Restaurant World to Food Media: Where’s the Love?
Also: Inside the thought process behind keeping a dining room shuttered
New York City restaurants were allowed to reopen their dining rooms this weekend for Valentine’s Day, and guests wasted no time in filling up the books for indoor seats. Despite the fact that the infection rate, hospitalization, and deaths are higher now than when indoor dining was shut down in December, owners, workers, and guests all seemed willing to participate en masse.
There was one group that wasn’t as enthusiastic about the city’s restaurants opening for indoor dining, however: food media.
“On Valentine’s Day, New Yorkers will be allowed to eat inside restaurants again. We shouldn’t,” implored one subhed in The New Yorker. “Cuomo’s Reckless Return to Indoor Dining Values NYC Restaurants Over Lives,” declared a headline on Eater NY. A screenshot of the article was shared on Instagram, where an Avengers-level assembly of restaurant workers, owners, suppliers like Pat La Frieda president Mark Pastore, and celebrity chefs like Geoffrey Zakarian complained about what they perceived to be an anti-restaurant stance. Even Eater’s co-founder Ben Leventhal, who is now CEO of Resy, tweeted (and then deleted) “Last week @robertseitsema bemoaned the experience of eating outside. Now @qualityrye is coming out against indoor dining. @eater the only thing reckless here is your agenda.”
Look, it’s not food media’s job to be supportive of restaurants without caveats. But perhaps the problem here is that because so much of what normally passes as food journalism is promotional shilling, the stark contrast with calls to avoid dining at restaurants is making people lose their minds.
The writers’ core arguments are not wrong: Indoor dining is more unsafe than not indoor dining. Fact. The government, which failed to contain the disease and subsequently also failed at adequately supporting citizens that were out of work for months, is the true villain here. Also fact. Yet at the same time, some the proposals and proclamations in food media—You’re a dick if you dine indoors! Takeout and delivery ONLY!—are ethical ideals conjured up by people who have been able to collect a paycheck and continue growing their careers while sitting at home this entire time. Empathy is one thing, truly understanding what it’s like to lose your livelihood is another.
The rhetorical tactic—won’t somebody please think about the workers??—would be a lot more effective if food writers actually spent time with the people that they purport to speak for and discovered widespread fear. But as it stands, it feels patronizing and takes agency away from workers that have weighed the risks and have decided to do the job anyway. A year into the pandemic, people that believe these workplace dynamics are temporary are in denial. Serving with the constant threat of disease is the job now, and it will be for quite some time.
Take a poll in a kitchen during family meal, or during pre-shift with the front of house, or in line at a food pantry while unemployed restaurant workers are waiting for a hot meal. The overwhelming majority of the responses will be the same: we want to work. These are not MAGA dopes that don’t believe in COVID-19, either. These are hardworking people that have considered the virus and its risks, then considered what their lives have been like the past year while unable to work, and have chosen to face the former.
No, none of this is ideal. Some customers are assholes, even during a pandemic (haven’t they always been?) But most workers at restaurants NEED to work right now. Because the undocumented workers that are the backbone of this city’s restaurants don’t receive government aid. Because unemployment is a pitiful amount of money that barely adds up to rent. Because for many people, COVID-19 is not the thing most likely to ruin their life.
Just something to consider for my media industry colleagues that don’t need to leave the house.
Inside the thought process behind keeping a dining room shuttered
I last covered The Musket Room back in September, when the restaurant spent thousands of dollars retrofitting its HVAC system for indoor service. This time around, the team decided that the numbers were far too high for comfort. It’s one of the very few businesses on my radar that has no immediate plans to reopen its dining room, which got it cited in another article that elicited passionate responses: NYC Restaurant Industry Divided Over Return of Indoor Dining.
“It’s totally a prisoner’s dilemma,” says owner Jennifer Vitagliano. “We’re definitely seeing a decline. We had been sold out for weeks for Valentine’s Day, and then in the last week or so we’ve seen reservations steadily get cancelled.”
Much like what happened with restaurants that had robust takeout and delivery businesses get annihilated by outdoor dining’s arrival last June, current market forces will favor places that have what people want for freezing weather: indoor dining. But those same market forces might’ve helped last month: when many area restaurants went into hibernation after the holidays, all of that business funneled into The Musket Room, making for an unseasonably busy January.
From a business perspective, keeping the dining room shuttered not an easy decision. Sales are currently down 70%, and the restaurant operates with 30 seats in its outdoor dining areas. The addition of 16 indoor seats at 25% capacity would help, but still not come close to covering the dramatic loss of revenue during the past year. But thanks to a recently acquired second PPP loan, there’s plenty of wiggle room to make projections into Q2 and Q3, even without reopening the dining room.
“We’re willing to wait a little bit longer because we think that the risk outweighs the potential benefit, given the circumstances of our restaurant,” says Vitagliano. “I think the argument could be made that I’m taking opportunities away from my team by not opening indoors. But I know that I’m aligned with my team, and I know that they’re COVID conservative.”
Despite her resistance to indoor dining this time around, Vitagliano believes that teams at each restaurant and customers need to make their own decisions, and that certain commentary has been unfair.
“I think it’s irresponsible for a writer to take the position that you shouldn’t be out supporting restaurants, whether it’s outdoor or indoor,” says Vitagliano. “There’s demand for it. There are people that are comfortable with it in the kitchen, and in leadership positions, and in the general public.”
With 255 new hospitalizations, 2,610 new cases, and a 7-day average positivity rate of 6.97%, the numbers are down from when I last wrote. With the re-introduction of indoor dining battling against the forces of an ever increasing number of vaccinations, it’ll be interesting to see which way things trend a week or two from now.