Indoor dining delay ‘one step forward, five steps back’ for N.J. restaurants

Posted Jun 30, 2020

The finish line was finally in sight for Ehren Ryan and Common Lot.

The acclaimed Millburn eatery has been closed since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, not even providing outdoor dining. But it was planning an early July reopening after Gov. Phil Murphy announced indoor dining would return on July 2.

Ryan was meeting with his team and preparing their reopening menu Monday when his phone buzzed and he saw that the plan would have to wait.

“I had to tell my staff, and it’s just like, ‘S***,’” Ryan said. “My guys are all just itching to get back to work and come off unemployment. But they’re going to have to wait a little bit longer.”

New Jerseyans will have to wait a little longer for their first indoor restaurant meal in months, as Murphy announced Monday that the plan to bring diners back inside restaurants has been delayed indefinitely — another setback in a year filled with them for a reeling industry.

“It’s just frustrating,” Ryan said. “This was like one step forward and then almost five steps back.”

The change comes days after a pair of stories detailed a lack of social distancing throughout Jersey Shore bars, though Murphy did emphasize that the COVID-19 spikes in states where indoor dining has returned were a major factor in the decision as well.

“It isn’t just the knucklehead behavior. It is a disturbing amount of growth of this virus we know from indoor locations experienced now in other states,” Murphy said Tuesday at his daily coronavirus briefing. “In as much as we want to stamp out the knucklehead behavior, whether you’re a proprietor or a patron, it isn’t just that. It is what we’re seeing elsewhere.”

No restaurants NJ Advance Media interviewed for this story downplayed the severity of the coronavirus. Laura Brahm, co-owner of Cardinal Provisions in Asbury Park, understood the decision.

“I feel for everyone who’s still getting financially rocked by COVID (us included), but jumping into things without a clear and careful approach will just screw us for that much longer,” Brahm said. “It’s a slap in the face to our health care workers and everyone else who’s made sacrifices left and right to just undo everything we’ve worked at since March.”

Restaurants aren’t just facing a wait until service returns. It’s what to do with staff and resources they brought in thinking they were reopening this week.

Osteria Crescendo in Westwood and Viaggio in Wayne, two Italian restaurants owned by the same group, were deep in preparation for the return to indoor dining when the news came down, and now find themselves unsure of what to do with their plans.

“It’s just impossible to prepare. We just had to hire another cook to handle the volume moving into indoor, and add more service staff and get them trained since the announcement of indoor,” said Tommy Voter, the restaurant group’s director of operations. “What do we do with those people now?

“It takes time to train people. How can we put out great food with great service, or how can people expect that on such short-noticed decisions?”

Jerry Rotunno owns The Committed Pig, a restaurant specializing in burgers and pork roll sandwiches with three New Jersey locations. None of them have much outdoor dining space, so he was relying heavily on the return to indoor dining.

He finds Murphy’s handling of the situation frustrating.

“A lot of us own very popular restaurants. I think the perception is that we make so much money we are not to be worried about, just the landlords and hourly workers,” Rotunno said. “But the truth is that we make big investments to make these dreams come true, and we do it because we are passionate about it. Restaurants are not companies with huge margins.

“Everyday this goes on, when we run our nightly reports, we go to sleep thinking, ‘Is it worth staying open or closing up shop?‘ ... It’s just sad. Murphy will understand when he walks down Main Street New Jersey in 2021 and there are no places to eat.”

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