effort to keep his restaurant ready for when Gov. Phil Murphy signals that diners are once again allowed back inside, Patruno has been keeping his walk-in stocked and ovens hot by offering takeout for the first time ever. His hope is that the transition back will be much quicker if he just hits the reset button instead of a complete restart. But he’s not sure what that transition will look like once it does arrive.
 
“If I reopen, with all my experience and all my commitment … if I put all the lines on the floor … yellow stripes to keep people six feet away, we are wearing masks and sanitizing and then I open the door and nobody comes; now I’m in more debt than before,” he says.
 
While the takeout orders are welcomed, crispy veal chops turning soggy in the backseat of a DoorDash or Caviar driver’s vehicle isn’t exactly how fine dining was intended to be.
 
“We don’t sell food, we sell experience. We cannot bring this experience in a takeout order sent to your home. The service is not consistent and no one has been trained how to properly deliver [fine dining] food. We don’t know in which condition the food arrives. Honestly, we are doing it because we have no alternative,” Patruno says.
 
Jim Italiano, owner of Joe Italiano’s Maplewood Restaurants, says his biggest challenge right now is trying to gain a deeper understanding of what compliance will be necessary to keep guests and employees safe. But, overall, he’s confident that the customers will soon return once they are given the green light.
 
“I’m not a worrier. And I’m sure customers will feel safe and will want to go out to eat,” Italiano says. “I also think that the common sense approach of good health habits will suffice.”
 
Despite this optimism, Italiano isn’t at all excited by the prospect of having to operate at a limited capacity. “This will be felt by the owners and workers alike,” he says. “Unless a restaurant can adjust overhead to accommodate, it will be very hard to keep operating. Things like mortgages, rent, insurances and salaries depend on steady growing sales.”
 
At Yokohama in Maple Shade, owner Sindy Chan-Sze has built up a solid reputation and a loyal following over the past 15 years, but she does worry about how her customers will respond to any new guidelines.
 
“You are sitting down with your spouse or your friend, and a waiter comes over with a face mask on and gloves. In a high-end restaurant, that’s a little scary. It’s not going to look good. I’m a little worried about that,” she says. “I’m not optimistic about how my customer is going to react to that.”
 
And because Yokohama uses such fresh, high-level ingredients, sourcing has also become an issue. In normal times, Chan-Sze would be picking up ingredients three to four times a week. Currently, that has been reduced to only once a week.
 
“The fish market slows down and they cannot bring as much ingredients as we would like,” she says.
 
With multiple locations of her restaurant Akira, owner Lisa Zheng fears have been multiplied. And while she’s been doing her best to stay afloat with takeout orders, she’s not sure she is ready to welcome people back inside, even if it would mean giving the business a much-needed boost.
 
“I don’t feel confident to do dining [service] this early, I am worried about it,” she says. “Dining is not ideal for social distancing at all.”
 
Adding to Zheng’s concerns of customer safety are her desires to keep her staff safe as well. That is, if she can even field a staff. Currently, she estimates that 40 percent of her employees do not want to work due to concerns for their own health. That has forced her into an even bigger, hands-on day-to-day role.
 
Meanwhile, as Patruno eagerly awaits what comes next, he’s trying to prepare the best he can. That has included purchasing 1,200 masks and lots of sanitizer. But, after going through the expense to reopen and train staff, Patruno is fearful that another outbreak could potentially disrupt business again and cause another shutdown. That is a fate he is refusing to accept, saying there cannot be a back and forth at the risk of devastating the industry even further.
 
“If I open, the only way I close is if I have no business,” says Patruno. “But, if I open and I am doing a little business and doing everything to protect my customers and employees, I’m not shutting down again.”
 
In the interim, while takeout orders have provided a small lifeline for area restaurants, so too has been those who have decided to purchase gift cards for future use. That support is appreciated but can only go so far, according to Italiano.
 
“It’s good and helpful—but, it’s not enough for the hospitality industry to thrive,” he says.
 
At Yokohama, the money generated from gift card sales has provided some capital to operate. “I’ll use that money to purchase product, make sure the staff is paid, to pay off rent and utilities,” says Chan-Sze.
 
While going through this challenging time, the restaurant owners we spoke with all say they are using this experience to find new ways to strengthen their business. “We are learning a lot,” Zheng says, but cautions there’s much more to uncover before she can feel secure about moving forward. “This is not going to be done in a moment.”
 
Patruno agrees, saying that even as things like social distancing and limited capacity dining become more accepted in the short term, it will pale in comparison to what restaurant owners have spent their whole lives trying to perfect. Until that day arrives, the uncertainty will continue to grow.
 
“No one is going to shoot to make money right now, they are going to shoot to stay open and survive,” Patruno says.

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Published and copyrighted in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 17, Issue 2 (May 2020).

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