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Israeli restaurateurs in New York confident they will survive a bleak winter

93% of Israeli restaurant owners in city say their establishments will outlast pandemic, after indoor dining banned again and officials weigh new shutdown

Luke Tress is a video journalist and tech reporter for the Times of Israel

The entrance to Shoo Shoo Nolita, an Israeli-owned restaurant in New York City, December 13, 2020. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
The entrance to Shoo Shoo Nolita, an Israeli-owned restaurant in New York City, December 13, 2020. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Israeli restaurant owners in New York are confident they will survive the winter ahead, as the city barred indoor dining and braced for further restrictions aimed at curbing a resurgent coronavirus.

A survey released last week found that 93 percent of Israeli restaurateurs in the city expected their establishments to outlast the pandemic.

“There’s always an opportunity if you are in good spirits. It’s an attitude and I think Israelis do really well because we grew up adapting,” said Albert Bitton, co-owner of Shoo Shoo Nolita in Manhattan.

The survey by the New York-Israel Business Alliance identified 173 restaurants owned by Israelis in the state, with 85%-90% of those in New York City. Thirty owners responded to the survey between October and early December, while new restrictions loomed but had not yet come into effect.

The summer offered New Yorkers some breathing room as infection rates dropped after the devastating spring outbreak and locals flocked to parks and outdoor eateries. In recent weeks, cold weather has driven people indoors and infection rates are again climbing.

A woman gets a self coronavirus test at a free walk-up COVID-19 testing site inside Penn Station in New York City, December 5, 2020. (Kena Betancur/AFP)

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said Friday that restaurants must close indoor dining as the state’s test positivity rate hovered around five percent, in a significant blow to the industry. Cuomo ordered hospitals to expand capacity last week and asked retired doctors and nurses to return to service. Over 1,700 people in New York City are hospitalized with the virus, triple the number a month ago.

“All the experts predicted cases would go up in the fall and winter, and that’s exactly what’s happening around the country,” Cuomo said on Sunday. “The problem is the cold weather is driving people indoors, which in turn is driving more spread.”

Only 1.4% of cases in New York can be traced to restaurants and bars, however. Most cases — 70% — were traced to households and small gatherings, which Cuomo dubbed “living room spread.” The disparity could be partially due to difficulties contact tracing in public areas, a spike in family cases following Thanksgiving and the fact that restaurants’ indoor capacity was already capped at 25%.

A memorial to New Yorkers killed by COVID-19 in New York City, November 3, 2020. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday that indoor dining would be closed “for the foreseeable future.” Indoor dining was only allowed again on September 30, around 10 weeks ago.

“The folks who work in our restaurant industry, they’ve been through hell,” de Blasio said. “We’ve got to bring the industry back, we have to bring the restaurants we love, but it’s going to take time and in the meantime, we’ve got to stay safe because this second wave is very, very real.”

When pressed about the low traceable infection rates in restaurants, de Blasio said the city needed to limit gatherings wherever it could and that it was not possible to monitor small gatherings in private homes.

“We have to deal with the places where people gather. And unfortunately, with restaurants, they’re gathering indoors and they’re gathering without face coverings on because you’re eating and drinking,” de Blasio said. “We’re obviously not going to people’s homes to check how many people are around the table.”

There are some 240,000 restaurants in the city.

People dine outdoors in the Soho neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City, December 13, 2020. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Cuomo and de Blasio both vowed to help small businesses weather the storm.

Of the Israeli restaurateurs, 93% received federal Paycheck Protection Program loans and 62% said the government was helpful, although at least 70% still had to cut staff. Half said the government had clearly communicated COVID-19 safety standards and regulations.

Precise figures on revenues and staffing were not available, according to the New York-Israel Business alliance, a business development organization that works to foster economic ties and business opportunities between the two areas.

Seventy-seven percent of survey respondents said their restaurants cannot succeed without indoor dining. Neither Cuomo nor de Blasio said how long the ban on serving food inside will last.

Bitton’s Shoo Shoo Nolita, which serves Mediterranean cuisine and is modeled on Tel Aviv cafe culture, took measures to cope with the virus throughout the summer and fall after restaurants were closed during the first outbreak on March 15. Its co-owner, Robby Ozer, is also Israeli.

Shoo Shoo Nolita’s owners, Robby Ozer, left, and Albert Bitton, right, at the restaurant’s entrance, New York City, December 13, 2020. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The restaurant, on a bustling downtown street corner, sank $60,000 into sidewalk enclosures and can now seat dozens outside, including at two “Shabbat tables” for special occasions that can seat ten people each, the maximum amount allowed. It launched a GoFundMe drive to prepare meals for health care workers in the spring, raising over $50,000.

Shoo Shoo Nolita has also shifted toward a more local clientele as tourism dried up and neighborhood residents kept closer to home. In the survey, 67% of respondents said the local community had been helpful during the pandemic.

“People want to support the restaurants we love but we don’t go to new places anymore,” Bitton said, estimating that 85% of his diners now come from the neighborhood.

“Safety is the name of the game. If you want to do repeat business, you have to put safety as the first thing. If your customer comes in, he needs to see it,” Bitton said. He added that he thought customers would be annoyed at safety measures including temperature checks and digital menus, but that they overwhelmingly appreciated the precautions.

“I think a lot of people changed in New York. A lot of people are more patient, more kindness,” he said.

Outdoor seating at Shoo Shoo Nolita in New York City, December 13, 2020. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Success can come down to luck, however, with some restaurants having meager access to sidewalks for outdoor seating.

Other hardships restaurateurs reported in the survey were procuring kosher meat, a lack of foot traffic and difficulties pivoting to more online ordering and takeout.

Several respondents said they limited their menus and hours of operation to cope with the drop in revenue, and two said they had completely closed branches of their restaurants, while keeping others open. Several also said finding staff was difficult during the pandemic.

Half said a new government stimulus would help their business more than any other factor, including a return of tourism, office workers or more delivery orders.

Eighty-seven percent said their restaurants’ future remained in New York.

The entrance to Shoo Shoo Nolita in New York City, December 13, 2020. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Bitton said his restaurant will last the winter and will come out stronger on the other side of the pandemic. His staff has become sharper and more cohesive; he will likely retain new, local customers; and more outdoor dining is probably a permanent change, he said.

“Now you can see the personality and brand of the restaurant on the street and you have that exposure. You wear your heart on your sleeve because you’re on the street,” he said.

He said the pandemic experience in New York was similar to hard times in Israel, although less acute.

“When there’s a war starting or there is a lot of pressure on us, we all come together. We forget Ashkenazi, not Ashkenazi, we forget right and left. That is the feeling here,” he said, adding that dining out helps people feel better in trying times. “You can sit in an outdoor space, with a heater, safe, eating food, feel normal again a little bit. That is very important.”

A health care worker in the New York City borough of Queens received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Monday, becoming the first in the country to be inoculated against the virus. Over 300,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, including over 27,000 New Yorkers.

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