Steven Cabrera’s dream of opening a restaurant got the official green light from the city in March, a week before all eateries were shut down, save for take-out and delivery, due to the coronavirus crisis.
“I don’t think anybody decides to open up a restaurant during a pandemic,” said Cabrera, 30, owner of Km1 (Kilometro Uno) in the East Village. “It was either lose my initial investment or keep working it, so I decided to keep working it.”
All told, more than 500 new restaurants have applied for permits to open since March, according to the city Health Department.
Those eateries and thousands of others got a glimmer of good news when Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Wednesday that New York City restaurants will be allowed to open 25% of their indoor capacity starting Sept. 30 as colder weather deters outdoor dining.
The move was hailed by the NYC Hospitality Alliance, a restaurant umbrella group, which has been lobbying government officials to ease restrictions in the city, citing indoor dining’s availability everywhere else in New York State.
The news was also welcomed by John Truong, who opened Chef Papa Vietnamese Kitchen in Flushing after signing a 10-year lease two months ago.
“I’m very happy to hear that, but I think it’s not going to be easy. It’s a lot of rules going on,” Truong said.
“We took a risk and opened,” he added. “We need to survive. I cannot stay home all the time, so we opened anyway. You cannot hide in your home.”
Business has been “doing okay” despite the lack of indoor dining, he added.
New Restaurants Across the City
Chef Papa Vietnamese Kitchen is one 119 restaurants in Queens that sought permission between March and July 22 to open, according to the most recently available city Health Department records.
Manhattan has led the way with 171 new restaurant permits filed, followed by Brooklyn with 146. The Bronx logged 52, while Staten Island came in last with 11, records show.
Overall, the greatest concentrations of permit applications show up in ZIP codes encompassing Flushing, the Lower East Side and Chelsea.
For Kermit Mackey, 37, co-owner of Bun Hut in the Lower East Side, opening a restaurant was years in the making. He got the idea during a 2016 trip to China.
“That concept came from the bao bun, and being born Bahamian, the Caribbean is definitely in there,” he said. “You have all the flavors of the island. It’s Caribbean with a touch of Asian.”
Business has “definitely been a struggle,” but he believes Bun Hut will take off with time.
For an estimated hundreds of other restaurants, many longtime neighborhood staples, the pandemic restrictions and strictly outdoor dining was too much to overcome.
“With the lack of a plan from the city in terms of indoor dining and the lack of rent reduction, we simply cannot keep up with the cost of running the diner,” Good Stuff Diner on West 14th Street in Manhattan posted on its door at some point before Cuomo’s announcement.
‘Where Memories are Made’
A little over a mile away at Km1, Cabrera said he hopes to hold on to his “brand spanking new” restaurant, which serves Carribean and Dominican dishes.
He recently spent his 30th birthday building the restaurant’s outdoor seating area, which includes plexiglass dividers between tables.
“During the pandemic, I started thinking about why am I actually doing all of this, and essentially I came to the conclusion that it’s just part of being human, the ability to break bread and [drink] wine with friends,” Cabrera said. “I think it’s the reason so many people do it, why restaurants are so beloved in communities — because it’s where memories are made.”
Business has been “extremely slow,” but he believes that will change with some marketing and more word of mouth.
“Ever since this whole thing started, I’ve been getting all the emotions. I’ll be extremely happy and jubilant like, ‘Yes, this is awesome,’” he said. “Then the next day, I’ll be looking down at the numbers like, ‘Okay, this is going to be very, very hard.’ You just go through all the emotions, but I just feel like it’s all part of the journey.
“That’s what life is.”