Nine months into Covid lockdowns, how one New York restaurant is "barely keeping our nose above the water before we drown."

  • New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo shut down indoor dining in New York City again this week, and one beloved Brooklyn diner is struggling to hang on.
  • New York City restaurants have been devastated by the pandemic, and some estimates suggest that a full half of all restaurants and bars could close permanently across the city. 
  • The situation is dire, and a federal bailout is the only real solution, said New York State Senator Zellnor Myrie. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

First came the good news: The Food and Drug Administration announced on Dec. 11 it had authorized a vaccine to combat COVID-19. Then, the bad news. Virus hospitalizations in New York were continuing to rise; the seven-day average hit 200 at the end of the week, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was shutting down indoor dining, once again. "Yeah, I just heard a little while ago, said Vasilios (Billy) Tourloukis, a manager at Tom's Restaurant, a diner a few blocks from Brooklyn's Prospect Park.

It was a little hard to hear him over an epic rendition of O Holy Night, a la Celine Dion, playing on a radio turned up high; the windows were painted in cheery reds and greens, proclaiming, "Joy to the World." 

"Things are bad, very bad," said Tourloukis. The restaurant, run by the same family for three generations, was empty, save for a couple quietly eating lunch at a tiny booth in the corner. In pre-COVID times, "this whole area would be packed, and so would the other room." Come back on the weekend, and you'd see a line out the door, stretching down the block. "And that line would last until 2pm, 3pm," said Tourloukis.  

The lines are long gone. 

Before the pandemic hit, New York City's restaurant industry provided nearly 318,000 jobs — more than the entire population of Pittsburgh — and paid more than $10.7 billion in wages, according to the state comptroller's office. The most dire estimates, according to that same comptroller's report, suggest that up to one half of New York City's restaurants and bars — 12,000 establishments — may be forced to close permanently, erasing 159,000 jobs. 

In August, even with outdoor dining in full swing across the city, industry employment numbers were still abysmal —  down by more than 140,000 jobs. As cold weather makes outdoor dining less palatable, things are likely to get worse. Nearly 90% of more than 400 restaurant and bar owners who responded to a recent survey by the NYC Hospitality Alliance were unable to pay full rent in October.

Restaurants are struggling across the country. As of early December, 110,000 restaurants in the United States have shut down permanently or long term, according to the National Restaurant Association. Of the restaurants still open, close to 60% say that layoffs and furloughs will continue for at least the next three months. 

Tom's has been operating since 1936, and the flavor of old Brooklyn is still strong. There's the lunch counter with red-topped stools, where in normal times customers could watch the frenzied preparation of chocolate malts and lime rickeys, and walls crowded with décor: memorabilia, plates adorned with ships and horses, stained glass, a smattering of Greek icons, and the requisite headshots of minor celebrities. It is a place decorated with a loving hand, not a designer's eye — a little worn, and very comfortable, like a favorite recliner. 

"As the neighborhood gentrified, there's a lot more places to eat now — a lot more fancier places," said Demetrios (Jimmy) Kokotas, the current owner. "Some people do want their 18-dollar eggs, but we are still serving the community," he said. "We haven't changed." 

Kokotas grew up going to Tom's as a kid. His Uncle Gus ran the restaurant back then, after Gus took over from his father, the original Tom. "My uncle was a very warmhearted person," said Kokotas. "He closed on Sundays because his passion was singing in the church choir." Some Sundays, or on holidays, Gus would push all the tables together, and gather the family, "and you'd be sitting there eating dinner in the middle of the restaurant." 

Kokotassaid that 2020 has been all about adapting quickly. He got a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan in early May. "We're  still grateful," but, he said, the loans were designed to cover only around eight weeks of payroll, and the rules "were all over the place." 

In the warmer months, the city relaxed its rules to allow outdoor dining. "That was a great help." So the restaurant hustled to set up tables in Tom's small backyard. "But even at the peak of business, in the summertime, we were down almost 50 percent," Kokotas said. 

And as Tom's goes, so goes the neighborhood, said manager Billy Tourloukis. "When we're slow," he said, "every restaurant is dead."  

Tom's sits at the northern end of a block of Washington Avenue that is testament to Brooklyn's culinary diversity, and the upheaval of the pandemic. There's a brick oven pizza place; signs on the window said it was open, but tables were stacked, and the door was locked. A few steps farther south, elaborate outdoor dining structures, replete with plants and Christmas lights, line the street.

At Shane's, a spot for chicken and waffles and specialty cocktails, Junior George was manning a small window for takeout orders. "It took a lot to build that," George said, indicating the restaurant's lush yet cozy outdoor seating area. It was locked and empty. "We are trying to stay afloat, especially since they closed indoor dining. My co-workers, we're all worried, because this is how we survive," he said.  

A few steps away, at Lowerline, a "New Orleans-inspired neighborhood restaurant," owner John Verlander never bothered to reopen indoor dining. "Because we're such a small space, for us, it just didn't make sense," he said. He stuck with outdoor dining. "It's certainly better than nothing," said Verlander. Business is at 50%. Winter, he said, is going to be tough. 

But Verlander was, in light of his situation, sanguine. "We are a little more fortunate than a lot of other restaurants since we're so small," he said. For bigger restaurants, the pandemic "is truly a disaster."  

"We have to pay these businesses to be closed. That is the only real option," said Zellnor Myrie, New York State Senator for the area. "These owners are invested in the community, they are providing people with a living wage," Myrie said, but desperation has taken hold. And they don't want to be forced to choose between feeding people in unsafe conditions and keeping their businesses open. 

But, Myrie said, there is only so much that anyone outside of Washington, D.C. can do. States and localities are facing huge budget shortfalls; coffers are empty. But by law, all states, New York included, must balance their budgets. They can't spend money they don't actually have.  "The federal government isn't under that constraint," Myrie said. In other words, the feds can access money and fiscal resources that are simply not available to states and localities; it's up to Washington to disburse funds. "Nothing short of a robust federal investment in our struggling businesses is going to be a solution, Myrie said. 

Jimmy Kokotas said he is doing everything he can to keep Tom's Restaurant going. "I hope and pray," he said. "You can either downsize or close. So we cut expenses as much as we can. Fall behind on the rent. Fall behind on the utilities. And hope for the next PPP loan." 

On the Tuesday after indoor dining was shuttered, the mood inside Tom's was subdued. The lights were mostly off, the raucous Christmas music silenced, the sizzling of the grill audible over the whooshing of the HVAC. Masked customers still came and went, ordering coffees and French fries to go. 

Marin Diaz was working the counter and the phones and the register, one of a skeleton crew of three. "We do our best to follow the rules," he said. "That's the only way you can keep people safe." Diaz has worked at Tom's for 15 years. He pointed to a picture of Uncle Gus on the wall. "That guy, he was like a father to everyone." 

Diaz used to work at least four days a week, but now it's down to two. But he said he wasn't worried. "I put everything in good hands — and it's Him," he said, pointing heavenward. "When these things happen, it helps us to see who we are. And we can build something better." 

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