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Facing The Uncertain Future Of Midtown Manhattan Dining

Searching for new customers after losing the neighborhood's tourists and office workers to pandemic flight.

Vincent Lin is owner and manager of Blue Willow, a new Hunan and Szechuan restaurant in Midtown Manhattan.

We’re in Midtown, literally half a block away from Trump Tower. There was a huge decline in tourism even before the pandemic because of the president. Every time he would come to town, they’d block off the streets, and we’d have these big guys with rifles outside. It scared the tourists.

On Fifth Avenue, there were hardly any international tourists before lockdown. They choose not to go past 56th Street and 57th Street because, first of all, they blocked off the road, and second of all, it’s just very intimidating. Tourists are not comfortable with that scene.

We’ve seen a huge decline in foot traffic throughout these years. I was with the previous business in this location—we remodeled it and rebranded it—so we’re very, very familiar with the neighborhood. There’s no residential space in Midtown. Our two main target markets were tourism and office workers. Between the president and the pandemic—those two things that we focused on, they’re all gone.

We signed a lease back in February. We were very excited to get things going. March comes, and we’ve got all the contractors and everything prepared. We order a lot of shipments from overseas. Then mid-March comes, the pandemic hits, and at that point we’ve already invested a big portion of our budget. We were literally about to give up.

Around April, we were like, “Do we really want to go through with this? Because any more investment and we might take a bigger hit.” And then that’s when it all really happened. Every week there was something new that came out regarding the restaurant industry. Nobody knew it was going to be like this.

At first we were saying, “Okay, maybe this thing will go away in a month.” Because a crisis like this had never happened before in our lifetime, especially in the restaurant industry in New York City. Then we had to negotiate with the landlord, and we got decent terms. It was not super favorable, but it was good enough. We opened up about a month ago.

In the meantime there was the whole investor situation, because we didn’t get the full amount of money in the beginning. They still haven’t given what they initially said they would. We had to get money from elsewhere and try to just wing it and make it work.

But even when some people are saying that they’re about to pull out, I’m trying to be as optimistic as possible. I guess it’s my mentality. I like to take risks. I try not to think about all the bad things that could happen. I try to think about the little bits of hope and positivity.

I was doing a lot of research every day, searching to see if there was any good news. And there was no good news. I’d see something like, a third of the restaurants in New York City will permanently close. That’s terrible. But maybe there’s some good that comes out of it. Maybe there will be less competition, or maybe when the COVID thing is over, people will feel like they’ve been deprived of going outside and having these experiences in restaurants and these gatherings with people. Maybe once it’s all over, there’s going to be a huge, huge boom in the restaurant industry. That’s what I’m hoping for.

Our restaurant is open now, and all the people that come into our restaurant are not necessarily what we expected. We’ve tried to focus on reaching certain residential areas to encourage people to travel to come to our restaurant. Because normally it would be the Sixth Avenue and Fifth Avenue tourism and the office workers on Sixth Avenue. That’s what we usually got. Usually our customer base was an average age of 45. That’s how it was before.

Now it’s 22- and 25-year-olds. It’s all young people right now in our restaurant in Midtown. They’re coming from all over the place in New York City. There’s not a single tourist. We did some marketing on Instagram and Facebook and stuff. When they see it, they’re like, “The design looks interesting. The food looks great. I’ll come try it with my friends.” They travel. But because we haven’t been open for that long, we don’t know how often they’ll come back.

We did so many new calculations, and we lowered our budget by a lot because we didn’t know if our reserves would be able to sustain us. Because right now, in the restaurant industry, everybody is waiting for one thing. We’re waiting until next year, waiting until there’s a vaccine, waiting for some kind of hope.

We are doing outdoor dining, but we’re not very optimistic about that because government guidelines require outdoor dining to be 50 percent open. With New York City weather, even with heating and everything, can you still make it warm? Because our food is hot and spicy Chinese food. And Chinese food, if it stays out for too long, especially in the cold, it’s not as good. It has to be fresh.

I don’t think there are any heaters we can buy to make it all stay warm. We would have to buy really expensive heaters. And even after all of that, we only have three or four seats outside. So is it really worth it? Some restaurants build outdoor dining and it looks like a house, completely enclosed. It’s the same thing as dining indoors. There’s no difference.

Delivery has been slowly picking up, but it’s not there yet. Our initial plan was to focus a lot on delivery, but to our surprise a lot of people came and dined indoors. We have a very big space, so we have an upstairs and a downstairs. We’ve tried to maintain the 25 percent capacity right now. We’ve taken all the proper measures like collecting customer information and temperature checks and all these things. Most of the people that come to the restaurant are quite comfortable with dining indoors. Of course there’s some who say, “I’ll just wait for outdoor seating.” But a lot of people, especially young people—I guess they’re less afraid. They all stay indoors.

Although I don’t feel very optimistic about outdoor dining and the whole heater situation, we’re still going to have to do it. We’re still going to invest, I don’t know how much money in that. Hopefully we can still encourage people to dine inside during the winter. But the outdoor dining we have to do as well, even though there’s three tables, because every little bit counts. Every table that comes in helps, because rent is not cheap in Midtown. And Midtown is not looking very great right now. We’re just trying to stall in any way possible.

We have to work our way from the ground up. Some restaurants have a huge customer base, so they have a higher chance to survive through the winter because they have the capital to invest in sneeze guards for every table, or high-tech air-conditioning filters. All these things cost a lot of money.

My main focus is to work as much as I can possibly work—right now I pretty much work seven days—just to lower the cost of staff. I don’t want to hire a PR firm, I don’t want to hire other people. I just want to save as much money as we can, because we do have a little bit of reserve left. Our goal is to use whatever we have left to get through the wintertime. And it’s going to be a long, long winter this year.