Chris’s Short Take: The State of the Restaurant Business

The State of the Restaurant Business: with Vic Christopher (Clark House Hospitality Group), Patricia Pendergast Novo (Taverna Novo), Jay Larkin (SUNY Schenectady Culinary), Michael Eck (longtime arts writer and performer), Mark Graydon (Partner at Olde English/Mgr. Albany Biergarten), Quang Tran (Owner/chef at Quang’s Vietnamese Bistro)

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about getting back to “normal”, (whatever THAT is…) it’s that there is more to it than everyone thought at first. A lot of Nippertown restaurants have swung hard to embrace the takeout business, others have floundered and the rest have experienced every increment in between. 

Vic Christopher and Heather LaVine created Clark House Hospitality in 2012. It’s a Troy based group of restaurants, retail, and private event spaces that includes Peck’s Arcade and Lucas Confectionary, Little Pecks, and The Bradley to name a few.  Patricia Pendergast Novo is the proprietor of Taverna Novo in Saratoga, an alumni of SUNY Schenectady Culinary, and is now a professor there as well as serving on the board of the college.  She also is a Certified Wine Specialist by both the Society of Wine Educators and the Wine and Spirits Education Trust.  Jay Larkin is a professor at SUNY Schenectady Culinary specializing in Beverage Management, a driving force behind the school’s Brewing and Distilling programs.  Michael Eck is a longtime Arts writer for the Times Union and a number of other publications, as well as being a popular entertainer in the region.  He is currently writing for Breedlove Guitars.  Mark Graydon is a partner in The Olde English Pub in downtown Albany, and has been a manager at the Albany Biergarten in the past.

This was my conversation with Mark Graydon…

Mark Graydon

Chris: I can’t picture a bar where everyone stands 6′ apart and wears a mask? Is that a realistic scene from the future?

Mark:  “I do think the ‘6 feet away’ is going to be a problem. Everyone wants to be there, but the bars alone will struggle to keep everyone apart. Even if it’s half of the capacity. I cannot wait to get it going!”

Chris: What can people do, other than order take out, to support their favorite restaurants/bars?

Mark:  “Everyone has a camera on their phone. Please put in on FaceBook, Twitter or Instagram that you can wait for your personal favorite Bars/Restaurant to open.”

Here’s Michael Eck’s take…

Michael Eck

Chris:  What are you thinking the restaurant business is going to look like when this calms down?

Michael: “My feeling is that all public gathering spaces, large and small, will take some time to recover and will be reshaped in curious, fundamental ways. Everything from ingress/egress to restroom traffic will have to be considered, much less personal interaction. I’d like to say that if Russ and Daughters Café, on Orchard Street in New York (heretofore and henceforward known as “the happy place”), reopened tomorrow, I would be there, eagerly waiting in a long line, but truly, I have been trying to push my first hashtag, #icanwait.”

“Restaurants are my friend. More disheartening to me has been the inability to attend live music events, much less perform them. This is the longest stretch, for me, without seeing a live performance, since the age of 13—and I’m 82 now, at least in monkey years.”

“I have to wonder if restaurateurs are taking the same pause and musing if this is the time to retire or change careers. When our heads come up, the landscape may look quite different. Supporting each other is important. Being kind to ourselves—in a thoughtful way— is a good first step.”

Quang’s look…

Quang Tran

Chris:  Where do you see this headed, Quang?

Quang:  It’s crazy man, I think about what the future holds for this industry everyday. I don’t think it will return back to normalcy for quiet some time. I’m guestimating at least over a year. I’m not holding my breath. I’ve embraced this as a new reality and not fighting it. Staying positive and adapting to whatever comes my way is how I’m approaching this. Until they come out with a vaccine, I don’t think we can go back to the norm. When bars and restaurants do actually open back up, I don’t think anybody’s going to be standing 6 feet apart wearing masks. Especially if alcohol’s involved. If it goes into law, I predict that it will give rise to underground bars and restaurants where you don’t have to wear masks and stay six feet apart.

Chris:  What can folks do in the mean time?

Quang:  Gift certificates help out tremendously. Tipping generously helps out a lot as well. I didn’t expect it, but after this pandemic started, people have been very generous with how they’ve been tipping. It’s a great way to show support. It’s definitely helped keep me afloat.

Patricia’s take…

Patricia Pendergast Novo

Chris:  So how do you see us coming out the other side?

Patricia: “At the very least, I think that occupancy restrictions will take place..maybe 50% or LESS of what it normally would be. I have spoken to a lot of people who still will not feel “safe” even when restrictions are lessened, so we are absolutely going to continue to ramp up our takeout business…we NEVER stopped doing it as some restaurants did.

As our space is tiny to begin with, we will have to utilize outdoor seating. The fire marshal has told us that there will absolutely be updated codes due to this. I also cannot imagine a bar where patrons stand 6 feet apart…how does one imbibe with a mask on pray tell???”

Chris: How long do you think it will take for independent restaurants to make the necessary transitions?

Patricia: MONTHS.  Exactly how the new restrictions (whatever they end up being) will be enforced is a cause of concern…there are a lot of places who 

don’t abide by the rules to begin with I won’t name names, (it’s not us obviously), but there are a few places up here who have received visits from our local law enforcement…NO CONGREGATING AND DRINKING ON SITE PERIOD!!!!!

Chris:  What’s the best way for your patrons to support you?

Patricia:  “Continuing to support SMALL independent restaurants by getting takeaway really is the best support right now…coupled with the understanding that the takeout experience is RARELY the same as dining in and people really do need to understand that…if you order through door dash and the driver shows up late, it is NOT the fault of the restaurant. Ordering directly from the restaurants online ordering and picking up yourself is the most helpful, as there is not a commission split…Grubhub hasn’t lessened their charges whatsoever…Door Dash has reduced the split to half what it was but…still…we need 100% of our $, not 80%.

Vic’s approach…

Vic Christopher

Vic Christopher’s approach was quite a bit different from the others.  He has a major construction project going at Peck’s.  Pecks is changing over to a theme of Family Dining Out, where on the one hand they are creating separate spaces for families to gather isolated from other groups.  On the other hand they’re expanding their grocery potential.  On arrival families will have all their food and drink waiting in their space.  If they require additional service, they can merely text their server.  Pre-set Family Meals will be available, and the flow of the place will be much more like a spacious supermarket utilizing the 15,000 sq. ft. in a mix of upscale grocery items and counters to purchase food and drink, reminding this writer of Eately in the city. 

Vic:  “The future of fine dining is on hold until there is either a vaccine, or acceptable treatment for the virus.  This is where we’re headed in the mean time.”

Jay Larkin’s view…

Jay Larkin

Chris: With space at a premium, can bars make this new order work?

Jay: “At this moment and with our history of being in close quarters in bars, pubs, clubs, and taverns this does not seem possible. But,…much like the rest of the industry there is room for creativity. Table service at tables that are well spaced . The struggle will be finding the room for some new changes.

Most have been designed to maximize the $ per square foot and have left little room to spread out.

Chris: So how do we help right now?

“I was cautioning most at the onset of this to begin to not only look to what would need to be done to reopen but how to better prepare for the next event like this.

Take out, purchase gift cards, and PROMOTE those that you love on social media while “checking in” or tagging those entities. Any traction a location can gain, especially the small, independent operations, is VITAL right now. All platforms too. Whether Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and anything else.”

Watch this space for more.

  1. Jean Loughrey says

    Great article Chris! I thinkVic Christopher’s concept is very forward thinking and would work well in the reopening situation.

  2. Christopher A Shaw says

    I’ll be covering more on Vic’s progress very soon. Be well, be safe!

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