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Dining at a Distance: A Dispatch from New Haven During the Early Days of the Pandemic

This article, written in April of 2020, reflects the restaurant and dining scene at that time. In the period since the inception of this piece and its publication, much has changed. New Haven has opened up restaurants to outdoor dining and has limited indoor seating. Though a significant portion of the specific content of the article is no longer immediately relevant, I hope it serves as a time capsule of sorts, and that, as a whole, it reflects the difficulty we are all facing, of trying to encapsulate a historical moment that is ever changing and difficult to predict. 

This hasn’t been a typical spring in New Haven by any means. Walking down the streets, one is met with dark store fronts and reduced foot traffic. Though it’s eerily quiet, some restaurants show a few signs of life—a single figure moves in the kitchen, working the stove; another emerges from the back to begin packaging meals and lining up bags for takeout and delivery orders. 

This new reality in the restaurant industry is of course due to the regulations created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to federal guidelines for social distancing, as of March 16, 2020, restaurants have been limited to takeout and delivery under Governor Lamont’s executive order 7D. Though many restaurants have followed these directives and have continued operations, many others have temporarily shuttered. In addition to experiencing reduced patronage of regular New Haven clientele, restaurants throughout New Haven—especially in the areas around Broadway and Chapel Street—have been hit particularly hard by the mass exodus of students, faculty, and staff from Yale’s campus after the March 10th decision to largely suspend university operations. Though restaurants in the New Haven area surrounding Yale are experiencing some of the same general economic effects associated with the novel coronavirus that all restaurants across the United States suffer from, the area’s affiliation with the university has brought about a particularly dramatic change to operations.

The close relationship between many New Haven restaurants and the Yale community goes beyond proximity and clientele. As noted by the Yale Daily News, Yale University Properties is one of the largest commercial property holders in the city. According to David DelVecchio, Director of Yale Real Estate Asset Management and Marketing, University Properties manages over 100 properties, a mix of retail and restaurants. These properties are largely in the Broadway and Chapel Street areas and include popular eateries such as Atticus Cafe, Harvest Wine Bar, and Sherkaan Indian Street Food. Though Yale-affiliated, University Properties aims to serve both the New Haven and Yale communities. In an op-ed for The Yale Daily News, Lauren Zucker, the Associate Vice President for New Haven Affairs and University Properties, writes: 

“As students are only here about eight months of the year, it is critical to find tenants who not only serve our immediate local population, but also draw shoppers from a wide radius around New Haven. 

As Zucker notes, University Properties has always sought to toggle between serving these two distinct groups. 

Despite this purported message, however, many have been quick to point out that University Property holdings include expensive retailers such as Patagonia and Gant and high-end restaurants such as Harvest or Barcelona. Though there is a desire to cater to the needs of the community, expensive dining isn’t a feasible option for most students or New Haven residents. Some suggest that University Properties selects clients more for the purpose of boosting the university’s prestige and enticing prospective students than serving the community. In addition to the COVID-related changes in New Haven’s population and the radical decrease in disposable income for many, the cancellation of Yale’s Bulldog Days and Bulldog Saturday programs for prospective students has led to a dramatic drop in restaurant and shop patronage this spring.  

And, as the economy worsens, there remains the question of who these restaurants will serve. This crisis is fundamentally changing demographics at restaurants and it remains unclear how much consumer spending will be disturbed in the long run. Looking at past American economic crises, high-end restaurants seem to be the hardest hit. As Professor Paul Freedman notes in a One Day University lecture on the future of restaurants, Prohibition in the 1920s devastated the American high-end restaurant scene. Such establishments, especially French restaurants which were highly popular at the time, relied heavily on wine and liquor to make a profit. Though it is difficult to make a conclusive statement at present, it seems that high-end restaurants will once again suffer as they typically lack an established delivery infrastructure and due to the existence of complicated liquor laws that prevent easy adaption of drink purchases to takeout sales. Recently, Governor Lamont has adapted liquor laws to allow for sale of limited drinks and cocktail kits, a move that may prove to be a saving grace for some restaurants.

One restaurant that has sought to adapt to new regulations is Sherkaan Indian Street Food. Sherkaan, an upscale-casual, Indian street food restaurant, is one of many Yale University Properties’ tenants. Nestled between Yale’s Ezra Stiles residential college and the shops on Broadway, the restaurant is hidden from street traffic and practically on Yale’s campus. Because of this, Sherkaan typically sees a large amount of student business. Eileen Bryant, the General Manager of Sherkaan, notes that because of the drop in New Haven’s student population, deciding how to respond to the new regulations and assessing how to reshape the restaurant has been difficult. 

“At first,” she told The Politic, “We weren’t sure how the community would respond to a switch to take-out dining or what we would do with our bar program.” Though the transition was difficult to navigate, especially with having to lay-off nearly the entire staff, Sherkaan is establishing a new normal. Bryant says that online orders, especially cocktail kits and beer and wine purchases following the alcohol sales regulation change, are sustaining the restaurant as of the present. But, she emphasizes, it remains difficult to predict the future. In terms of student clientele, Bryant notes that Sherkaan is seeing fewer undergraduates making orders. She mentions that Snackpass orders have declined. Snackpass, a food ordering app with deals and discounts for students, was started by Yale College students in 2016 and is one of the prefered methods for getting food on campus. Without Yale undergrads, Snackpass has seen less use, and has been set aside in favor of non-student affiliated ordering apps, such as UberEats or Grubhub. Despite the decline in undergraduate patrons, graduate students, Bryant says, are still ordering from the restaurant. 

Bryant suggests that one of the main reasons why Sherkaan has been able to continue operations is because of support from their landlord, University Properties, which has suspended base rent for retail and restaurant tenants for March, April, and May. University Properties has gone beyond rent forgiveness, and as Bryant notes, UP representatives David DelVecchio and Stephanie McDonald have been touching base with Sherkaan on a weekly basis. 

“They have been organizing social media campaigns in support of not only our business but all the shops at Yale,” Bryant says. “They have been promoting our weekly specials and keeping on top of any menu or hour of operation changes. It has been helpful having the additional support and influx of ideas from their group.”

This emphasis on the need for innovation and adaptation was repeated by many other representatives from restaurants interviewed by The Politic. It seems that many see this as a time to fundamentally rethink the relationships between a restaurant and its customers. By relying on social media outreach and enticing special programs, many restaurants are working hard to fortify their connections with customers in order to remain relevant. 

One kind of new outreach that has emerged of late is online crowdfunding. Some New Haven restaurants have turned to platforms such as GoFundMe in order to raise money for laid off staff. Local restaurants Elm City Social and Olives & Oil are owned by the same management company and, as of May 2, are currently closed. In order to support laid off workers, the management and crew has set up an employee relief fund through GoFundMe. According to the site’s description, 100 percent of money raised will be distributed to staff. The fundraiser, which was posted to GoFundMe on March 30, has raised $4,935 of its $25,000 goal as of May 2. Describing the current situation, Matt Bailey, one of the owners of Fork Hospitality, which holds Elm City Social and Olives and Oil, notes that state and federal aid is currently difficult to access. Though the restaurant has had Federal Paycheck Protection Program and state loan grant applications pending for weeks, as of April 30, nothing has been approved. In the face of these lagging response times, restaurants such as Elm City Social and Olives & Oil have turned to the public. 

But as of early May, the use of GoFundMe for New Haven restaurant support remains relatively rare. It seems that not all restaurants feel so comfortable with crowdsourcing funds. In an article for the New York Times Magazine, Gabrielle Hamilton, the owner and chef of NYC’s Prune, expresses her misgivings. She writes: 

“I got a group email from a few concerned former Prune managers who eagerly offered to start a GoFundMe for Prune, inadvertently putting another obstacle in front of me: my own dignity. I sat on the email for a few days, roiling in a whole new paralysis of indecision. There were individual campaigns being run all over town to raise money to help restaurant staffs, but when I tried to imagine joining this trend, I couldn’t overcome my pride at being seen as asking for a handout. It felt like a popularity contest or a survival-of-the-most-well-connected that I couldn’t bring myself to enter. It would make me feel terrible if Prune was nicely funded while the Sikhs at the Punjabi Grocery and Deli down the street were ignored, and simultaneously crushed if it wasn’t. I also couldn’t quite imagine the ethical calculus by which I would distribute such funds: Should I split them equally, even though one of my workers is a 21-year-old who already owns his own apartment in Manhattan, while another lives with his unemployed wife and their two children in a rental in the Bronx? I thanked my former managers but turned them down: I had repeatedly checked in with my staff, and everybody was OK for now.”

These are uncharted waters for the restaurant business. And, as Hamilton puts it, innovative digital bandaid solutions open up almost as many questions as they seek to answer. The use of GoFundMe represents a radical shift of typical “money in exchange for goods and services” model of restaurant-patron relationships. As Hamilton suggests, these kinds of solutions also restructure relationships with other restaurants. While normally restaurants compete with each other through sales, now it seems we have competition based on tapping into the nostalgia, goodwill, and community values of would-be patrons. Though patronizing a restaurant in a normal setting can be seen as “voting” for the continued existence of that restaurant, there is still the exchange of goods and services. Contributing to a restaurant fundraiser without any kind of benefit to the donor is something quite different. Contributors, then, are voting with their wallets in order to determine what kind of post-pandemic restaurant scene they want to enter back into.  Contributors are engaging in the creation and maintenance of the business of their community.

For New Haven restaurants in the Yale area, the question of community values and communal feelings is more complex. Most Yale students do not remain in New Haven after their studies end. Though many restaurants in New Haven have become established “Yale favorites,” there is a high turnover rate in patronage. Perhaps one of the difficulties with the crowdsource funding model in a city with a high college student population is the difficulty in creating a sense of enduring communal feelings. It’s hard to ask a temporary New Haven resident to fully invest in the continuation of the current New Haven restaurant scene. 

The question of capturing student engagement and interest in restaurant survival is something that is particularly concerning right now for restaurants that have mainly catered to the transient student population. Junzi Kitchen, a fast-casual Northern Chinese restaurant located on Broadway, was created by Yale college graduates. CEO and Yale School of Forestry and Environment Studies grad Yong Zhao tells The Politic that Junzi was originally created with the idea of providing quick, healthy, and tasty meals for students on-the-go. Though the restaurant is patronized by more than just students, it is clear that students are Junzi’s typical target market. In addition to the New Haven location, Junzi has three New York brick-and-mortar store fronts, one near Columbia University, the second by New York University, and the third near Bryant Park. Junzi’s late-night menu, which, until recently, was offered on Friday and Saturday nights, also catered to out-and-about students looking for a snack. According to Zhao, the pandemic is forcing Junzi to wholly reconsider their target market. He says that “the user experience has changed dramatically” and that Junzi is no longer mainly catering to individual students, but whole families. He calls this moving from a “store-centric experience” to a “refrigerator centric,” “family meal” experience.

According to Zhao, due to contact with friends and other restaurateurs in China, Junzi was able to start preparing for shifted operations as early as January. This head start explains, in part, why Junzi has been able to roll out a veritable deluge of new programs. Following the state mandated closure of dining-in operations as of March 16, 2020, Junzi has introduced three new programs— “share a meal,” “family meal,” and “distance dining.” The first program, “share a meal,” partners with local hospitals to provide meals for healthcare workers and first responders. Junzi customers have the option of directly donating a meal or of adding a ten dollar “share a meal” donation to their own purchase. Zhao notes that this program represents a change in typical customer behaviour, from a “customer paying/ customer eating” model to customers paying for the meals of somebody else. This program seems to be a logical extension of the fast-casual ethic. Though students are no longer looking for on-the-go meals, healthcare workers have filled this gap and are now the main demographic in need of quick and healthy meals. 

“Family meal,” the second program, allows customers to order noodle bowls and chun bings in bulk. The menu includes deals for up to 10 prepackaged meals, and there is also the option of ordering noodles, rice, and protein by the quart and sauces by the pint. While in the past, customers were able to watch their meals being prepared, pointing out the sauces and ingredients they wanted included, now assembly has been relocated to the home. 

Junzi’s third program, “distance dining” is a once-a-week three course meal that customers must pre-order using Eventbrite. Each week, Junzi chooses a different theme. Past themes have included Filipino-Chinese, Malaysian-Chinese, and Chinese-Puerto Rican. On the appointed date, the meals are delivered cold and in plastic packaging. Then, at 7 p.m.,  Head Chef Lucas Sin goes live over Instagram to talk customers through the story of each dish and provides instructions for reheating. So far, Junzi has conducted seven different “distance dining” events and each has quickly sold out. This program is markedly different from the original “fast and on the go” model and instead emphasizes deep consideration of food history in addition to customer involvement in food preparation. 

The first two programs—“share a meal” and “family meal”—have been implemented at all locations in New York and at the New Haven location. “Distance dining,” the third program, however, is only available at the New York locations. According to Zhao, making these adaptive pivots is more difficult in New Haven. Most of Junzi’s staff is in New York, and it has been more difficult to implement new programs at the New Haven location. Though in New York there is a high demand for social media-savvy, trendy food innovation, in New Haven, without the student population, it has proven difficult to recultivate that market. Despite Junzi’s quick response to the pandemic, the New Haven location has many barriers that prevent the complete transformation of operations. 

As discussed earlier, toggling between student clientele and a general New Haven market is a struggle that existed before the pandemic. Yale students are only on campus eight months of the year. During the summer and winter break, restaurants must contend with a radically altered clientele. Yet, while in the past, restaurants could rely on a continued and predictable relationship with the university, now the future is uncertain. As of May 2, the university has not declared whether classes will be in person, online, or delayed for the coming Fall 2020 semester. 

At this time, in order to stay in business, most restaurants in the country are going to have to make some radical changes. Restaurants in college towns like New Haven will have to contend with a whole host of other problems created by the sudden departure of students and the subsequent need to reconfigure their target markets.