Gov. Murphy finally gave the word that indoor dining in the Garden State can resume on Fri., Sept. 4, just in time for the beginning of Labor Day weekend.
Although this is good news for restaurant owners, making it happen might not be so easy.
Marilyn Schlossbach, owner of Langosta Lounge on the Asbury Park boardwalk, said she lost restaurant staff when they were forced to close in March due to the pandemic and now does not have people who want to work.
“Kids are back at school, teachers are back, nobody has staff,” she said. “And finding staff to physically clean it…it’s a nightmare.”
She did say being able to move customers inside if it is raining is helpful.
“It’s a safety net for us in case of rain. We are basically going to shift people inside…that’s all it’s good for,” she said.
But she acknowledged it’s a benefit for people who had no outdoor dining at all and wished it could have happened sooner. With the capacity restrictions approximately 50 will be allowed inside.
Although she said the summer worked out all right, she said it was good when it was nice out, but when it was rainy or windy it was not so good.
Schlossbach is also concerned about the coming winter. In previous years her business would go down to 33 percent of her summer business. But this year she wonders if she will even have 10 percent of this year’s summer business.
“Are we going to be able to pay the electric bill,” she said.
Asbury Park Chamber of Commerce Director Sylvia Sylvia-Cioffi said the news about indoor dining reopening is a “ long-awaited glimmer of hope that a return to normalcy is on the horizon.”
She sent out a quick survey to city restaurant owners as soon as she heard the news.
“The majority expressed that as summer is at a close, the uncertainty about the colder months ahead brings a strong level of anxiety, so hearing the news was very welcome.
“Of course, there were understandable concerns. More lead time would have really helped. Offering indoor dining with a five day turnaround requires a seriously quick pivot and these restaurant owners will never compromise when it comes to doing everything they can to provide the best, safest experience for their guests and their staff members.
“Another big issue is the capacity level of just 25 percent which in some cases is literally six people.”
Sylvia-Cioffi said all of the venues are going to still be heavily reliant on outdoor dining, and take-home options.
“There are many additional challenges like, staffing, feasibility, procurement of expensive modifications, yet still, there is one heartwarming irony.
“In the survey, I asked how optimistic they are on a scale of 1-5, (1 being not at all optimistic and 5 being completely optimistic). The response was ‘very Asbury.’
“Not a single person expressed a doubt. One hundred percent of answers were 5’s and 4’s (mostly 5’s by the way – 84 percent). I think that alone speaks volumes about what is going on in the minds of our restaurant owners.”
Joe Maggio, of the popular Frank’s Deli in Asbury Park, welcomes the return of indoor dining and will work to continue to serve his customers as they have for more than 60 years.
“We’ll figure it out and do what we can. I know people will be upset if they can’t come in because we’re at capacity,” he said.
And 25 percent capacity at Frank’s means a lot of empty seats.
“If every seat in the place is taken, we have 86 people inside. 25 Percent is maybe 21 or 22,” he said.
Frank’s Deli has been serving outside all summer and will continue to do so and has also been very busy with take-out orders seven days a week.
It’s been outside dining all summer at the Blue Swan Diner in the Oakhurst section of Ocean Township and co-owner Mario Magriplis is also happy for the return of indoor dining, but doesn’t like the timing.
“Everything is always last minute,” he said. “Plus we have a holiday weekend coming up.”
He needs to hire more staff and work out schedules with his outdoor dining service, and also service the air-conditioning system. He’s also investing in a sanitizing air filtration system which he’s been putting off.
It won’t be crowded at the Blue Swan Diner. Magriplis said they will have about 10 tables available and they want to offer flexibility for their customers. He said all of this comes with a promise “that maybe we’ll survive.” But he adds that a lot of places may not make it.
At America’s Cup Coffee and Tea Co. on Cookman Avenue in Asbury Park owner Ross Blanco said the governor’s announcement was a surprise as Murphy had been saying indoor dining was coming “soon” but he didn’t indicate it could be this soon.
Much of the business is take-out but there are tables for food inside and outside. America’s Cup is a popular hang out for people working on laptops but Blanco said he will initially turn off the Wi-Fi to discourage people from spending too much time there.
Over the past six months, Blanco said business has been steady but down from last year, “We’ve held our own, and the bills have been paid.” But he also says there’s definitely less foot traffic in the blocks from Press Plaza to Main St. than between Press Plaza and Grand Ave. with more restaurants and bars with more outside dining locations .
Mike Simko, owner of Simko’s Grill, 1311 Route 35 South in Neptune City, said that even with 25 percent of indoor dining capacity now allowed, he believes it will still be hard for many restaurants to survive.
“But it’s a start,” he said.
Simko said that restricted indoor dining “is OK for now” because he will also have his outdoor dining as long as the weather cooperates. He said he believes some restaurants will not find it profitable to reopen at all until the dining capacity is raised to 50 percent.
“I don’t know any restaurant that will be able to survive at 25 percent dining, especially bigger operations. I can’t speak for everybody but I hope they increase it beyond 25 percent in the near future,” he said.
He said that now, with indoor dining, he will not have to close up on rainy days and that people will be allowed to be at the bar as long as they are six feet apart and only in groups of four people together.
“Having people at the bar will help bartenders make some money. Hopefully people will stay and then eat later. I can then stay open a little later,” he said.
Simko said he brought back two former staff members to work but that he is still looking for kitchen help. He said it has “been very tough” hiring employees due both to the Covid-19 virus and people’s reluctance to lose their unemployment payments.
Peter Mantas, director of entertainment for Langosta Lounge and the Asbury Park Yacht Club, both on the Asbury Park boardwalk, said that the two venues will be offering music in the near future, probably on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
“We will figure this out in some way, shape or form. Reopening with live music is like a jigsaw puzzle, we have the pieces but they have to fit,” he said.
One option being considered for Langosta Lounge, which will be able to accommodate about 50 people under the new governor’s new 25 percent occupancy mandate, is to charge a set fee, like $40, for dinner and a show.
“We could let other people in after 10 pm but we have to watch and be sure we are at 25 percent occupancy,” he said.