Restaurants Brace for Long, Cold Winter

Cheu Fishtown is not seating guests inside. Photo by GraceD Photography

Winter is coming, and while the past seven months of shutdowns and quarantines have been no picnic for small business owners and their patrons, colder weather could make things even more difficult.

The warning signs are already flashing. According to the National Restaurant Association, nearly 100,000 restaurants have closed either permanently or long-term as a result of the pandemic.

“Businesses that have made it this far could start closing in droves,” business reporter Erica Pandey wrote for Axios.

Still, using outdoor dining aids like heat lamps and boosting takeout sales can help. Local Jewish restaurant owners are aware of the upcoming pressures and are preparing to pivot yet again.

Chef Ari Miller has run his South Philly restaurant as the takeout sandwich spot Frizwit by day and locally sourced dining experience Musi by night. Before the pandemic hit, he ran Frizwit as a pop-up on the first Monday of every month. Now, the shop’s menu is available at his restaurant on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Frizwit will return as an offsite pop-up once a month.

Musi is offering the “Jew-ish Dinner,” a multi-course meal inspired by the Jewish holidays that is available until the end of November in both takeout and dine-in iterations. Menu items include chopped liver croquettes, Jerusalem artichokes and pretzel ball soup.

The restaurant only started offering outdoor seating in September.

“We just felt completely unsafe in trying anything before we felt comfortable that, you know, we could handle it and do it safely and with intention,” Miller said.

There is also a chef’s counter menu option, Ari’s Two Top, which allows two people to dine inside with the whole restaurant to themselves. This can only happen once an evening.
Miller plans to extend outdoor dining options into the fall by providing diners with laundered blankets and outdoor heaters. Even so, he doesn’t expect to offer it past November, when the business will return to offering primarily takeout. He said he may continue to offer Ari’s Two Top as an indoor option depending on safety.

“We’re working to be as safe as possible. We’re not looking to be aggressive or trying to pack people in or doing anything more than just serving food with as minimal interaction possible,” he said.

Musi chefs and co-owners Nicole Suanlarm and Ari Miller prep food in their kitchen. Photo by Mike Prince

A lack of outdoor seating won’t change much for Espresso Cafe & Sushi Bar, owner Sharon Abergel’s kosher eatery in Rhawnhurst. Although outdoor seating has been allowed for several months and indoor seating at limited capacity has been allowed since September, many of Espresso Cafe & Sushi Bar’s customers still seem to prefer to order in.
Before the pandemic, the business relied on catering Jewish events, but new restrictions led them to turn to takeout.

“Catering is not really there like it was before. There’s a little bit here or there with brises or small parties that are starting to open up, but not a lot,” waiter Yoram Beniflah said. He estimated that 90% of sales were takeout orders, which means business could remain stable into the winter months.

He also said the restaurant has been relying more on social media, particularly Facebook groups, to post advertisements for takeout and delivery options.
Ben Puchowitz, chef and co-owner of Asian fusion restaurants Cheu Noodle Bar, Cheu Fishtown, Nunu and Bing Bing Dim Sum, said his restaurants streamlined their menus to cut down on prep time and lower labor costs in the spring. Over the summer, they slowly added items back, and now they are taking them away again in anticipation of decreased business.

He said his restaurants will continue to seat patrons outside as long as possible with the help of the outdoor heaters he bought.

“The saving grace of all this happening is we wouldn’t have been able to survive without doing outdoor seating,” he said.

Cheu Noodle Bar and Cheu Fishtown’s main menu items are soups, including brisket and matzah ball ramen. As a result, these restaurants see a dip in business every summer, when a hot bowl of noodles and broth may not appeal as much as a refreshing salad. This could be a potential advantage during fall and winter, however, as diners who still want a restaurant experience might prefer heartier dishes.

Bing Bing Dim Sum, which serves dumplings, small plates and other Chinese dishes with a Jewish twist, typically performs well in the summer and continued to do so this year as a result of ample outdoor seating.

“Bing Bing does even better in the summer because we add on 42 outdoor seats in addition to the 55 we normally have. So you’re almost doubling your potential revenue,” Puchowitz said.

However, he foresees a huge dip in business once outdoor seating declines. Even if indoor dining is allowed and customers decide to go for it, seating at 50% capacity is a significant loss.

Still, takeout may help keep the falafel steamed buns and matzah meal turnip cakes coming.

“We’re going to have to either get lucky and sell a lot of takeout food, and luckily that place does sell a lot of takeout, or shrink our labor model, shrink costs, shrink everything,” he said.

Puchowitz thinks many restaurants are going to close by the end of February. His business has already suffered one casualty: Cheu Noodle Bar’s last day of service was Oct. 11. The business model of serving a large number of customers in a short period of time was not pandemic-friendly, and the owners decided it was time to close.

The other three restaurants are still performing well.

“One out of four ain’t bad,” Puchowitz said.


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