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Within hours of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s announcement, the reservation requests began to fly in. Indoor dining had officially been announced to return at 25 percent capacity on February 14 (even before the governor announced we could actually start on February 12). Our small team at Sola Pasta Bar sprang into action. Twenty-four hours later, our books were full for Valentine’s Day. The requests are flooding in, our books have opened, and our team is ready to welcome our guests back into our dining room.
Has it been easy for any restaurant owner during this pandemic? Absolutely not, but we’ve been working on this project for a very long time, and we had to keep going.
My business partners and I opened Sola Pasta Bar in 2017 with a mission to serve authentic, high-quality Italian pasta to New Yorkers. I moved from Milan to pursue this dream. We brought our vision to life with fresh pasta, good music, and positive energy. We were finally hitting our stride — until the pandemic forced us to throw out the playbook.
Over the past year, we’ve learned to become very flexible in order to survive this whirlwind of curveballs. At the beginning of 2020, we were a team of about 21; now the team is 14.
We’ve had to adapt every step of the way: closing the restaurant for dining service in March, launching takeout and delivery, opening for outdoor dining, and reopening indoor dining (again) at 25 percent capacity is our next step.
When outdoor dining first returned last summer, we quickly got to work and created a nice terrace for both sidewalks on our corner, filling it with flowers and plants to provide a welcoming space for guests. As the colder months approached, we shifted gears and invested significantly to build out individual, heated cottages outdoors. Each cottage is secluded and has adjustable heaters, Sonos speakers, firefly lamps, and sweeping yellow and white rose floral installations. We designed the cottages to feel like a romantic evening in Capri, an oasis from the cold Soho streets.
We’re very fortunate to have been able to invest so much in outdoor dining and to be located on a street corner where we can take advantage of more space. And yet, even for restaurants like ours with strong outdoor setups, it is simply not enough. It’s been an intense and challenging year for the hospitality industry and with restaurants’ razor-thin profit margins, many cannot afford to stay afloat. Over 1,000 restaurants in NYC have already been forced to close since March, and they are continuing to close left and right.
At this point in time, we need every table we can get, and even 25 percent capacity indoors makes a real, tangible difference in sales each day. In addition to bringing in more revenue, indoor dining also opens us to a larger customer base, as many people are reluctant to eat outdoors in the colder months or make reservations for heated outdoor dining sight unseen. Once we can open our doors to customers dining inside, they can get a feel for our heated cottages as well.
If restaurants adhere to all safety precautions and practices, they can continue safely serving customers, as statistics have shown. Even before the pandemic, restaurants were required to meet a very high standard of cleanliness and sanitation compared to other businesses. Restaurants have always followed stringent health standards enforced by the Department of Health, which made them uniquely prepared to implement COVID-19 sanitation and safety practices when the pandemic hit.
At the end of the day, we’re still all learning more about this virus and pandemic. As restaurant owners, we’re doing our best to find the perfect balance between keeping our businesses open and following safety protocols.
At Sola Pasta Bar, we’ve taken all precautions very seriously and after nearly a year of serving during the pandemic, no one from our team has tested positive for COVID-19. We do daily temperature checks on all our employees, sanitize the entire restaurant twice a day, clean the kitchen and bathroom every two hours, and more. When we open for indoor dining, we are going to take the temperature of all customers arriving for inside seating and record information for contact tracing. Last summer, we sacrificed tables to measure at least six feet between every table in addition to using plexiglass.
At the beginning, we had conversations with everyone on our team, and while some were understandably apprehensive, they all adamantly wanted to continue working. We were impressed by how well the team adjusted to the new safety protocols and practices. Today, we can confidently say our staff has hit a new stride and is eager to serve indoors and take another step toward returning to normalcy.
Restaurants have always been able to provide a special sense of comfort, and people need that comfort now more than ever. We’re grateful to be able to provide our guests with a slice of hope through an experience as simple as dining out. We welcome indoor dining not only as a lifeline for our business, but also as an opportunity to safely bring our customers a little more normalcy in these very abnormal times.
Simone Tiligna is co-owner and co-founder of Sola Pasta Bar in Soho, which opened in 2017.
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