With New York City descending into colder weather with every passing day and COVID-19 cases continuing to climb, several restaurants across the city have made the decision to close their doors for the winter months with plans to return in the spring.
Since October, nearly a dozen establishments across the city have announced plans to remain closed for the next few months, including Lower East Side oyster bar and seafood spot Cervo’s, Williamsburg Appalachian restaurant Cozy Royale, and Carroll Gardens cocktail den Barely Disfigured. The list will no doubt keep growing.
For many, plans for this winter hibernation have been months in the making. Moshe Schulman, one of the co-owners of East Village natural wine bars Ruffian and Kindred, says arrangements for the winter pause were already in the works when the two spaces reopened in May after the initial state-mandated shutdown in March.
“Unlike our politicians, we always knew that winter was on the calendar,” says Schulman. “We knew that cases were likely going to spike again in the winter, and we knew with how cold it’s going to be, we would have to close at some juncture.”
Schulman says both bars will shut down on December 21, with a pause spanning through the middle of January, one of the slowest months of the year. If government aid comes through before 2021, Schulman says he hopes to stay closed longer — probably through the end of February or early March — before coming back when the weather warms up.
While both wine bars will be on pause for a month, Ruffian will return after a monthlong break to operate as a wine and provisions shop. It’s a strategy being adopted by several other restaurateurs going into hibernation.
Nialls Fallon, one of the co-owners of the hip restaurants the Fly, Hart’s, and Cervo’s, has transitioned the Lower East Side seafood spot into a wine and grocery store for the winter months. Part of what prompted the transition, Fallon says, is that the team already had some experience transitioning a restaurant into a retail establishment. Bed-Stuy Mediterranean restaurant Hart’s has been operating as a grocery store since it reopened over the summer and is slated to stay that way at least until next summer.
“We are looking for some sense of stability,” Fallon says. “We wanted to have something that we could do all winter long, and that people could really incorporate into their lives and routines.”
Along with a large selection of wines, the Cervo’s shop will sell fresh fish (including tips on how to cook it), bread, chocolate, dips, and other pantry items. The trendy restaurant plans to remain a market at least through April next year.
Also going the market route is the relatively new Prospect Heights bar Wild Birds. Co-owner Julian Klepper closed down the bar and music venue over the weekend until March and is going to focus on running the adjacent Day’s Cafe, selling coffee, sandwiches, and pastries along with running it as a general store.
“We have money reserved for rainy days. We just weren’t expecting the rainy day to be a pandemic,” says Klepper, who debuted the restaurant in July, following a monthslong delay caused by the coronavirus-related shutdown in March. “We don’t have an endless amount of capital to keep going.”
From the time that the bar opened this past summer, it has established a reputation as a standout destination for live music in the neighborhood, and afforded paying gigs for musicians, many of whom have been struggling to find employment since the start of the pandemic. In October, Wild Birds experienced its best month of the year, Klepper says, but come November, the change in weather prompted a 20 percent drop in business.
Klepper says he and his partners considered adding heaters and more outdoor seating, but the costs proved prohibitive, especially for a business that was just starting off. Many others also recognized that outdoor dining was becoming increasingly untenable, and that without a significant investment — at a time when restaurants are hemorrhaging funds — it would impossible to do any meaningful business.
Jeremy Andre, one of the owners of Carroll Gardens cocktail bar Barely Disfigured, says he would have to spend more than $40,000, between installing heat lamps and getting his backyard covered, to allow for winterized outdoor dining.
“I’d rather save that money to reopen,” says Andre, who closed down the bar the day after Halloween. Between the backyard and the sidewalk, Barely Disfigured could seat about 60 customers, and it was doing solid business through the end of September before the weather got cold, Andre says.
With outdoor dining off the table, many of the restaurateurs who have decided to put their establishments into hibernation didn’t feel safe — or have the ability — to serve customers indoors, yet another reason they say it felt wise to close down temporarily.
“I understand that some people have to do it, but to us it was just not worth the risk of someone getting sick,” says Nora O’Malley, one of the co-owners of East Village wine bar Lois. “I think there is a lot of anxiety involved even with serving people outdoors.”
O’Malley says her team made the decision to close in September after a second round of stimulus money never came through and it became increasingly clear that it made more financial sense to temporarily pull the plug. The cost of heaters, installing enhanced air filtration systems indoors, and adding enclosed outdoor structures — which restaurateurs, including O’Malley and Andre, feel have their own safety concerns — made staying open impossible.
Ruffian, Kindred, Cervo’s, and Wild Birds, among other establishments, all had conversations with staffers and found that most didn’t feel comfortable working indoors, and none of them reopened indoor dining even after the state allowed restaurants to do so at the end of September.
There’s one key factor in the ability to temporarily close: a good landlord-tenant relationship. All the restaurateurs interviewed for this story acknowledged that they were among the lucky few that had the option of hitting the pause button. Barely Disfigured received a six-month discount from its landlord, and the others either worked out or are currently in negotiations with their landlords to work out deals for the winter months.
Fallon says he and his partners were proactive from March, working with their three different landlords on a longterm solution. Brent Young, one of the co-owners of Cozy Royale, which will remain shut likely until the spring of 2021, says his landlord understands that the restaurant is in it for the long haul — he and his partner Ben Turley have signed a 10-year lease on the establishment — and remaining brutally honest about how much they can pay has helped.
Still, the decision to close, even temporarily, is painful. “This stop again, start again just isn’t sustainable for any small-business owner,” says Young. While Cozy Royale was able to absorb some of its staffers into positions at Young and Turley’s popular butcher shop, the Meat Hook — which will remain open for takeout — like everyone else, they had to let a majority of their staff go.
“It is heartbreaking to have to close and tell 17 different people they have no job until March,” says Klepper of the staffers at Wild Birds. “Not to mention all the musicians that play here and all our vendors.”
This time around, though, workers were more prepared for a possible second shutdown, restaurateurs say, noting that many of them have tried to be forthright about the current predicament right from the start.
“Being transparent is very helpful,” says Schulman, who employs 17 people between Kindred and Ruffian. “We’ve been sharing our financials since the shutdown began and how we’ve been spending our Paycheck Protection Program [PPP] funds. We’ve been preparing our staff for months that another shutdown is coming.” Schulman says he intends to keep paying his employees’ health insurance while they are out of work.
Yet restaurateurs are aware that without another COVID-19 stimulus package, it will become increasingly difficult for both restaurants and workers to return next year. In a letter addressed to Congress, the National Restaurant Association this week noted that an estimated 110,000 restaurants had closed since the start of the pandemic and said that the hospitality industry was in a free-fall without federal aid.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has warned that indoor dining will soon be banned due to the rising COVID-19 cases in the city, leading hospitality groups at both the city and state levels to highlight the dire consequences. “The industry is on life support and will die without financial assistance from the federal government,” said Melissa Fleischut, the president of the New York State Restaurant Association, in a statement.
Restaurateurs shutting down for the winter say there are only so many times they can reinvent their businesses before time runs out.
“I think the models we’ve created, these aren’t models that can replace our restaurants,” says Fallon. “They are helping us get through this period, but the longer this goes on, the harder it is to sustain.”
Here is a full list of places that are hibernating for the winter. If you know of any other restaurants that are closing or have closed for the winter, send us an email at email@example.com.
Disclosure: Eater has a video series, Prime Time, hosted by Ben Turley and Brent Young of the Meat Hook.