For restaurateurs, nothing will ever be the same

Off the menu: The pandemic has changed everything for restaurants and restaurateurs, including Donna Tappler (left) and the crew at Rothchild's Kitchen in Great Neck.

Before COVID-19, the scene on virtually any night at many of the popular full-service restaurants – be they casual dining, family dining, or fine dining – would surely include fully occupied tables, positioned in such a way as to maximize seating capacity.

The bar would be filled with patrons, standing shoulder to shoulder. And for good measure, a multitude would be standing just inside the front door, waiting to be seated.

For a good many of the close to 300,000 full-service restaurants in the United States, several thousand of which are right here on Long Island, business was good. Life was good.

And then came COVID-19. And everything changed.

Donna Trappler, partner/restauranteur of popular Great Neck eatery Rothchild’s Kitchen, noted great uncertainty about life after the pandemic.

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“I’ve been thinking about what reopening will look like and what changes might be needed,” Trappler said. “Our restaurant model was in large part based on high capacity and a unique, eclectic menu. Now, there are so many questions, and the fact is there are no definitive answers.

“With social-distancing restrictions, how many tables will we be able to have?” she added. “How comfortable will people be coming back into our restaurant? Do we need to revamp our menu and transition to food options that more readily lend themselves to both in-restaurant dining and take out?

“We are in unchartered territory right now.”

Trappler’s concerns are shared by many regional restauranteurs. Adrian Chau, a long-time restauranteur who now consults with restaurants all around Long Island, suggested that making patrons feel safe in their return to sit-down restaurants might have to include sanitizing lotions at the front entrance and individually wrapped sanitary wipes at the tables, in addition to traditional napkins.

Other restauranteurs suggested waiters and waitresses might need to wear gloves and masks; others think menus, at even the fanciest of restaurants, will have to be paper and discarded after a single use. In white-tablecloth restaurants, table coverings might also need to change to a single-use material – or the linens may have to be changed, every time, with patrons waiting to be seated.

Restaurants that counted on significant bar business will be in for seismic, cultural changes. The number of seats at the bar may need to be cut in half at minimum. The standing, overflow bar scene may be eliminated.

Other restauranteurs indicate that payments will have to move toward cashless models, with no more signing of receipts (patrons might feel uncomfortable using a pen touched by someone else).

“We are in territory no one could have ever imagined just six or eight weeks ago,” according to Trappler. “We can try to predict what it will be like when we reopen, but the truth is we simply do not know.”

Because of that, expect some trial and error. “We will try a few things and see what works,” Trappler said. “We will speak with our customers to see what makes them feel the most comfortable and then try to build on that with new customers.”

No doubt, she adds, “this is a nervous time for all of us – not just for restaurants, but any business that depends on customers coming through the front door.”

There’s agreement among restaurateurs about one thing, at least: To bring former customers back and attract new ones, they’re going to have to reach out aggressively and let people know what they’re doing to make customers feel comfortable.

Many restaurateurs discussed contacting their most loyal clientele, their “regulars,” directly through phone calls and emails. Others with less-comprehensive customer data spoke about having to invest in direct mail, print advertising and social media advertising.

Many also suggested that specials and significant discounts would play a large role – added incentives to bring the people back.

What’s evident, in chatting with virtually all regional restaurateurs, is a growing urgency to reopen their doors, even though the future remains so uncertain.

“Hopefully we will come out of this OK,” Trappler said. “But what the definition of ‘OK’ is, that I don’t have right now.”

Ron Edelson is the executive director of the Great Neck Plaza Business Improvement District and cofounder of ZE Creative Communications.