by Andrew Garda
Montclair saw things move a little closer to normal in the last week and a half as restaurants began to host outdoor dining and stores allowed customers inside for the first time since March.
Whereas some towns closed down streets and offered free parking, Montclair had no such plans, something that frustrated local business owners, many of whom vented about it during the last council meeting.
But the township is beginning to respond, announcing an Emergency Assistance Grant program on Friday, June 19. The announcement said the funding, which will be awarded on a first-come basis, totals $150,000 for township small businesses. Businesses must have fewer than 25 employees, and not-for-profits are also eligible for the $1,000 grants.
Town officials also announced that free 15-minute parking at meters will continue, 2020 sidewalk café fees will be waived or refunded, and a plan is being examined on how to best close streets to create additional outdoor space for diners.
Risa Magid Boyer, owner and Chef at Vanillamore on Bloomfield Avenue, was just getting used to street-side dining, which began on June 15, when Gov. Phil Murphy sprung the news that restaurants would be able to open up indoor seating on July 2.
Boyer’s restaurant reopened over Father’s Day weekend, but she said the key to inside dining is the same as it is for outside.
“We are limiting it, just to have a lot of control over it,” she said. “We have obviously limited space and prix-fixe menus and all of those things, regardless of whether it’s indoor or outdoor.”
Along with table spacing, the restaurant is reservations-only, and hours are limited to dinner from Thursday to Saturday, brunch Saturday and Sunday, and occasional “dessert only” time slots.
All staffers help control the flow of customers to meet the COVID-19 guidelines.
Boyer said the restaurant has been focusing on reaching its core customers, the ones who have signed up for newsletters or follow the restaurant on social media. People are looking for comfort and familiarity, she said, and that’s been something Vanillamore has tried to provide since it opened.
The oddity of being waited on by staff donning masks and gloves is something all have had to overcome in the “new normal.”
“It’s honestly quite heartbreaking, because we’ve built our brand with an open kitchen, you know, a very friendly staff, building relationships,” Boyer said. “Having those personal connections is the core of who we are and what I love about owning a restaurant. So that has not been easy just to reconcile.”
Part of that reconciling comes in the form of food, though, and Vanillamore will focus on what diners like best: “making sure that the menu has the things that people have been missing.”
Café Moso’s Zina Floyd is pleased about finally adding outdoor dining.
“I’m just happy that we can open,” Floyd said.
The South End eatery did well in the first week of outdoor dining.
“We’re able to seat about 16 people outside, and it’s been doing well,” she said. “People have been making reservations, the flow is good, and takeout has stayed consistent. So, we’re getting business from both now.”
With outdoor seating a reality and indoor seating on the horizon, Floyd has also changed the restaurant’s hours, opening back up noon to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 7 p.m. Sunday. For now, Café Moso will not be hosting its well-loved brunches, but Floyd is hoping to do so again in the fall.
Like most restaurants in Montclair, Café Moso is allowing customers to order from their phones rather than dealing with physical menus. Customers are given disposable cutlery as well.
“[The state] said only 25-percent capacity, so we’re only going to set up as many tables as we’re allowed inside,” she said. “Our capacity is about 50 people inside, so we’ll probably have seating for about 20.”
Floyd said a lot of her initial customers have just been excited to be outside the house, create some normalcy and try to enjoy the nicer weather.
“I just finished having a conversation with a family,” she said. “You know, they have been quarantined… and they just needed to get out.”
Montclair retail stores seem to have hit the ground running, and in the case of Fleet Feet on Bloomfield Avenue, almost literally, as the running shop saw an immediate uptick in business from the moment it reopened its doors. It’s keeping the staff moving fast.
“I would say it’s going well,” said Dawn Fabbro, one of the owners of Fleet Feet Montclair. “We’re doing it by appointment only, and we’ve been booked solid.”
Fabbro said there have been walk-ups, but because they can only have nine people in the store, including staff, they have had to turn folks away, telling them they should get onto the store’s website and grab an appointment.
“We’re following safety protocols, and our customers have been really positive,” Fabbro said. Fleet Feet was doing curbside pickup before last week, and prior to that had done delivery. Fabbro said people have been anxious for the store to reopen.
Beyond social distancing and limiting the number of people in the store, Fabbro said the staff has been wearing masks and gloves and making sure customers wear masks as well. They also handle all the products themselves, so that the number of people who touch an item remains low.
Once the store closes, it’s cleaning time.
“We’re like following along behind people, cleaning things constantly,” she said. “A couple of customers are still in the store [right now]. We were just all laughing, saying that we’ve never cleaned so much in all of our lives.”
While not quite as busy, East Side Mags on South Fullerton Avenue in downtown Montclair has seen customers return immediately as well, said owner Jeff Beck.
Business during the first week was steady, according to Beck, and it feels nearer to normal.
A comic book store is all about the tactile experience of picking up and flipping through publications, but Beck said that customers have had no problem handling something someone else has just held. If anyone feels concerned, Beck has an ample supply of gloves for those who need them, and masks to buy as well.
He also invested in floor stickers with the store logo to promote social distancing.
Right now restaurants specifically and businesses in general are benefiting from loosening restrictions, but while this makes Floyd optimistic, she also cautions that it’s too early to know the long-term impact of COVID or reopening the state.
“You’re going to need a few months,” she said. “Right now you’re going to get an influx because people want to be out. So you’ll have a peak in business, and we’re hoping that the peak continues to flow in that direction. But I would imagine that we would need to see the next 90 days to determine if that then drops significantly once people get their eating-out fix.”