What It's Like to Open a Restaurant in NYC During a Pandemic

Despite a citywide shutdown, a handful of local chefs have tried to forge ahead with opening plans

What It's Like to Open a Restaurant in NYC During a Pandemic
Niko's Souvliaki
By Carina Koeppicus / April 29, 2020 10:15 am

Despite a citywide shutdown, a handful of local chefs have tried to forge ahead with opening plans

If nothing else, New York City restaurants are adaptable. Since the city became the epicenter of the global COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen the city’s eateries shift their operations to comply with social-distancing mandates, feed essential workers and generally do whatever it takes to survive an unprecedented run of bad luck and uncertainty.

It’s hard enough to orchestrate a successful restaurant opening under normal circumstances; under COVID-19 restrictions, including a ban on in-house dining and stop-work orders on all nonessential construction, it’s a herculean feat to say the least. 

For Roni Mazumdar, the Founder/CEO behind Long Island City modern Indian concept Adda, the pandemic has offered an unexpected opportunity to put the focus back on the community. His team had planned to open Dhamaka in Essex Market at the end of April, but the official opening date is now postponed indefinitely. 

“About 90 percent of our team has been furloughed. That was probably the most heartbreaking aspect,” Mazumdar tells InsideHook. 

When requests started pouring in from Adda’s customer base to sponsor meals for front-line workers, Mazumbdar decided to team up with World Central Kitchen’s Off Their Plate program, retaining employees while contributing to an important cause. In addition to feeding essential workers, they’re also continuing to serve takeout and delivery out of Adda’s kitchen. 

Although Mazumdar has an experienced team that’s accustomed to the daily struggles of running a restaurant, they still face a unique set of challenges. “People don’t realize just to run takeout and delivery, how difficult it is for a restaurant right now. There is no goat available on the market,” Mazumdar says. “We have trouble getting basmati rice.” 

Restaurants across the country are struggling with similar issues, from missing links in the supply-chain to team-safety initiatives to managing PR. But there may be no challenge greater than opening a new spot from scratch amid a citywide lockdown.

Eater recently reported on the case of Sofia’s, Adam Leonti’s newest outpost in Little Italy. His team modified original plans to open as a dine-in restaurant in the style of Leonti’s now-shuttered Upper West Side eatery to focus on a menu tailored for takeout and delivery. Bolstered by Leonti’s reputation, they launched with a few thousand Instagram followers, and are now serving sourdough pizzas with the help of a skeleton team.

Newcomers like Nikolaus Lamprou of Niko’s Souvlaki in Astoria are charting a different path forward. Lamprou opened his first restaurant on April 6, just two weeks after stay-at-home orders went into effect across the state. 

“We never thought we’d open without actually being able to have customers dine in,” said Lamprou. Unlike fine dining establishments that have pivoted to more takeout-friendly menu items, the fare at Niko’s Souvlaki was ready to travel from day one. His most popular items have been classics like gyros, souvlaki and skepasti — two pitas stuffed with meat and french fries. 

“The response has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive. People are ordering a lot, and we already have some regulars. As I live in Astoria, it feels great to be embraced by the community I love. We were able to donate to workers at Mt. Sinai, and it felt great to give back to them during this challenging time,” Lamprou said.

Even with a reputation to precede them, other restaurants with planned spring openings have had to hit pause. Tokyo’s world-renowned soba shop Sarashina Horii was set to open its first U.S. outpost on April 30. Now, NYC team lead Kiyoshi Kawaguchi is hoping for a date in mid-July, depending on state and local mandates. 

“For post-coronavirus society, it may not get back to life as we knew it before. When we do open, we will likely be operating at lower capacity and may need to rely on things like takeout and delivery which we had not originally expected. Whatever the future brings, we will have to adapt,” Kawaguchi said. 

It seems all but certain that dining out will look very different in the months to come, even after social distancing measures begin to relax. However, those who have managed to stay on track for new openings are optimistic about the future of the restaurant industry. 

“I think we will look back on this experience, and it will inspire even ourselves. I think these are the moments that are building a very special bond between communities and restaurants like never before,” Mazumdar says. 

The team from Niko’s Souvlaki echoed a similarly hopeful message.

“We’re feeling so supported, which only gives us positive feelings about the future of our business and interaction with the community,” says Lamprou. “We can’t wait to grow the relationship through the dining experience — once it’s safe to do so.