The lights were on. And in their glimmer, some hope.
When the East End shut down in March, nobody knew what to do, where to go. In a matter of days, the term “new normal” was being used, while we all looked for something that resembled the old normal. A burger, a pizza, a cup of coffee, a margarita…that’s where we found it.
“The government put us into a category of something called ‘essential,’” says Ian Duke, owner of Union Burger Bar and Southampton Social Club, with a bit of wonder in his voice. “And I have to tell you, if you had asked somebody last year, would you describe our industry, in a pandemic, as essential, I think most people would have said no. I think most people would think, ‘Well, why is it essential? You can go to the supermarket, you can stock up your fridge and you can make food at home.’ I probably wouldn’t have thought it myself.”
Yet essential they have been. Even though you couldn’t go inside and grab a table or a seat at the bar, the fact that restaurants were allowed to open in any fashion at all showed us there was a way to start moving ahead. Social distancing was a new concept, yet the transition to takeout and delivery and the introduction of ideas like contact-free curbside pickup that came from the restaurant world helped us all adapt such practices to other parts of our lives. Such a transition, and so quickly, may not have come had it not been restaurants that were taking the lead.
Duke is quick to point out that “society has done such an unbelievably good job of supporting, right out of the gate, all of the very important people, who we agree are really essential, and that’s all of the hospital workers, all of the people on the frontlines….What they’ve done really is not measurable.” Yet he and fellow members of the East End hospitality industry have also seen first-hand how society has gotten behind them as well, and with great appreciation.
“Restaurants create an emotional bond with the public,” says Stephen Loffredo, partner at Seasoned Hospitality, owners of the Claudio’s restaurants in Greenport. “We all have fond memories of events in our lives that were celebrated at a restaurant. This might include a birthday, anniversary or, during this time of year, a graduation. I think this is why the public has illustrated such a sense of support and sentiment.”
“In the word hospitality is the word hospital,” adds Erik Warner of Eagle Point Hotel Partners, which owns Greenport’s The Halyard at Sound View restaurant. “As restaurant operators it is in our nature to ‘take care of’ our fellow wo/man by nourishing them. That purpose does not go away when our restaurants close, and that is why you see so many of our brothers and sisters taking care of those in need…. The public realizes that the people who have taken care of them for so long, have been hit the hardest, and there is a real sense of giving back in the community, so they want to help those that have in the past brought their families and communities together.”
“When we took over Claudio’s in 2018, we knew we were taking on the responsibility of honoring a local legacy. This is more important than ever in today’s environment—people need to know that though life is different, the monuments of stability still stand,” says Seasoned Hospitality partner Tora Matsuoka. “We feel this wholeheartedly, which is why we [recently] opened Crabby Jerry’s Waterfront and Claudio’s Pizza. As one of the only local waterfront venues open, we feel a responsibility to be here—to offer a sense of normalcy, though it’s not the format people are used to, especially at our venue. Moreover, we employ a wonderful set of local talent, and our ownership felt incredibly driven to support and provide job security.”
Keeping as many locals employed as possible has been a key focus of the East End culinary community during these times, particularly as the loss of jobs in the restaurant industry here and across the nation helped crystalize exactly what was happening in the economy. And as individuals and families were hit across all sectors, the public responded with such support and sentiment for restaurant workers in particular that it helped create an air of empathy for myriad, unrelated industries.
Along the way, patrons found a renewed appreciation for the fact that our restaurants have always been incredible supporters of local charities and community events, and that dedication has earned a new spotlight of late. It was always there, just perhaps less noticed. Now, it seems, customers have not only noticed, for example, the donations of meals to healthcare workers and food to pantries, but are connecting themselves to that chain.
“For us, the local community has been unbelievably supportive of local restaurants,” Duke says. “You wouldn’t believe the number of people who call us and are killing two birds with one stone—buying food for the hospital! Dozens of people calling and ordering lunches for 50, 75, 100 people because they want to support these people and have a real positive energy. And at the same time, they support our business, tipping 30% or 40% to the staff. I can only give praise and gratitude to everyone in the local community for all they have done, for us and, more importantly, for those on the frontlines.”
“Restaurants are now part of our culture,” Warner says. “They are places where the bonds of a community are created and maintained. No one says, ‘I just had a great plane ride’ and bonded with a group of folks during a flight. Bonding happens over sharing a meal, breaking bread, with strangers or those familiar to us. When you cut off this piece of our culture, my fear is that integral bonds of our communities will start to loosen.”
For all the hurdles already faced, new challenges are coming as summer arrives, challenges that will place new stresses upon those delicate bonds. Operating standards must be adapted for rules that are not yet even in place, rules that could change daily. “We are rewriting the playbook of how to operate a kitchen, front of house, bar, etcetera,” Warner continues. “The new standards for the new normal have never been put into practice, and therefore it has been challenging because we want to have an experience that makes our guests feel safe while being taken care of like they did when they dined with us in the past.”
And there you have it, a seemingly impossible equation. People want so badly to return to the norms of yesterday, but with the new rules of today and the unknown of tomorrow. Add into consideration government regulations and the wants of a diverse, demanding clientele and the speed with which everyone needs to move, even as they are told to move slowly in some cases…well, it won’t be easy.
Dede Gotthelf, owner of the Southampton Inn and its onsite eatery Claude’s Restaurant, notes that dining establishments need to be ready to do more now as the summer season arrives—Claude’s has been offering take-away breakfast since March, for example, but is adding their Great American Picnic menus with the arrival of Memorial Day weekend. Additionally comes the challenge of educating consumers about other changes. “All food is ‘to-go,’” she says, “but since the inn is situated on five acres with a café, ballroom, courtyard, pool patio, gardens—people can take their picnic baskets to whatever area they prefer. Inside, outside, their guest rooms, or even to Agawam Park.”
Such efforts also need to go beyond individual establishments, she notes. The “we are all in this together” mentality is one that will help everyone rise up. “We are distributing a list of all open village restaurants, stores that offer curbside pick-up, and museum virtual and ‘spaced out’ events, like drive-in movies at the Southampton Arts Center,” Gotthelf says. “I certainly hope for health and safety—for my wonderful employees, for the Village and our community, and for our visitors—so that we can share this magnificent place with beaches, beautiful light, gardens, farms, sailing and delicious, albeit separated, foods.”
Ultimately, a successful reopening, through its many phases and the inevitable starts and pauses and restarts still to come, will depend in large part on how the desire to attract crowds and have them enjoy all the East End has to offer is balanced with the expectations, emotional state and behavior of those crowds. There will be no one-size-fits-all group, but rather many groups, from the conservative to the cavalier. Yes, another challenge.
“Summer Season 2020 in the Hamptons will not be like prior years and decades,” says Golden Pear owner Keith Davis. “Everyone has suffered psychologically, some more than others. Some are still living in utter fear of the virus, which is disturbing and sad, and is not going to change quickly. People are not going to go to restaurants until the case numbers drop significantly and the medical community provides guidance on this. You will witness tense and aggressive behavior in restaurants and bar areas when people don’t maintain the six feet of separation and/or don’t wear a mask. The sense of entitlement that some people have and believe is their birthright will cause them to behave in ways that will be selfish, rude and condescending. I sincerely hope this is mitigated by restaurant owners and managers.”
“A big question is, how do we all tailor our businesses for the different crowds that are going to be out there while still staying within the scope of the law and creating safe environments for everybody,” adds Duke. “Not knowing if it’s going to be 25% of our capacity, not knowing if we’re going to be able to use all our space outdoors, or is it 50%? We don’t know. Bars can’t be open, but can people sit and eat at the bar? There are so many little nuances in our industry, and that’s always the case, but now we have to micromanage them in the age of coronavirus.
“That’s going to be trying, but we’re in a business where trying is part of the game,” Duke continues with his trademark glass-is-always-more-than-half-full optimism. Of course, he needs such an outlook when dealing with all this while also working on opening the new Union Steak & Sushi restaurant in Southampton this summer. “I think if you ask anyone who has ever worked in this industry and stayed in it, they will say the reason they love it is because you just never know what’s going to happen. You wanted to have that difficulty, that challenge, and figure it out. Now, nobody wants a pandemic, obviously, but I do feel that if anyone is suited to handle a crisis like this, it’s people who have been dealing with difficulties throughout every day.”