by Andrew Garda
For restaurant owners, there’s a balance between opening back up, offering good customer service and making money while also making it safe for staff and customers alike during the pandemic.
Since June 19, when Gov. Phil Murphy opened up the state for outdoor dining, Montclair restaurant and bar owners have ramped up while complying with new rules and regulations and attempting to offer customers the same level of service.
“It’s definitely very difficult for the restaurants right now. They are limited by so many more factors that they weren’t originally limited by [before COVID-19],” said Steven DeSalvo, a food contributor for Montclair Local with a degree in hospitality business management from the University of Delaware and years of experience in restaurants and hotels.
Masks, soap and cleaning
Like all restaurants in New Jersey, DeNovo is limited to outdoor seating, with tables spaced six feet apart. Luckily for Demetri Malki, owner of DeNovo, at 275 Bellevue Ave. in Upper Montclair, has a rarity in the township — a parking lot.
Prior to outdoor dining, DeNovo stayed open with delivery and takeout options only.
“You know, we did our takeout, we did our car hop,” Malki said. “We did our deliveries.”
Malki said they have taken every precaution they can to make sure both customers and staff remain safe.
“Everybody’s in masks, cooks are [also] in hats,” he said. Cooks are not required to have masks, according to current New Jersey COVID-19 regulations.
Along with masks and constant hand-washing, restaurant owners continuously clean table and chair surfaces, place tables six feet apart and try to adapt to whatever will make their clients as comfortable as possible while not endangering other diners or the staff.
DeSalvo said there’s a limit to what is being done, though.
“You know, like the tables are six feet apart, but the chairs aren’t,” DeSalvo said. “There’s a decent amount of that. So that might also make some guests opposed to going out to eat, because they don’t actually feel that it’s safe.”
The community has been supportive, even if people don’t feel comfortable dining on site. Takeout has been a popular option.
But even with a tent over the outdoor dining area, rain or humidity can cancel an evening’s worth of reservations. And the difference in capacities between indoor pre-COVID-19 and outside now are vast.
Where DeNovo was seating 110 people indoors, now it is at about half-capacity.
“If it rains, you know, you’re lucky if you do 20 people,” Malki said.
If it’s rainy, there goes your Saturday night, DeSalvo added.
Yet perhaps the biggest hit to some places in Montclair isn’t fewer tables, it’s losing their bar. People come for the atmosphere and to sit at the bar and drink, mingle and hang out. The bar business comes with its own challenges, especially when mingling is not allowed.
Like DeNovo, Egan & Sons has a nice big parking lot, albeit one they share with Halcyon. That allows them to seat more customers than many other Walnut Street eateries.
“So thank God we have that,” said Sharon Egan, one of the owners.
That doesn’t make up for the lack of the bar, however.
“That’s pretty critical,” Egan said of the bar. “It’s a big part of our business plan, being open until 1:30, 2 in the morning. Needless to say the bar is what sustains the restaurant. That’s always been the way.”
Currently, Egan & Sons closes at 9:30 p.m.
Egan said they haven’t had any issues with customers not wearing masks — which the bar provides if people show up without them — and staff makes sure everyone stays socially distant. That can be a bit tricky, and she said people sometimes forget to stay “in their bubble” at their table with the people they arrived with.
“You know, it’s very hard for us to control people that, once they get into the atmosphere, they forget,” Egan said. “You know, just remember that we’re lucky to be out right now. Let’s not have to go back into a shutdown mode.”
While Egan & Sons is doing well, they know those neighbors around them without a parking lot are struggling. Egan hopes that at some point Walnut Street might get closed on occasion, as Church Street will.
“A lot of the places here don’t have much sidewalk,” she said. “They could use some more space.”
Patience on the menu
“Try and think of the people who are serving you as people who you care about,” DeSalvo said.
He said that’s always a good rule of thumb while dining out, whether during a pandemic or when times are normal.
On top of all the stress of running a business, restaurant owners need to take care of their staff as well.
“It’s really just not an ideal situation, especially for the restaurant staff and also for the owners who aren’t making enough money,” DeSalvo said. “The staff is at increased risk of infection as well. And you know, in a lot of these situations, these folks don’t necessarily have the best health care, and it’s hard to take time off if they’re ill because you get paid by the hour. You don’t work, you don’t make any money. So it’s a really stressful time for everyone.”
There are things diners can do to make their own experience better while making sure both the staff and other customers remain healthy.
Patience tops the list, Malki said. Restaurants have gone from being indoors, where everything from plates to drinks to food pickup are right at the staff’s fingertips, to needing staff to run in and out of the front door numerous times.
That means customers need to be thoughtful about how – and when – they ask for something to limit the trips a server has to make.
“For example, if two people at the table would like a glass of water, and someone needs a napkin, someone else needs ketchup,” Malki explained. “Just try to give the server the entire order, as opposed to making that person get a glass of water, they go get the water, they come back, and it’s like, oh, can you give me a napkin?”
Egan said customers should try to keep in mind the time they spend at the table, as other customers are often waiting to be seated. Even though they take reservations, there’s often a wait. Egan said that she doesn’t like to see people wait, but isn’t looking to boot customers as soon as they finish their beer.
“Limit the stay at the space, you know?” she said. “Have your dinner, have your dessert, have your after-dinner drink, if you like, then let someone else sit.”
A plea for help
While last weekend the Montclair Center BID paid the cost to have South Park and Church streets closed to expand dining, owners on other streets are begging for help. Even with temperatures in the 90s, some restaurant owners reported a 20-percent increase in business with the ability to add more tables.
In a letter to newly elected Mayor Sean Spiller and the Township Council, Samba Montclair owner Ilson Goncalves asked the township to shut down more streets on a regular basis, as towns such as Bloomfield, Verona, Caldwell and others have done to support their business communities.
Allowing restaurants to expand their dining capacity while keeping customers safe is crucial to saving businesses, Goncalves said. He also called for the covering of parking meters.
“Immediate action must be taken. Inaction will no doubt lead to the shuttering of even more storefronts,” he wrote.
Samba is on Park Street, which is not currently slated to be closed.
That’s also true for Walnut Street, where Egan is hoping a street closure could happen to allow her neighbors to add tables beyond the thin sidewalk.
“So, Le Salbuen and Ray’s Luncheonette, if [the township] could do something for them, I mean, they really could use it,” Egan said. “They have no space.”