An accomplished chef and disaster veteran looks for inspiration on where to go from here.
By Michael Lomonaco as told to Chris Mohney
Michael Lomonaco has been a chef at some of New York’s most famous restaurants, including Le Cirque and 21 Club, and he was executive chef at Windows on the World restaurant at the World Trade Center when the buildings were destroyed during the 9/11 attacks. On TV, he has co-hosted Epicurious and appeared on numerous other programs. Currently, Lomonaco is chef at Porter House Bar & Grill, Hudson Yards Grill, and the Center Bar at Time Warner Center.
We had to close all of our operations in March. March 16th was our last day. A few days before that, the city cut back on occupancy by 50 percent. We had already begun a round of layoffs in both front of house and back of house. When we actually closed, we lost our teams in all the restaurants. There are a few management positions still partially onboard because we’re trying to plan what the opening is going to be like. That date keeps moving, or the potential for a date keeps moving.
Any reopening will involve a pre-opening. We’ll have to gather everybody back, the front and back of house. After a period like this, there’s going to be training, particularly around the sanitary restraints and requirements, not knowing what those are going to be. We’re trying to think our way through those things. We’ve been trying to gather information from other places to see what’s been going on in Hong Kong and Singapore.
Hong Kong is a good example, because just anecdotally I’ve been getting information from people I know who operate in the East about the use of masks in restaurants and how that works. We think those are the kinds of parameters we’ll have to work within. We should start to understand what they may be.
We’ve been developing different versions of scenarios of how the reopening might happen. We’ve been trying to decide what reopening menus would be, compared to a menu six months later, compared to the menus where we were. A reopening menu might be smaller. What dishes do we keep? What changes do we make in preparation? What changes do we make in the menu itself for a smaller staff, not knowing how many guests would arrive? We’ve been doing a lot of brainstorming.
Restaurants are very clean places, actually—you would hope. Sanitation and protecting the public health is part of our DNA at my restaurants, and at most restaurants. So this is a new level of what that might look like. How do we manage our staff? Do we take people’s temperatures when they arrive to work? China is different from America. We all know it’s a different society, and they take temperatures on every corner.
But, for instance, in Hong Kong, the minute they heard about this virus, they went into something they learned from SARS. They they went into health protection mode. Temperatures were taken. In the restaurants in Hong Kong, very often you’ll see plastic face shields. The servers are wearing gloves. And all of this is going on in the kitchen as well. Social distancing is something they practice there very strongly. It’s very much a part of how they operate. They’re very accustomed to it.
Social distancing is going to be a big factor for all of us. We don’t understand fully what that means. Social distancing is not just the tables set apart. How do servers approach a table? Do we use disposable menus? Do we put wine lists on iPads and sanitize them between uses? These are things that go on in Hong Kong.
Porter House Bar and Grill, Hudson Yards Grill, and Center Bar at the Time Warner Center are three distinct kinds of places. The thing that’s common between Porter House and Hudson Yards Grill is they’re large spaces to begin with. We have seating for 250-plus at both restaurants. Market rents and all of that are tied to our seating. Our capacity is what we pay the rent with. Our ability to not just turn tables, but to have a full room, is going to change a lot.
My partners are working through all this with our landlords. I think restaurants may have to negotiate with their landlords a rent schedule based on those new numbers. Maybe that’s a percentage rent. Small operators and small-operator landlords may not be comfortable with that, but that may be how we keep restaurants open. Landlords want their spaces occupied. They don’t want empty stores. The hit gets passed along. It’s not just falling on the landlord, it’s the operators too. All the numbers are based on how many seats you have, and what kind of volume you can do. You have to be able to pay all of your bills.
We are social beings. We want to be with other people. The acceptance of the situation that we’re in, the acceptance of the conditions that we’re living under, is something that people will understand. They will have expectations of us as restaurateurs abiding by the rules and giving them the space they need.
Getting people back into restaurants is going to take some time. I don’t think people will flood out quite as much, but I think the impulse to do that will be there. People will weigh and balance how they feel in a particular space. As long as we are giving them the comfort they need to relax, that’s going to be the most important thing.
Restaurants have become entertainment as much as anything, but the basis of restaurants is the restorative nature of being in a place with people, sharing meals with friends, while other people are doing the same thing. This nurturing environment is something that we need to maintain. We need the welcome, the greeting, the basic tenets of restaurants. I believe that restaurants will offer hospitality at a heightened level to help people feel comfortable enough.
Restaurants are really on a cusp—it’s going to change our industry. Whether it’s short term, two years, or longer term, five years or more, who knows? I think it’s really the short term, that one to two years, where we hope that health professionals can offer us the safety and security we seek. In the meantime, we will all abide by social distancing and do the things that we have to do. If people need to wear masks in public, they’ll learn here, the way they have in Asia, to wear masks more commonly. It might take a while for people to even want to give those up. We New Yorkers, we’re getting used to it. Now we’re feeling comfortable with it. They’ll tell us when we can give them up.
We’re also in an economic downturn, or at least that’s what it looks like. So you have some people telling you how it’s going to be a booming business four months from now. We’ve had other downturns in the economy. The early 90s, the tech bust in 2000. And, of course, 2008 is really big in people’s minds. That was different because we didn’t have a health crisis at the same time.
There are similarities to the time after 9/11 too. Restaurants were empty, in New York in particular, immediately after. But we tend to forget things. People in 2001 were afraid for their safety. We’re afraid for our safety now, too. There were the warning systems that the feds put up—green, orange, red. We were living by like—what’s the hazard level today? People were hesitant to go out.
In October of 2001, we launched a campaign to get people back in restaurants, and we established the Windows of Hope Foundation to support the families of people who were in food service and were lost at the World Trade Center. We kicked that off on October 11th with a dine-out night in New York City—Dine Out for Windows of Hope. It was a very successful night in terms of fundraising. We had international support for that foundation. People did this around the world—they dined out in Switzerland and Spain and Italy and Japan and South America, and they made contributions to the fund.
More than anything, it helped restore people’s sense of wanting to be with other people and feeling that their safety was in the hands of the people they believed in. It did help to reinvigorate things in New York. After that, we had a holiday season that wasn’t great by any means, but October, November, and December were better than people had predicted in September.
Once you start to see a little light, you can feel better about things. And I think we’re going to get through this together. As long as we remain unified in our mission to protect ourselves and our neighbors, we can get through this.