Day by Day is a Double-Edged Sword
An unprecedented crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic amplifies the inconsistent nature of the restaurant industry.
Veteran restaurateur of Bâtard, Nobu and Tribeca Grill fame, Drew Nieporent weighs in on the coronavirus crisis’ threat to culinary and hospitality businesses and professionals.
There’s a common theme in the restaurant and hospitality industries, consistently echoed by students, externs and alumni among the reasons for choosing and enjoying their individual career paths: Every day is different. That’s the nature of the service industry, which can be rewarding and fulfilling, but as we’ve seen this week, uncertain and risky.
Few industry leaders know this better than legendary New York City restaurateur Drew Nieporent, who’s opened more than 40 restaurants. After 30 years of success with Tribeca Grill, 25 years with Nobu and more than 20 with Montrachet, which is now Bâtard, Drew has inevitably overcome crises and closures.
In 2001, Manhattan’s downtown businesses below 14th Street closed for two weeks, first reopening to pedestrians and eventually to vehicular traffic. Drew recalls his restaurants recovered because residents responded. “The greatest thing, post-9/11, was the sense of community and the surge to businesses in lower Manhattan. It was a full house as soon as we reopened,” he told The Hollywood Reporter.
After Hurricane Sandy shut down the same area, Food Republic reported that Drew lost an estimated $600,000 from closing Nobu and Tribeca Grill. Eight years later, he hardly remembers an impact.
“This is something else,” he says of COVID-19. “I don’t think there’s anything I can profess to have experienced that compares with this.”
In a week of reactions, cancellations and quarantines across the country, Drew’s response has been to cut dishes from menus and workers from schedules, while assessing advice and direction from doctors and officials. “Every day brings a new nuance to the situation,” he says. “This is a day by day, week by week situation.”
Hours before our conversation, the James Beard Foundation announced delaying its annual awards after the NBA, NHL and NCAA suspended seasons, Broadway shows were canceled, and close to home for Drew, the Tribeca Film Festival was postponed.
“Right now, it’s not business as usual, but we’re staying open because we’ve had no instances [of anyone testing positive for the virus],” Drew says. “Common sense says if we stay open we have to be scrupulous about keeping everything clean and we have to monitor the situation on a daily basis, but if people don’t have confidence in that, we’ll make the hard decision to close. When you close, you know that the economics for all the individuals is going to be very catastrophic. Does one outweigh the other?”
Drew recognizes that a restaurant like Union Square Cafe, which closed temporarily for cleaning when an employee felt ill, can withstand that decision after 35 years of business, and says workers are entitled to stay at home for their own health and safety.
“It’s a tough decision but the ultimate decision is tomorrow, everything shuts down,” he predicts. “And then you have no choice, but now you have a choice. The information we have today is telling us if you take certain precautions you’re not going to get it.”
Moments earlier, Jersey City mandated a 10 p.m. curfew for bars and New York City mandated that restaurant capacities be cut in half, which Drew had to assess affecting Nobu’s 400 to 500 covers a night.
“We’re not capable of sustaining a long financial impact like this,” he says of the industry. “The minute restaurants pull the trigger and start to close, the people who are going to be impacted the most are the employees.”
Restaurants have already been cutting staff hours or closing across New York City as businesses scramble to strategize, stay afloat and respond responsibly to rapid reservation and event cancellations.
“There are going to be lessons to be learned, but in the short run, if you work in a restaurant, you’re out of luck. It’s going to be that way for a little bit. I’m an employer, it doesn’t matter what I do, I’m going to lose money. It’s just a question of how much.”
While he admits he’s at a loss and believes no one could have predicted these circumstances, Drew is confident about one thing: “I think the public at large is going to support restaurants for sure. It’s part of our culture.”
Students at our New York City campus can text COVID to 692-692 for updates on the latest developments from the City of New York. Students at our Los Angeles campus can text READY to 888-777 for emergency alerts. ICE is adhering to guidance from the CDC, New York State Health Department, New York State Education Department, California Department of Public Health and California Department of Education. Our Emergency Preparedness Team will continue to update our community.
Follow in Drew's foosteps with a diploma in Restaurant & Culinary Management.