The pandemic changed nearly everything about ordinary life. New Jersey restaurants especially had to adapt in ways that, up until recently, were unimaginable. How can you serve people safely when social distancing and masks are required? What happens when restaurants and bars can’t entertain patrons?
The industry can be economically challenging for restaurateurs. A global pandemic with people banned from dining out created the perfect storm. To stay alive, New Jersey restaurant owners and chefs had to think of innovative solutions and fast. And that’s if they were lucky enough to have certain latitudes such as adequate outdoor space. The sad truth is that, ultimately, some restaurants didn’t survive in 2020.
In the midst of chaos, there are some New Jersey restaurants that have found their footing and even thrived. Owners and chefs have used the challenges presented by the pandemic as a jumping-off point for new business models.
How 2020 Changed Restaurants in New Jersey
Restaurateurs turned to everything from selling their inventory to collaborating with other neighborhood businesses. Jersey City staple Frankie sold their wine inventory, as did Morristown’s Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen. Cellar 335 of Jersey City even helped pass a petition to legalize to-go cocktails in the early months of the pandemic (if only for a short time). Elsewhere, well-known chefs like Robbie Felice (Viaggio in Wayne, Osteria Crescendo in Westwood) transitioned part of their classic sitdown menus to include a refined take on to-go sandwiches. Everywhere you looked, restaurants were finding creative ways to problem solve and ultimately, stay alive.
The savviness and flexibility normally required to run a restaurant had to be multiplied in order to succeed during the pandemic. Needless to say, New Jersey restaurants faced the pressure and were put to the test.
Implementing New Safety Precautions in Restaurants
For many restaurants, the first order of business when it came to reopening was safety. The upscale restaurant Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen closed quickly at the onset of the pandemic to ensure the safety of their employees and guests. The Morristown restaurant—featuring four unique dining spaces in one—has long relied on its ability to host large crowds inside. With vast patio space and recent regulations allowing 25 percent occupancy indoors, they doubled down on safety precautions.
Chris Cannon, a managing partner at Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen, described the incredible safety measures they have taken since reopening: “Menus are now on patron’s smartphones and we have radically expanded our internet marketing capabilities to great success. As we prepare for the fall and winter, we have enclosed our patio and added significant heating that can ensure its continued use until Thanksgiving. Inside the restaurant, we placed portable HEPA filtration within 10 feet of all diners and have added plexiglass dividers to further provide safety.”
More Time Outside
Outdoor dining space isn’t always easy to come by, but it became necessary. Rooftops gained traction, but restaurants with limited capacity had to think quickly in order to gain the outdoor space that is now crucial. Montclair favorite, Samba, struggled when they had to close their doors. Owner of the Brazilian homestyle restaurant, Ilson Gonçalves, knew he’d have to take a risk in order to ensure that his eatery would be able to reopen. In addition to donating meals to those in need, he decided to expand.
“We’re a very small restaurant. So when the clothing store space next door opened up, I knew there were no other options. I reached out to the landlord, grabbed the space and will be doubling in size,” he said. “The main reason I did it was more for the added exterior seating. But I thought, let me take the risk so I don’t regret it later.”
Gonçalves had to sell his home in the country to be able to take on the extra room. But his decision allowed his business to reopen stronger than before. Gonçalves’ advice to others? “Take a risk, if you can… If you lose one dream, it’s an opportunity to chase another. Dream big!” Right now, Samba’s beautiful outdoor area is open for dining. With winter weather quickly approaching, Gonçalves is looking to complete his secondary space.
Communities came together throughout New Jersey. The beloved south+pine was able to get a bit of help from its fellow Morristown businesses. south+pine has a versatile menu featuring gluten-free and vegetarian options. Owner and Chef Leia Gaccione once served as the Executive Chef and Chef de Cuisine for Bobby Flay. She was able to expand her outdoor dining space by utilizing the next-door theater’s property for extra seating. Throughout the pandemic, Gaccione and south+pine remained true to their mission to “treat guests as if they are home for dinner.” Like Gonçalves, Gaccione worked to support the community in any way she could.
After completely closing for a few days in March, south+pine launched a grocery program that became 60 percent of its sales. They also created family-style to-go meals and added healthy grain bowls to their menu. Once they reopened for outdoor dining in June, they ditched the grocery program but held onto their creativity.
“We also tried… [to] come up with fun things to entice people to come out and dine with us in a safe environment,” chef-owner Leia Gaccione shared. “So we partnered with South Street Yoga, and we were offering yoga and brunch bowls to go on Saturday mornings. We started doing this music Monday thing with a local trio—a singer, a saxophone player and a guitar player, which we’re still doing. And just, you know, networking with different businesses and trying to keep us all in the game because everybody’s struggling just as we are.”
A New Future for New Jersey Restaurants
The pandemic wasn’t easy on our New Jersey restaurants and forever changed how they operate. Business owners like Gaccione wanted to make sure they were able to remain open and assist people in any way they could. Regarding managing the restaurant during the ongoing crisis, Gaccione said “it’s just about working with people in the community, providing things for people in the community.”
As the weather changes, there may be a future for indoor dining in NJ. At its core, that’s what the restaurant industry is all about—good food and good people.
About the Author/s
Grace is a student at Boston University, a yoga instructor, and a beach lover. She is an editorial assistant at The Digest.