For Allentown bars and restaurants, COVID-19 shutdown is ‘like a punch to the gut’
In the middle of a global pandemic, Friday night in Allentown just doesn’t mean what it used to. WBFO asked bars and restaurants in one of Buffalo’s most popular neighborhoods for nightlife how they’re coping with the COVID-19 shutdown.
With the exception of travel and tourism companies, no small businesses have been damaged more by the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic than restaurants, according to Womply, a software company that manages customer transactions for more than 450,000 small businesses across the country. And the impact on Allentown came hard and fast.
“We had a guess that it was coming, but it was like a punch to the gut,” said Kelly Hall, manager of the iconic Buffalo restaurant Gabriel’s Gate, speaking of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive order closing all bars and restaurants for dine-in services on March 16.
“In four days, our business got flipped upside down,” said Fat Bob’s Smokehouse owner Patrick Ryan. “We went from 50% [capacity] to, ‘You can’t have anybody in your dining room.’”
Womply’s data analysis found that the average revenue for restaurants in Erie County last week was down 41% compared to the same week in 2019. That’s a bigger decrease than in any other county in Western New York. Both Gabriel’s Gate and Fat Bob’s are longtime Allentown favorites that were in strong financial standing before the crisis hit, but the businesses are still reeling.
“We’re not making money. We’re staying open to make payroll and costs and that’s it,” Hall said. “It [money] won’t be made until we fully reopen, and even then, it’s a matter of getting caught back up.”
“We’re building our business, like, one brick at a time,” Ryan said. “Things are definitely going to look a lot different.”
Hall said Gabriel’s Gate is still operating for takeout seven days a week, but with earlier closing times than normal. That’s meant cutting employee shifts and laying off a few part-time workers, though the Gate has been able to keep most of its staff on board. Hall said the restaurant also immediately doubled wages for all employees and offered interest-free loans, with no payback deadline, to help workers cover their bills.
At Fat Bob’s, Ryan was forced to reduce his larger staff of about 50 employees before the pandemic’s arrival in Western New York to just six full-time employees last week. He furloughed workers at first but eventually realized layoffs were necessary. Ryan also closed the restaurant temporarily after the weekend of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, during which large crowds of mostly young Buffalonians got scolded by Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz for packing bars on Chippewa Street despite directives to start social distancing.
“I went home and talked to my wife and it just felt like, ‘We need to close… people aren’t getting it.’”
Ryan said he was also concerned for the safety of his employees, who usually operate within very close quarters—far closer than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation of six feet apart. Now that he’s starting to hire some workers back, he’s being careful to enforce social distancing measures both among staff and during customer transactions.
“It’s planning, like, ‘How are we going to be safe, guys?’” he said. “’That’s your prep area, that’s your space.’”
Ryan added that it’s helped to be able to spread out into the dining room in the absence of customers, while still adhering to food safety regulations. Fat Bob’s is now open for curbside takeout, with a smaller menu, during limited hours Wednesday through Saturday.
Hall said the Gate is also taking every precaution possible to protect staff members and customers.
“We're trying to keep the doors open fully when we can, so people don't have to touch anything,” she said, and “pens are used one time and then they're disinfected with bleach,” among other cleaning and disinfecting policies.
Allentown bars, meanwhile, have had to close entirely. Dana Scott is a longtime bartender at Nietzsche’s, a venue known for its nightly live music, and which is now helping to promote virtual open mic nights—complete with online tip jars.
“I think I would be more scared if I was still open,” Scott said. “You know, there is a great comfort to being in my house all the time. That being said, I miss being able to help people with their problems or anything like that. And having something to do to focus on definitely keeps your mind positive.”
Scott added that some of her co-workers are also having are having trouble signing up for unemployment benefits because the state’s website has been so overloaded with new claims. She was able to submit a claim herself, but the application is still pending.
Jill Gedra, executive director of the Family Meal Hospitality Trust, said she hates to see Allentown this way.
“It’s unprecedented, it really is,” Gedra said. “Allentown is where you go to drink your cares away, you know, and see your friends and eat a steak sandwich at The Pink when it’s Saturday night and you went out on Friday night. It’s a safe haven.”
The nonprofit Gedra leads just formed last fall to support Buffalo’s hospitality industry. And it’s pitching in now with the Western New York Hospitality Relief Fund—a GoFundMe campaign raising money for direct payments to service workers who are out of a job. Faster than unemployment or stimulus checks, Gedra said the one-time grants of $750 will start hitting bank accounts next week.
“I wish we could do more,” Gedra said. “Words of encouragement aren’t going to get you your rent paid. They’re not going to buy you groceries. They’re not going to do the basic things that we all need to do right now.”
As of Thursday, the fund had raised nearly $20,610 of its $100,000 goal. Allentown, for now, remains more the domain of solo dog walkers than groups of twenty-and-thirty-somethings* migrating between bars.
“I think when bars open up again it'll be like going to that family reunion, when you see everybody for the first time and you just want to give them all a big hug and find out what's going on with their lives,” said Scott, from Nietzsche’s. “I just hope everybody is doing well and that we can all get through this the best we can.”
*Not unlike this reporter, who is, full disclosure: a resident of Allentown.