Restaurants reinvent themselves as indoor dining remains closed

After two decades in business, Palazzo restaurant owner John Giglio feels like he’s back to square one due to the pandemic. Revamping the menu is just one step he’s had to take to save everything he’s built.

“We weren’t a takeout restaurant, now it’s like 85% takeout as opposed to say 10%,” he said. “We’ve been getting through, but it’s been tough. We need dining inside. We need to open up.”

Giglio has the capacity to fit 110 people but the Montclair restaurant is sitting empty. He says on a hot or rainy day it’s hard to get people to sit outside.

“What they’re doing right now, they’re screwing small businesses, especially restaurants,” Giglio said.

Jason Gleason, the executive director of Montclair Center BID, says he was shocked by some of the restaurants in Montclair that didn’t survive the pandemic.

“If we’re taking like eateries, like the whole span of eateries, in the 70 to 75 range. We have experienced about 10 already that have closed. We’re just making every effort that we can to help those businesses who are still struggling be able to see it through the end of the storm,” Gleason said.

His team has been working to promote takeout, as well as offer more outdoor seating.

“We’re on Church Street here; a lot of these businesses are very lucky to have beautiful space and beautiful, big sidewalks. Others on Bloomfield Avenue are not so lucky, so it’s really becoming a very strong battle for them to deal with things like 8% capacity what they normally would be able to do inside,” he said.

Indoor dining was scheduled to reopen July 2 but Gov. Phil Murphy paused plans after seeing spikes in other states. He has said the virus is most lethal when indoors due to a lack of ventilation.

“We’re not asking that 100%, we just want to be moving along with the rest of the state,” said Marilou Halvorsen, president and CEO of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association. “Right now we’re looking at about a little over 30%, 30 to 32% of restaurants that will either not reopen or will close shortly after.”

Halvorsen points to Connecticut as an example of how to do it safely.

“They’re at 50% and they’ve not seen a spike in their cases,” she said. “Where we are seeing a spike is because of these indoor house parties. People don’t have anywhere to go instead of going to a safe, sanitary environment like a restaurant.”

The New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association resubmitted a safe dining plan to the Governor’s Office with changes, like eliminating bar seating at the next phase in hopes of coming up with a solution.

In the meantime, the restaurant owner of MishMish in Montclair is brainstorming different business models.

“Starting to think whether it’s even worth it to go back to indoor dining the same way it’s been going before. And I’m talking specifically about a full service, good quality restaurant without that liquor license,” said owner Meny Vaknin.