How Omicron Impacted NYC Restaurants

Photo: Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

On December 3, chef Calvin Eng opened American Cantonese restaurant Bonnie’s in Williamsburg. After years of working in restaurants including Nom Wah Nolita and Win Son, he finally got his own place – and it proved to be immediately popular. Then, two hours before the Dec. 17 service, Eng decided to close his dining room and only offer takeout.

“Business was good for those first two weeks, but we decided to pivot as a team,” he explains. “It didn’t seem like a smart or safe thing to put our staff or customers through.”

It’s now been a month since Omicron arrived in New York, slamming the restaurant industry with a flurry of positive cases and anxiety over how to respond. Generally speaking, business had been good, servers and owners told me, in the weeks leading up to mid-December. Then it plummeted, as cases increased and potential clients stopped socializing before seeing older or at-risk relatives during the holidays. As of January 7, reservations on OpenTable were down 38% from two years ago. A representative for Resy said blankets were down in New York last week by about 20% from the fourth quarter average, although she added that the first week of January was “still slow.”

Some restaurateurs have moved quickly to adapt: ​​At his Prospect Heights Olmsted restaurant, for example, Greg Baxtrom will transition to a tasting menu format after, he wrote on Instagram, struggling “to deliver a consistent, delicious and safe during those ridiculous times. At Bonnie’s, Eng changed things up too, introducing a “McBonnie’s” menu with char siu McRib and filet-o-fish. (The regular menu, he said, didn’t work well in the take-out format.)

Across the city, over the past few weeks, I had heard mixed reports of the cases. Wu’s Wonton King owner Derek Wu said business was down 40% in the past month. “Definitely a ghost town on the Lower East Side,” wrote Matthew, a bartender who works in the neighborhood. But one waiter said his restaurant in the same neighborhood was doing well: “Youth restaurants,” this waiter said, were doing well.

But this is not the case everywhere. A Brooklyn waiter, who asked to remain anonymous, told Grub Street in December that he had spent nights with just a few tables at the restaurant where he works, and if that persisted he would have to go home. It went from $757 before taxes the week of December 12 to $576 the following week. During Christmas week, when he only worked a few shifts, he earned $110. When January 1 came around, he was unable to pay all of his rent.

When I walked into the Fly earlier this week it was the emptiest I have ever seen. The restaurant is usually packed; Monday night there were only a handful of people inside. Again, it was 12 degrees outside, and it was a Monday in early January, a typically incredibly slow time for any restaurant in New York.

“It’s hard to tell if it’s Omicron or the weather because our location is so seasonal!” says Leticia Skai Young of Lolo’s Seafood Shack, the Harlem restaurant she owns with husband Raymond Mohan. “We closed on Mondays because it’s slower, but we normally do it between Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day.”

Still others theorize that it’s not the fear of Omicron transmission that’s forcing a slowdown in activity: it’s the fact that many people are already sick. “Our major client base is New York Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia Medical Center, and all adjacent medical practices and institutions,” says Amy Pryke, who runs Native Noodles restaurant in Washington Heights. “I’ve heard this anecdotally from friends who work there that a lot of staff call in sick or get sick.” So, she says, “I think that could also be a contributing factor to the drop in sales, right? Because they don’t come to work and it’s usually the customers who order from us. “

There are some glimmers of hope and some of the city’s best-known restaurants are seeing a resurgence. With the holidays in the rearview mirror, Bonnie’s reopened for indoor dining on January 4. “We’re very lucky to be relatively busy, all things considered,” Eng says, though he points out that cancellations are more frequent than they used to be. It doesn’t seem like they’re having any trouble filling those tables, though: when I came by last night at 7:20 p.m., it was 34 degrees outside, but Bonnie’s house was scorching hot. “Do you have a reservation?” the host asked me. When I said no, they told me it would be a two hour wait, before they corrected themselves. “Actually, it’s going to be three hours.”

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