Looking back: How local restaurants and bars had to 'survive and advance'
This is one of a series of stories from WRVO on how the COVID-19 pandemic changed life in central and northern NY over the last year. Find all of the stories from our series here.
Richard Ferrucci, the owner of the Palisades Hotel restaurant in Rome, N.Y., remembers the moment he found out he’d have to shut his doors.
“I had the TV on as I was doing some paperwork when the announcement came out that we were shut down,” he recalled. “And I texted my partner said ‘turn on the TV, the party's over.’”
Over at the Brasserie Bar and Bistro in Camillus, N.Y., Michelle Roesche wasn’t totally surprised by the news. So, she called all of her employees together to have what she referred to as her last “family dinner.” She said it was emotional, to say the least.
“And I had one of my bartenders come in with her son and literally just collapse into my arms in tears,” she remembered.
These are just two of the countless bars and restaurants in central New York that were told to close their doors last March amid the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic.
Once they flipped over their “open” signs, neither of them really knew what to do next. While the Brasserie was familiar with takeout orders, Ferrucci said the Palisades Hotel has never been a take-out kind of establishment.
“At that time we're about to set foot in waters we have no idea about how do we convert this business into something else if we even can because, at that point in time, when that announcement was made, nobody knew what the next move was,” he said.
But he adapted, as many business owners were forced to do if they wanted to see any profit.
Coleman’s Authentic Irish Pub has been a landmark restaurant and bar in Syracuse, N.Y. for nearly 90 years, but even their owners weren’t expecting to struggle as much as they did.
“You know, we were close for five of the last 12 months,” said Dennis Coleman, whose family owns the legacy establishment. “So it's definitely scary at times, definitely uncertain about the future, you know.
Coleman said that when he shut his doors, he didn’t think they’d take months to reopen.
“They mentioned 14 days to flatten the curve initially, that turned into, you know, a year,” he said.
Once restaurant owners had finally mastered the art of takeout service, summer came and they were faced with a new challenge: outdoor dining.
“The Palisades wasn't a table service tavern, you walked up to the bar, you ordered your food you walked Up to the bar, you got your drink,” said Ferrucci who crowdsourced tables, chairs, tents–really anything he could to create an outdoor dining space to keep his business afloat.
Coleman’s now uses their once-vacant patio space to provide outdoor dining, which has become more popular than they were ever expecting, and the Brasserie was one of few central New York establishments to use igloos, which became a fan-favorite.
“Like for the first three weeks that we had them from the moment we opened till we closed our phone rang about them for reservations for them,” Roesche said about the Brasserie’s igloos.
While their reopenings sound like a success story for them all, it didn’t come without hardships.
“There was one week where every day I had an employee crying in my office about how like scared and nervous they were about everything that was going on,” said Roesche.
She can describe this last year in one word: draining.
“I feel like the restaurant business is always changing, and there's really not a lot of predictability to it,” she said. “But, um, this has been kind of even worse, it's been so roller coaster and it's just been very draining,”
While things are starting to feel a bit more normal now that indoor dining has resumed at a limited capacity, these owners know they’re not out of the woods just yet.
In February, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer visited the Brasserie to announce his plan to introduce the RESTAURANTS Act, which would provide additional aid to struggling restaurants, into the recently passed American Rescue Plan.
During his press conference, he shared that 54% of New York State restaurants would not be able to survive the next six months without financial assistance and that restaurants in Onondaga County that have managed to survive the pandemic have lost 27% of their revenue since last March.
Lately, the biggest struggle for bars and restaurants has been abiding by the state’s 11 p.m. curfew, especially during March Madness. Recently, Governor Andrew Cuomo lifted that curfew for most other businesses in New York State, but excluded bars and restaurants from that list.
Coleman said it just doesn’t make sense to him.
“As long as we, you know, follow all the guidelines, it shouldn't really matter what time of the day it is.”
But indoor dining capacity continues to increase and the weather is getting nicer so these restaurant owners are, for the first time in a year, optimistic about the future of their businesses.
“Sometimes you just got to live to fight another day, do what you can to survive,” said Ferrucci. “It’s like the NCAA Tournament–survive and advance. That's, that's all you can really do right now.”
“We just got to hold out these next few months here and we should be hopefully everything will be back to normal sooner than later,” said Coleman.
“I think we can see the light at the end of the tunnel so I think everybody's doing really well,” said Roesche.