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Restaurants struggle to keep afloat in the pandemic

El Loco owner Patrick Noonan, along with Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, at the restaurant's outdoor dining space on Madison Avenue in Albany.
Karen DeWitt/WXXI News
El Loco owner Patrick Noonan, along with Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, at the restaurant's outdoor dining space on Madison Avenue in Albany.

October brings colder weather in the Northeast, and restaurants that have survived by offering outdoor dining during the 2020 summer of COVID-19 are bracing for a long and perhaps lonely winter of limited indoor dining.  

El Loco Mexican restaurant has been in business since 1986, in Albany’s arts district. It has a long, cozy interior in a classic 1860s building with a tin ceiling, warm-colored wall hangings and images of Frida Kahlo. The restaurant is known for its big baskets of chips, perfect for sharing, with salsa that comes in three levels of heat to match -- or challenge -- a patron’s palate.

Owner Patrick Noonan said it’s a go-to spot for first dates that sometimes lead to a romantic future.

“It turns into, ‘Hey, will you cater our wedding?’ ” Noonan said. 

Joining Noonan is Assemblywoman Pat Fahy, who is championing the survival of restaurants in her district. 

“This was one of the first places my husband brought me,” said Fahy, who moved to Albany from Chicago 20 years ago.  

Now, in the midst of the pandemic, the formerly closely packed, cozy tables are spaced widely apart, and the interior feels more spartan. Most of the action now takes place outside, with a dining space on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, strung with lights and colorful flags. There’s also a back patio.

It’s very inviting on a warm fall afternoon, but Noonan is looking ahead. He’s invested in propane space heaters, but he realizes they are no match for the ice and snow that are coming soon.  

“We are going to push this thing out front as long for as we can,” said Noonan, who added he’s even thought about giving out courtesy blankets.

Despite his efforts, Noonan’s doing just a fraction of his former business at El Loco. Half of the workers there have resigned, saying they no longer feel safe interacting with customers.  

He’s having even worse luck at Debbie’s Kitchen, the longtime Albany favorite across the street that he revived two years ago. With the pandemic, the popular catering service associated with the sandwich shop disappeared. Debbie’s was forced to close, and all of the staff was laid off. Even at the Ben and Jerry’s that Noonan owns next door, prospects are looking grim as we approach winter, a downtime for ice cream sales. 

He said many restaurants will not survive much longer.  

“The snow's going to start flying any day now,” he said. “You’re really going to see, I think, a lot of places close come January, February.” 

El Loco Mexican Café in Albany.
Credit Karen DeWitt
Indoor dining at El Loco, where tables are socially distanced.

Noonan said the “grind” is taking its toll. 

“You’re flying by the seat of your pants for the last six, eight months now,” said Noonan, who added there’s likely six to eight more months to go before the pandemic eases. 

“How long can people keep up this fight?” he said.  

The New York State Restaurant Association predicts that two-thirds of restaurants in the state will close their doors by the end of this year without financial help, and 90% of restaurants in New York City could not meet their August rent payments. Noonan said government aid can make a huge difference, and he wants Congress, which has not provided a relief package since April, to approve another round of Paycheck Protection Program loans or a grant program. 

He said tax breaks would also help. He still has to pay the same amount of property and school taxes on the building, even with reduced income. 

Fahy is pressuring Gov. Andrew Cuomo to ease up on some of the rules limiting indoor dining. Currently, eating establishments in New York City are restricted to 25% of capacity. In the rest of the state, it’s 50%.

“Give them 75% (capacity) inside where they can still maintain 6 feet apart,” said Fahy, who added Plexiglas dividers could also be used as an alternative in small spaces.

“But the Plexiglas, one sheet of it, can cost $400,” Fahy said. She said she'd like to see the state offer subsidies for restaurants to buy the dividers.

So far, Cuomo has not been open to changing the rules for restaurants, saying he’s more concerned with protecting the public against the spread of the virus. 

Noonan said offering takeout dinners and alcoholic drinks keeps him in business and preserves the restaurant’s relationship with its customers, though he complains that third-party delivery services eat up to 30% of sales.

But Noonan, who comes from a family of restaurateurs, said he does not plan to give up.

“We are having to evolve, and I think that’s the name of the game right now,” Noonan said. “You have to evolve or die.” 

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.