When it became clear that the pandemic wasn’t going away—and that Saratoga Springs would be weathering a SPAC-less, track-less summer—all attention turned to downtown businesses. The Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce did everything in its power to ensure that local business owners had a fighting chance, even commissioning a survey to give the city and surrounding area a much-needed tourism boost.
But not all downtown businesses are created equal.
While clothing, bookshops and other walk-in-style retail outlets have been able to reopen, with masking requirements and other COVID restrictions in place, restaurants and bars have been at 50 percent indoor capacity since mid-June, at least here in the Capital Region, and many have been forced to lay off or furlough the majority of their employees (by April, that statewide total was at more than 500,000, per the New York State Restaurant Association [NYSRA]). And although outdoor seating is available now, that option will disappear in the late fall and winter months. That could prove to be a second, and in some cases, fatal blow to restaurants, if capacity restrictions are still in place and no federal bailout is enacted. Case in point: According to a new survey from NYSRA, 63.6 percent of New York restaurants will likely have to close by the end of the year without some sort of comprehensive federal aid package in place. Of that percentage of restaurants set to close, 54.8 percent said that they would be forced to shut their doors before November. In total, 1,042 restauranteurs from across New York responded to the survey.
Saratoga restaurant owners are already starting to suffer the consequences of the confluence of the pandemic, capacity restrictions and sluggish summer months. “Whole Harvest just skated by this summer,” says Kelsey Whalen, owner of the Saratoga health food restaurant, which opened on Caroline Street last March. “Being off Broadway on a street typically filled with bar-goers posed it’s own challenges. We missed out on our late-night food menu and did not get anywhere near the foot traffic that we did last year during our first track season.” Ironically, says Whalen, her restaurant did better sales-wise at the outset of the pandemic, when not as many restaurants were open, compared to later in the summer, when there was much more competition for consumers’ appetites. And things have gone down hill from there. Since the small restaurant was never able to accommodate many diners inside—and at 50 percent capacity, the amount of tables available would’ve been negligible—Whalen says she’ll be closing Whole Harvest for the fall and winter months and reopening in the spring, with no takeout service available throughout. It’s not all bad news for the restaurant, though. “Luckily, we have a healthy meal subscription service called Harvest2Homes that has helped keep us afloat and will run when the restaurant is closed,” says Whalen. “We’ve been delivering precooked meals in reusable pyrex [containers] right to the customers’ front doors on a weekly basis.”
Another off-Broadway Saratoga restaurant and bar, Harvey’s—which made national news in July with its tongue-in-cheek “Cuomo chips” promotion—says that it fared a little better. “It definitely hurt us not having the track and SPAC open, but I think we held our own with what we did get and made it work,” says Adam Humphrey, the restaurant’s chef and co-owner. “I think it was better than we predicted but still not where we want it to be.” It remains to be seen, though, what the fall and winter months could mean for business. “We’re not out of the woods yet,” he says. “Normally, you get a lot of business from the summer to help carry the burden of the winter, and then come winter, you normally rely on the city’s activities like Chowderfest and Flavorfeast to keep people coming into town. I am curious to see what happens with those events this year. We’re a big space and we normally do a lot of larger parties, and we can’t do those this year, so it will be a challenge to say the least.”
Though it seemingly took the City of Saratoga months to act, some city blocks were shut down to accommodate expanded outdoor seating for a handful of lucky restaurants. One street that was partially shut down near the end of June was Henry Street, the location of Ryan McFadden’s two businesses, Henry Street Taproom and Flatbread Social. McFadden echoes Humphrey in saying that the Saratoga summer wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been, specifically, because of the last-minute ordinance. “For us, it was much better than I expected it to be, because of the outdoor seating,” says McFadden. “It was absolutely critical to our ‘success,’ if that’s the right word, this summer. We were able to seat a lot of people; there were people in town, especially in August.” (McFadden has since purchased heaters to try to keep his restaurants’ expanded outdoor seating open for as long as possible.) However, each of his businesses has, give or take, 30-40 indoor seats apiece, with proper social spacing between them, and with the summer bar crowd now gone, he says, “at 50 percent capacity, it’s going to be a real challenge, to put it mildly.” Until then, he’s just trying to stay positive, and is hoping that a federal aid package comes through between now and when he can no longer seat anyone outside.
The only outlier in the state, regarding indoor dining, is New York City, where it is still prohibited. However, today (September 9), New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that city restaurants would be able to reopen at 25 percent capacity, with a number of COVID restrictions in place, beginning on September 30.