By Joe Radice, Vice President, Wray Executive Search
A survey in August 2020 found that 87% of New York City restaurants were not able to pay their next month’s rent. In June, the Independent Restaurant Coalition, a newly formed lobby group representing restaurants not affiliated with chains, argued in a desperate letter to Congress, that “this country risks losing as many as 85% of independent restaurants by the end of the year”. Big cities and their downtowns rely on a high density of restaurants as fundamental social glue. Restaurants have been a key to urban transformation, attracting the young and educated, and converting industrial and warehouse districts into new neighborhoods. Restaurants and bars provide critical social space for the exchange of ideas.
In the Spring of 2020 New York City officials offered restaurants a lifeline by encouraging outdoor dining. Streets were closed allowing space for outside tables, requiring social distancing and mask wearing for all service personnel.
More recently, in October, the Center for an Urban Future, a New York based public policy think tank, published a report surveying talented experts on how small business, particularly restaurants, can face the winter ahead. Talented architects and designers, building and development professionals, specialists in food & beverage, technology and urban planning, were consulted to propose potential solutions. Over 20 expects contributed a list of 40 concrete ideas, and the list is still growing. The recommendations were grouped into five main categories:
- Design, build, and install winterized outdoor space for restaurants and retailers.
- Rethink rules and regulations regarding the use of sidewalks, streets and public spaces.
- Enlist New York business, design, and tech talent to help small businesses.
- Provide microgrants and technical assistance to enable small businesses to transition to pop-ups, online and outdoor operations.
- Tap vacant storefronts for land swaps and social infrastructure.
The following are some of the report’s recommendations:
Vishaan Chakrabarti – Architect and Founder of Practice of Architecture and Urbanism.
- Use city provided scaffolding materials to help restaurateurs quickly erect winter structures that trap heat.
- Fill empty storefronts with social infrastructure on a temporary basis to revive street life. Activity begets activity. The city could provide short term leases for community activities to bring life and energy to the streets.
Tim Tompkins – President Time Square Alliance
- Commission NYC architects to design winter-ready curbside restaurant spaces.
- Incentivize landlords to temporarily “lend” vacant storefront spaces to adjacent businesses.
Claire Weisz – Founding Principle WXY Studio
- Make it simple for small businesses to put up awnings by lifting requirements of yearly payments and a cumbersome permit system making it easier to install canvas awning enclosures.
Larisa Ortiz & Jay Coldren – Director of Research & Analysis and Director of Eat & Drink Streetsense.
- Help more small businesses transition to e-commerce.
- Develop rigorous safety guidelines to restore confidence and protect diners and restaurants, minimizing the risk for customers going out during the pandemic.
Carl Weisbrod – Senior Advisor HR&A Advisors and former NYC Planning Commissioner.
- Make permanent zoning, licensing & building code changes needed to allow outdoor dining over the long term.
Kenneth Mbonu – Executive Director Flatbush-Nostrand Junction BID (Business Improvement District).
- Provide microgrants that enable restaurants in lower income neighborhoods to buy heaters and to install winterized dining structures.
- Enlist local artists, designers, and technologists to help businesses create apps to leverage their business’s unique assets and generate additional sales. Many small business owners are hesitant to embrace technology.
Andrew Rasiej – Founder and CEO Civic Hall
- Stop surprise restaurant health inspections. Schedule inspections in advance. Remove the “gotcha”. Restaurants and bars are dealing with enough new challenges.
- Create food truck markets.
Jessica Lappin & Joshua Nachowitz – President & SVP of Research and Economic Development Alliance for Downtown New York.
- Launch partnership programs between mid-town and downtown offices and area small businesses. This could work particularly well when staff cafeterias are closed due to Covid 19.
- Set up one-stop permitting to fast track preparations for winter dining.
- Relax regulations that prevent restaurants from expanding into their neighbor’s outdoor space.
Fighting Covid 19 is a difficult battle for any big city, particularly New York. As restaurants fail, cities will continue to lose economic output and jobs. Of course, all this could turn around once a reliable vaccine is made available. But the question is how quickly. Restaurants are already high turnover businesses, and few can stay afloat in the best of times. In the meantime, keeping restaurants alive this winter is important for the welfare of New York City, already on life support, and for many cities throughout the nation.