STATEN ISLAND, NY – Two years after pandemic shutdowns, Staten Island restaurants are back.
In a post-Mother’s Day poll of 20 proprietors across the borough, we asked each to offer a perspective on what it’s like to do business right now. They report that customers have returned enthusiastically to dining rooms. But there are caveats that come along with such sunny observations this spring.
Vincent Malerba marveled at the crowds this past holiday weekend at Angelina’s Ristorante in Tottenville and its sibling spots, Flour & Oak of Tompkinsville and Angelina’s Kitchen at the Staten Island Mall.
“We had an incredible turnout on Mother’s Day and we’re doing well with parties. This week alone we have 22 events. So people are definitely coming out. We are thankful – and relieved, ”Malerba said.
On the flip side is the cost of goods. Diesel is so expensive that the massive tent on the Tottenville property needed about $ 800-worth for its generator-driven heat – just on Mother’s Day. On the topic of sky-high fuel costs and its impact on restaurateurs, New York’s record high gas prices have been passed along to proprietors with added surcharges to invoice totals or more pricy goods. Additionally, staple items like mozzarella cheese and various cooking oils have fluctuated dramatically in the past few months.
“Pricing is through the roof. There’s nothing we can do. I compare it to day trading. . . our menu prices have to be changed daily, ”said Malerba.
EATING THE LOSSES
Other owners echoed a similar sentiment on slimmer margins, although a handful of chefs admitted they are eating the losses.
Chef Massimo Felici said, “Unfortunately we can’t adjust our menus to the rise in prices because then people just won’t go out any longer or as much.”
Felici owns VINUM and The Richmond, both Stapleton, Casa Belvedere on Grymes Hill and Don Cheech, opened this week in Rosebank. He empathizes with customers impacted by inflation and shortages in their own households. Resigned to the situation, he said, “I don’t think prices will ever go down to where they were or to where they should be.”
In Felici’s eyes, the food industry these days suffers from a dearth of experienced, serious workers.
“The labor force has gotten worse. It’s just not there at all. Young men these days are just collecting, sitting on a couch smoking a bong and playing Xbox while eating cold pizza, ”he quipped.
Felici reflected, “The one positive thing that I believe came out of the pandemic is that it forced us to adapt and become even more resilient than we ever were. We have adapted to become a chameleon-like to be able to survive. ”
Indeed, Staten Island eateries have done just that since March 16, 2020 when restrictions on restaurants were at their most extreme in the Big Apple. In the throes of the pandemic’s quarantine stage, for instance, Felici himself made news when his Michelin-rated restaurant switched to selling toilet paper, cleaning products and other sundries alongside booze and prepared Italian food. He launched full-force into a “virtual restaurant” schematic and sold tasting packages with select portioned wine dropped off on participants ’doorsteps.
In a further reminder of the restaurateur’s inventive mindset in an era when indoor dining was illegal for over six months: Danny Mills of Ruddy and Dean turned his North Shore Steakhouse into a meat market with Island-wide delivery. He sold steaks and fish for the home cook’s’ backyard gathering. Like other establishments, Reggiano’s of Tottenville offered a similar convenience format from its inventories to keep neighbors out of crowded grocery stores.
FLEXIBLE WITH FREEDOM TO CREATE
The importance of flexibility resonates with Amira Cintron of Amira’s Bistro. She moved on from her position as sous chef with Wolfgang Puck to pursue her Puerto Rican-themed eatery, established in the heart of Stapleton in August 2020. Starting this weekend she will extend hours to 9 pm, diving into dinners served on Thursday, Friday and Saturday from the hands of various pop up chefs.
She said, “It gives us the advantage of staying open later. The menu changes to keep the food fresh and seasonal with the products we get. As increases in product prices and [shortages persist] it has made it difficult to find and maintain a consistent menu. ”
“It also gives us the chance to expand in other cuisines,” she maintained. “We are still full Latin, Caribbean fusion.” Her upcoming presenting guest, Chef Zizzi, is a Trinidadian-based expert showcasing Trini-Caribbean food. The weekend guest chef program will expand further in June if it’s successful, Cintron said.
COVID ‘BEST THING TO HAPPEN’ TO BIZ
Sal Finocchiaro of Palermo Pizzeria in Richmond Valley declared, “The pandemic was the best thing that happened to the restaurant business.”
An accountant by trade, Finocchiaro said, “I have seen my [restaurant] clients double their sales. If they offered take-out, curbside pickup and contact free deliveries, they did great. Of course we have those groups that preferred to dine outdoors and, those who were more daring, dined indoors – and the restaurants offered both. They literally doubled their dining capacity in some cases. Most of my clients did this and were extremely successful. Those that failed gave up too quickly! ”
He reminded, “Let’s not forget about the SBA and PPP loans. These loans allowed restaurants to buy new equipment and furniture, hire new employees, expand their current locations and even pay off back taxes. The pandemic changed the business for the better! ”
But COVID completely changed the flow of dining, according to Princes Bay accountant John D’Angelo. He spoke on the subject as a frequent flier in fine dining restaurants as well as an entrepreneur familiar with how small businesses function.
He noted, “Staten Island is a unique place where most people like to go out to dinner as their main source of entertainment. They expect not expect quality food but they expect larger portions and they expect excellent service. Now two years later, pricing went through the roof and service went in the opposite direction. ”
D’Angelo also sees how kitchens work to fulfill orders for third-party pickup services which causes a wait for those dining in person. And now, perhaps to make up for lost time during the pandemic, he observes more tables jammed into the dining rooms of finer eateries.
“Lately, you’re feeling more and more compressed,” he noted.
As a patron, he also finds himself paying higher prices for a product with which he is not always satisfied. With a shortage of staff, it could mean delays in the kitchen and, in his experience since indoor dining returned, cold food.
“It becomes a major problem and it goes down the chain,” he maintained.
NYC Hospitality Alliance’s director Andrew Rigie said that restaurateurs to whom he’s spoken across the city say sales are 70 to 90% of where they were pre-pandemic.
“So, there’s a cautious optimism going into the warmer weather. While we’re in a much better place than we were a year ago, it’s still a long road to recovery due to debt, inflation, and skyrocketing labor costs, among other challenges, “said Rigie.
He concluded, “Many private events are coming back but some customers are hesitant to book events too far into the future. One thing we’ve learned about the pandemic is that the only thing that’s certain is that everything’s uncertain. “
Pamela Silvestri is an Advance Food Editor. She can be reached at [email protected].