The return of gastronomy. The time of hedonism. The summer of New York City. There’s no shortage of names for what’s going on in the once-yurt-laden streets of New York City, but Nicole Biscardi believes there could be room for another. „This is the beginning of the restaurant renaissance,” said Biscardi, a hospitality specialist with the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce.
In July 2020 when the five districts became an epicenter For the coronavirus worldwide, city officials struggled to document the number of restaurant closings across the city – there were just as many. About a year later, the opposite is the case: New York City is experiencing one of the busiest seasons for restaurant openings in over a year. Even if it’s not that crowded.
Restaurant openings are on the rise again in New York City, but through the lens of pre-pandemic opening dates, the renaissance looks more like a slow recovery. “People might think restaurants open their doors, make money, open left and right, but they don’t know how devastated the industry has been,” says Biscardi. „Even if it looks and feels like things are back, they still aren’t.”
According to the latest available data from Yelp, nearly 700 restaurants opened their doors between March and May 2021, but more than 1,000 in the same period in 2019. In May, one of the busiest months of the year for restaurant openings, the number of new openings declined from 2019 by 300 restaurants by 2021.
Restaurant reservation company Resy estimates that roughly the same number of stores opened on its platform between ril and June 2021 as in the same period in 2019. However, the company’s reach has more than doubled in recent years, from around 2,000 restaurants End of 2018 to more than 5,000 in the following year, suggesting the openings have not kept pace with the company’s growth.
Still, it’s an encouraging spike after a year that brought even the city’s busiest season for restaurant openings to a standstill. For the past year, Biscardi says it has been monitoring restaurant openings across town and researching more than 600 companies grappling with seasonal weather and changing regulations. In the fall, when indoor dining soon returned to New York City, there was „panic” about how vaguely government guidelines would play out in reality, she says. After the restaurant closed two months later, most of the restaurateurs she spoke to cried “hysterically,” unsure whether their businesses would survive the winter.
By the spring, coronavirus restrictions had eased and something became parents, says Biscardi. In a year of highs – and mostly lows – some restaurant owners held their breath, planning new projects, and waiting to unveil those that were already in the works before the pandemic. Now, well into summer, restaurant openings “shoot like a shotgun,” she says.
While the number of restaurants opened between March and May 2021 has declined compared to 2019, the number of new food businesses has increased by around 92 percent year-on-year, according to Yelp. Between March and July, about 1,300 additional facilities applied for permits from the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, with that number including non-restaurant grocery stores and renovations for existing restaurants.
Spring and fall were typically the busiest seasons for restaurant openings in the pre-pandemic period, but the recent surge in numbers is the culmination of a year-long “bottleneck”, according to Biscardi. „Because it can take so long to plan and open a restaurant, there were a lot of restaurants waiting in the pipeline,” she says. As the pandemic restrictions on restaurants and bars began to loosen, “people who were even willing to leave said, ‘Fuck it. Let’s do it now. ‘”
Such is the case with Hand Hospitality, the hit-making group behind Her Name is Han and Izakaya Mew. Encouraged by the city’s reopening, Hand made his debut in early June with Little Mad, a Korean-American restaurant in Nomad, located in the former On eatery, by the same group. Hand plans to add a second restaurant next month, a Thai restaurant that has been in the works for more than a year but has been put on hold due to the pandemic.
The openings were driven by a feeling – that „everything is slowly coming back,” says a spokesman for the hospitality group Eater – but also a fear. „If we don’t do it now, how long can we wait?” They say.
Hand Hospitality has repurposed its restaurant space, but elsewhere in New York City openings are being spurred on by “branded” leases signed earlier in the pandemic, according to Andrew Moger, founder of local sandwich chain Melt Shop and real estate development company Buoyancy compensator. „The things that are opening now are deals that were made during the pandemic,” when rents were cut by 30 to 50 percent in some parts of the city, he says. “It’s not like you sign a lease now and open it the next day. It takes time.”
For operators with capital earlier in the pandemic, the investments are starting to pay off. Blank Street Coffee, which first opened in Williamsburg last August, now has a double-digit range of coffee carts and stationary cafes in its luggage. The founders Issam Freiha and Vinay Menda want to open 20 additional locations in New York City by the end of the summer, around a third of which are stationary.
„We were mostly the only bidders,” says Menda of leases that were signed at this time last year. „We had all the time in the world to decide what to do.”
The same opportunities are rarer today. Brandon Pena is the founder of Puerto Rican coffee roaster 787 Coffee, which last year nearly doubled its number of locations – from four to eleven – by signing leases for cafes that were closed during the pandemic. He estimates that rental prices have risen by around 20 percent since that time. „There are a lot of restaurants that are open and everyone is trying to get the best price,” says Pena, who was outbid for three cafes in June alone.
„Everything we looked at, prices went up because there were deals now,” he says. „They didn’t have anyone before.”
Restaurant space may move again, but experts say New York City’s economy may still be Years away from returning to pre-pandemic levels and could bounce back more slowly than other metropolitan areas in the country. Other factors including the end of the state Break during commercial evictions on September 1st and the Restaurant Revitalization Fund go out, mean an increase in restaurant closings may be on the horizon.
Biscardi will be the first to say she’s not a “scare maker” – or an expert on citywide economics – but as someone who’s been on site with restaurant and bar owners last year, she believes “we’re on the right way are back ”, even if it’s long. „Even under perfect circumstances – everything is open, regulations are being repealed, people want out – I think we have two to three years ahead of us,” she says.
Still, a renaissance is relative, and Biscardi expects restaurants and bars to keep opening their doors, especially as New York City approaches its second busiest season for openings: fall.