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Aftermath of a Pandemic: Empty Seats, Anxious Restaurant Owners

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Cosimo’s has joined the ranks of its sister restaurants, Hudson Taco and Pizza Shop, in offering take-out and delivery, a service that wasn’t offered until the quarantine measures were implemented by Governor Cuomo.
Photo courtesy of Cosimo’s

In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, thousands of New Yorkers fled the city in favor of more rural areas; Dora Philip moved from her apartment in downtown Manhattan to Battery Park City.

She and her husband wanted to help rebuild the community in that neighborhood. “We would walk past the police barricades, and the fires were still burning,” Philip says. “I remember all of the abandoned restaurants, and we would go patronize them. We would be the only ones in there.”

Philip has worked in children’s publishing, in financial marketing and communications, and, as of eight years ago, as the owner of The Hollow Bar + Kitchen in Albany. A concert venue, restaurant, and catering business, The Hollow was set to have a banner month in March 2020: Albany’s St. Patrick’s Day parade always brings a packed house (many revelers skip the parade altogether and spend the day in the bar), but this year they also had the NCAA March Madness tournament in town on March 19 and 21 — not to mention several large catering events.

Customers wait in line for The Hollow’s fire sale of craft beer in March. Photo by Gabrielle Hurley

In a matter of days, everything had been canceled. With their restaurant empty and downtown Albany all but deserted, Philip couldn’t help but notice an eerie resemblance to the aftermath of 9/11.

“I feel like I’ve been through this before,” she says, noting that the circumstances of the catastrophe are different, but the swiftness and severity of the situation was unmistakable.

“No one could ever imagine that a week ago we were fully operational and busy,” says Nick Citera, owner of Cosimo’s Restaurant Group, which includes Hudson Taco and the Pizza Shop. “I think the restaurant industry is going to be extremely hurt by this.” He references a statement from the National Restaurant Association that estimates the industry will lose 225 billion dollars and 5-7 million jobs over a three-month period. Put more blatantly, industry analysts and operators estimate that 75 percent of independently owned restaurants that have been forced to close will not survive in the long term.

Amid the regulations being handed down from the New York State Governor’s Office, all four of the Cosimo’s restaurant locations began offering curbside pickup and delivery, a service that they had never been able to handle due to its volume of dine-in customers. Citera has his staff sanitizing surfaces every 15-20 minutes, and thanks to the State Liquor Authority’s waiver of on-site consumption laws, the restaurants were able to sell cocktails for pick-up and delivery.

In spite of tough times, the restaurant group has given first-time customers a 10 percent discount if they ordered through their app, and worked with the Food Bank of the Hudson Valley and other charitable organizations to donate hot meals to soup kitchens and healthcare professionals at St. Luke’s Cornwall Hospital. “We’ve been part of the Hudson Valley for over 30 years; we want to be able to continue to be a part and help where we can,” Citera says.

The Hollow’s owners Dora and Michael Philip. Photo courtesy of Dora Philip

“For us, we’re trying to think outside the box, but our number one goal is to try to keep our part of the economy going,” he adds.

Their part of the economy includes local farmers and vendors, but Citera’s company also makes up a sizeable portion of the local economy itself. In the slower part of the year, the restauarant group employs almost 300 people; in the summer months, even more. While Citera has been able to retain some of his employees, much of his waitstaff has had to file for unemployment.

Philip decided to close The Hollow even before the State mandate was ordered. “Our business is dependent on having throngs of people in downtown Albany,” she explains. “To shop for ingredients, to employ staff, to do the prep, and then maybe only get one or two orders, it just doesn’t make sense for us to do it at this time.”

She adds that offering takeout does not help to flatten the curve of infections, either. For a while, she kept her staff employed by making food donations to Southern Children’s Café and hosting a fire sale of their hard-to-find craft beers on tap, but eventually she had to lay off 30 employees, many of whom work full-time.

Gabrielle Hurley, 25, is Philip’s most recent front-of-house hire in her fourth year at The Hollow. A couple days after she was laid off, her phone began buzzing like crazy as Philip texted resources to her employees and gave instructions on how to file for unemployment. While her future at The Hollow and her financial security have been thrown into jeopardy, Hurley says the most difficult part has been severing ties with people that she sees six — sometimes seven — days a week. “It becomes a second home. And you’re not allowed to be there,” she says.

Photo courtesy of Hudson Taco

The Hollow helped Hurley realize that she could make a career in the hospitality industry. But for better or for worse, the pandemic has restaurant employees asking themselves a critical question: “‘Do you want to do this forever? Do you want to get back into this?’”

For Hurley, the answer is yes. For Philip, it’s not as clear.

“I am not going to watch our business bank account and/or savings bank account dwindle down to absolutely nothing,” she says. For the time being, she and Michael will wait to see how the virus spreads and how long the restrictions are in place. But even after they are lifted, Philip worries the specter of social distancing will continue to plague The Hollow with reduced ticket sales and sparse bar crowds.

An unthinkable decision a month ago, liquidation now looms over Philip. She acknowledges that it makes sense to start the process sooner rather than later, but she can’t quit on her business just yet. For one thing, it would mean the end of her time in the Hudson Valley.

“I am unwilling to live here without The Hollow. That would depress me,” she says. “I would go anywhere but here. [The Hollow] is who I am. It’s something that I’ve built from nothing.”

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