Playing to the strengths of big, adaptable rooms and patios in New York, and revising menus and delivery styles in Westchester.
By Nick Livanos as told to Chris Mohney
Nick Livanos is owner of Livanos Restaurant Group, a family business that operates restaurants in New York City and Westchester County.
At Moderne Barn in Armonk, we always did a little bit of takeout—more of an accommodation for our regulars, maybe a couple of orders a night. But then the pandemic hit, and we took on delivery. That was the restaurant we pivoted the most.
What was funny is that it was just us doing the deliveries. It was all family members—my kids, my wife, my brother, his kids. It needed to be us, all hands on deck, delivering everywhere. Deep into Greenwich, Bedford, Purchase, up to 10 miles away. The orders were substantial, anywhere between $150 to $300 orders, because people were feeding their whole families.
This was in March, almost immediately at lockdown. We never closed. It’s very hard to find reliable delivery people in the suburbs because kids who are still in high school, or slightly out of high school—they’re on the young side. They’re not the most experienced drivers. I actually just trusted us, the family, because it requires that extra touch. People are super-paranoid with COVID. We needed to be sensitive, and to be able to read each customer. Sometimes there will be a note on the door saying, “Please leave package on the patio. Thank you so much.” Sometimes there’s an envelope outside with a tip in it. Other people are opening the door, and they almost want to embrace you and thank you. Everyone is different in their comfort level.
We did those deliveries up until we were able to open up indoors. We certainly could not handle maintaining delivery then, because now we were back to work inside.
City Limits in White Plains has always done takeout. We started to use Uber Eats for delivery, and we generally don’t like them. They’re not reliable for the suburbs. The order is in, they’re too late to come pick it up, and then they’re maybe doing other deliveries and they’re too late to bring it to the customer. The customer calls us up pissed off. They’re blaming us. So with Uber Eats, we keep them to the immediate area of White Plains, and that seems to work.
In Manhattan—especially our Midtown restaurants, like Molyvos and Ousia—it’s a little different because it’s just a few blocks. They’re delivering within a six- or eight-block radius on bicycles. That’s a little more efficient.
We had already planned a big pre-COVID renovation for Oceana in New York, so that place closed. We wanted to do it in January, and the only reason it didn’t happen then is because the construction and design was just a little delayed. And we said, “Let’s wait a little longer.” We were actually thinking, “Let’s wait until June or July.” And then COVID happened, so we didn’t open at all. Then starting in June, we went ahead with the renovation and completed it in September. We didn’t need to change the renovation plans because Oceana is a big restaurant, and even at 25 percent capacity, we’re able to space out seating appropriately. It worked out perfectly, actually. The one change we made is using our private party rooms for à la carte dining, because the space is there, the room is there, so we might as well take advantage of it.
We brought back probably about 30 percent of our staff at Oceana. It was the same menu, but we kept it a little tighter, a little smaller. Normally we have 10 or 11 different oysters on the menu, and now we just have five because the demand and the business isn’t quite there.
It’s definitely all regulars coming back, but a much smaller percentage. Many have not come back to work in the city. Many are comfortable inside, and others prefer to stay outside. We have a nice patio. We got the license for propane heaters, so there are plenty of people in 30-degree weather sitting outside. It was funny—three firemen came in and asked to see the paperwork and certification for the heaters. One of my managers who got the certification pulled out his certification card, and they looked at him in total awe, like, “You’re the first person ever to actually have the card.”
I’m really worried about all the other operators and the stuff they have to deal with regarding their outdoor structures. Now there’s talk that after a certain amount of snow, you have to be able to remove them. That’s impossible. It’s going to be a messy winter.
In Westchester, people are definitely more comfortable going out. Our business is back to about 60 to 70 percent. But in Manhattan, the offices are still empty. Without tourism, without Broadway, it’s quite dire. And I don’t think things are going to return to some normalcy until the spring.
We closed one of our restaurants—Oceana Poke, a little fast-casual poke place—because that landlord was not willing to work with us at all. But we have long and healthy relationships with our other three landlords. They understood the circumstances, and they were very cooperative immediately. They want to see us survive.
We are three generations in this business. My father is in his early 80s now. To keep him safe, we haven’t been allowing him to come to the restaurants, even though he’s perfectly healthy. That’s been frustrating him. But I have four kids, and my two oldest sons, Johnny and Enrico, they’re extremely active in the business. They’ve been pivoting and doing different things, doing lots of virtual stuff.
People are anxious, but they want to go out. It’s interesting to see the two perspectives, from Westchester and Manhattan. Manhattan is just going to take a little longer. I think what this has taught us is being able to operate a little more lean and mean. It’s not like we’re going to be able to hire everyone right back. So we’re definitely more efficient in some ways. I think Westchester is going to be back to normal once everyone starts getting vaccinated and a few months go by.
I am definitely seeing a new clientele in our Westchester restaurants, lots of faces we’ve never seen before. I have to attribute it to people moving from Manhattan. They’ve heard of us, or they know of our city restaurants, and they’ve come to check us out.
Thanksgiving was very strong for us. Even Oceana had 55 turkey packages to go. At City Limits we had 200 packages to go. In the past at City Limits, we always had a 20-pound bird with all the trimmings that serves families of 10 to 12. I think it’s $435. It always sells out. This year, we were not even at half the normal packages we’d do. We realized the problem was smaller gatherings. We immediately did a mailing and a blast on our social media that we had a half package available, and it exploded. That brought us right up to almost 200 packages.
I’m a member of the Restaurant Network in New York. We’re 250 restaurateurs that own about 1,000 restaurants. It’s all New York City operators, on WhatsApp. Every day, people are contributing and discussing their issues and their problems. It’s bad. For sure the smallest places have not been able to survive—because at 25 percent indoors, if you’re a 50-seat restaurant, what does that mean? You have 12 or 15 seats inside and whatever tables you put outside.
Once PPP is done, they’re going out of business. I see a New York City restaurateur saying, “I’m closing the doors on Restaurant X tomorrow. Guys, who wants to take my plates? Who wants to take my chairs and tables?” They’re giving them away. It’s pretty sad. In our heads though, we’re preparing for a shutdown in New York in December. We feel it’s inevitable.