By Christine Graf
After months of being allowed to serve takeout only, local restaurants were permitted to open for outside dining in June.
John Carr, owner of Lake George’s Adirondack Brewery, is concerned about the long-term impact the extended closure will have on local restaurants.
“It’s been very frustrating for us,” he said. “I think we could have followed other states like Vermont and Connecticut and opened sooner. In places where the restaurant industry relies on tourism, we have a very fragile and very short season.”
Jane Schmidt, owner of Bank Café in Lake George, typically hires 10 international students for the summer. She currently has just two employees and has been unable to fill open positions. High unemployment payouts are discouraging people from returning to work.
It is because of these high unemployment payouts that Frank Mineo, owner of Gaslight of Lake George, a restaurant with patio dining, has been hesitant to ask his employees to return to work. He opened his bistro in June 2019 and employed 15 to 18 employees last summer.
“Right now, I can only employ five or six employees,” he said. “I’m trying to get everyone back to work, but if I can’t guarantee those hours to them, I don’t want to take them off unemployment, because they are making good money. I’m trying to be fair to them while trying to keep my business afloat.”
“We are relieved to be able to at least begin offering outdoor dining,” said [farmacy] restobar owner Christina Richards. “After—I’m not even sure how many days now—of trying to stay afloat on take-out orders only, we are looking forward to the change. We will be offering take out and patio service daily starting at noon Tuesday through Saturday.
She said it is currently on a first-come-first-served basis. Hours and days are fluid right now as they adjust to the ever-changing situation at hand.
Carr said he will be surprised if his restaurant will be able to generate 20 percent of typical sales for the month of June. He hopes to reach 50 percent in the months of July and August.
“I’m not optimistic about reaching 50 percent,” he said. “I don’t think I’m alone in that. I think there are going to be restrictions on the amount of people you can seat, and there are a lot of people who would normally go out to eat that may be concerned about it. I think we are going to see a shift there, and I think there is this misconception that when restaurants open that business is going to come right back. That is not what we are seeing in other states, and I don’t think we are going to see it here. ”
“Most restaurants in the Adirondacks and Lake George that stay open during months like November and December lose money,” said Carr. “They stay open to keep staff working. The concern for me is that if they don’t have the money to do that, where is that going to put those employees?”
Carr has 45 year-round, full-time employees and typically hires an additional 80 during the summer months. Many are international college students. It remains uncertain if these students will be allowed to travel to the U.S.
Both Carr and Mineo received Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans from the government. In order for a portion of these loans to be forgivable, at least 75 percent of the forgivable amount must be used for payroll costs during the first eight weeks of the loan. As a result, Mineo considers his PPP to be nothing more than a conventional loan.
“For the loan to be forgiven is near impossible. I think they knew that. I’m grateful for the loan, but they pretty much set us up for failure,” he said. “How could I have gotten my entire staff to come back when at the time I could only do takeout? They would have been making a fraction of what they were making on unemployment.”
“It’s a real problem,” agreed Carr. “It’s almost like there were two federal programs that were in opposition to each other. You have the PPP which was encouraging employers to bring employees back, but then people are making more on unemployment. A lot of the employers that I talk to can’t even get their employees to call them back.”
Local restaurant owners are also frustrated with the lack of guidance from the state.
“They gave us less than one day to prepare,” said Mineo. “It was a mess. There’s a lot we had to do, and not everyone was able to open right away.”
Mineo was able to open June 4. Guests were seated on Gaslight’s outdoor patio and in a tent that was erected on the premises. All tables are at least six feet apart, and customers are required to wear masks when they are not at their tables. Restaurant employees wear masks at all time.
Adirondack Brewery opened for outdoor dining June 5. The restaurant has a large outdoor dining area and beer garden, and several tents were added to increase seating. Carr invested $1,000 in social distancing signs, plexiglass and PPE for his staff.
“We tried to identify high-traffic areas and widened those areas and removed tables,” he said. “We also make hand sanitizer in our distillery and have hand sanitizing stations throughout the restaurant. We also added dedicated staff who go around and clean and sanitize tables with alcohol based sanitizers.”
“The state hasn’t given a lot of guidance,” he said. “We’ve been spending last few months studying what people are doing in other states.”
Schmidt said she received no guidance regarding the opening of her large outdoor dining area.
“I’ve heard nothing from anybody. Nothing from the mayor, nothing from the governor, nothing from the state, nothing from the county,” she said. “Absolutely nothing.”
“Our state has been very ambiguous,” Mineo said. “I think our state is doing a really poor job balancing the reopening of businesses and the safety of the region.”
“I know of a few restaurants in the surrounding area that won’t make it,” he said. “It’s going to be tough for me because I’ve only been open for one year. But deep down, I think we are going to get through it.”
By Christine Graf