In a fitting end to what has been a nightmare 2020 for the dining industry, restaurants and bars will largely miss out on what should be one of the most lucrative nights of the year.
New Year’s Eve—famous for overpriced meals and plenty of alcoholic beverages—will be a quiet affair as restaurants grapple with occupancy limits, early curfews and, in many parts of the U.S., a total ban on indoor dining.
“In past years, the run-up to the holidays was the time for everyone in the business to make money to carry us through the lean months of winter,” said Kip Michel, general manager of renowned Brooklyn pizza joint Roberta’s. “It’s a tough time this year.”
Restaurants from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles are bracing for another blow as the coronavirus pandemic continues to keep people away from crowded places and confined largely to their homes. Just 7% of Americans intend to go to a restaurant for New Year’s Eve, according to a Morning Consult survey, while the most common plans were to cook dinner at home or stream a movie.
There’s a lot on the line for restaurants, which tend to do big business on the last night of the year. Visitors to Outback Steakhouse jumped 48% last New Year’s Eve compared to an average day in 2019, while Olive Garden’s traffic climbed 29% and Applebee’s rose 18%, according to an analysis by data tracking firm Placer.ai. Based on 2020 trends, those chains may see declines in excess of 30% this year, the firm said.
“It’s going to be a dramatic loss of revenue,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, which represents restaurants and bars in New York, a mecca for New Year’s revelers. That will hurt the businesses as well as workers, he added, “with employees either out of work or making a fraction of the tips they would normally make.”
Restaurants are looking for creative ways to make up for reduced sales, such as Zoom calls with magicians or special takeout and delivery menus with high-end fare. Del Frisco’s Grill in Hoboken, New Jersey, is offering a to-go package of filet mignon, steamed lobster tail and truffle mac and cheese. At Chicago’s D.S. Tequila Co., there’s a New Year’s package of fried chicken and Champagne.
“This night is normally huge for us because we do a food and drink package and sell out,” said Dusty Carpenter, director of operations and managing partner for Another Round Hospitality Group, which owns D.S. Tequila. For many patrons, New Year’s Eve this year is “an afterthought.”
Many restaurants are grappling with curfews that come before the ball drops, putting another damper on the celebrations.
Papillon 25 in South Orange, New Jersey, has to close by 10 p.m. due to state-imposed restrictions. The restaurant has struggled to book any reservations at all for New Year’s Eve, when it would normally bring in as much as $20,000, according to co-owner Yanick Ranieri. It has scrapped the traditional New Year’s Eve special menu but is offering a free Champagne toast.
“This year if we make $3,000, we’ll consider ourselves lucky,” Ranieri said.
Porter, which just opened a few weeks ago in nearby Weehawken, New Jersey, will have two seatings at reduced capacity beginning at 4 p.m. And since diners have to leave before midnight, the restaurant is offering to-go wine at 15% off so guests can continue the party at home.
‘Such a detriment’
Still, to-go alcohol, which has buoyed some bars and restaurants through the pandemic, can only help so much. “Covid overall has been such a detriment to the industry,” said Lynne Collier, an analyst with Loop Capital Markets. “The impact from New Year’s Eve just compounds that situation.”
Indoor dining is off limits entirely across the Hudson River. In Manhattan’s Times Square—ordinarily such a tourist draw that the Olive Garden location can charge $400 a head on New Year’s Eve—the police have erected barriers to keep people away.
Andrew Carmellini, a chef and owner of Noho Hospitality Group, which has 18 restaurants and bars, mostly based in New York, said he expects to bring in just 25% of the usual revenue this New Year’s Eve. His locations have had to use creative Covid-driven workarounds just to bring in even a fraction of the typical sales, including glass-walled chalets on the sidewalk to give diners an indoor feel outdoors.
“One of the most overused words of the year is pivot,” Carmellini said. “But you have to pivot in the smartest way possible.”
Owners also need to take weather into consideration. Like Carmellini’s chalets, Boston’s Woods Hill Pier 4 has set up dining “igloos” to help patrons brave the cold temperatures, which are forecast to drop to a low of 27 degrees Fahrenheit. Diners preferred open-air eating in the warmer months, but now are grateful for the interior-lit pods, said owner Kristin Canty.
“If it’s cold, they love it,” she said.
In Beverly Hills, where restaurants have been closed for all but takeout food, the celebrity-mainstay La Scala came under fire for promoting a “speakeasy” style indoor dinner on New Year’s Eve with invitations stuck in delivery bags.
After an image of the invitation went viral, the city reached out. In a statement posted on its website, the restaurant said it was considering an event only if virus-related restrictions were lifted before the holiday and that the person who wrote the invitation mistakenly said the party would be indoors.
“If everyone would turn their hate to love and direct it to people that need it instead of attacking small businesses trying to survive, that would be a better use of their time,” the restaurant said.
At the Atlanta steakhouse known as Bones, New Year’s Eve would typically mean a full house of 600 people booked throughout the evening. But the restaurant, a meeting place for the city’s power elite for over 40 years, has now capped its capacity at 300 diners to allow for social distancing. Even on New Year’s Eve, prospective diners have been happy to accept a reservation for as early as 5:30 p.m. to allow for additional diners as the evening goes on.
“It’s been a different kind of year, and everybody is excited about celebrating the new year,” said Isabel Kane, customer relations manager at the restaurant. “People are so grateful that we’re still here.”
— With assistance by Tom Moroney, Leslie Patton, Gerald Porter Jr., Elizabeth Campbell, Christopher Palmeri, and Brett Pulley