Celebrity Chefs Chart New Future for NYC Restaurant Scene

For New York City’s restaurants, coming back from the devastation of Covid-19 will require more than just a vaccine.

Celebrity chefs Marcus Samuelsson and Tom Colicchio said what’s needed is ingenuity from the restaurant industry, flexibility from landlords and stimulus funding from Washington. Colicchio and Samuelsson spoke at a virtual event Friday sponsored by Bloomberg LP on the future of New York City’s restaurants.

“We have to work toward making it the greatest city in terms of food again,” said Samuelsson, who operates Red Rooster restaurant in Harlem, where he also lives. “This is actually an opportunity to reboot it.”

Celebrity Chefs Chart New Future for NYC Restaurant Scene

Samuelsson called on lawmakers to make the industry’s revival a priority, particularly for whoever becomes the city’s next mayor when Bill de Blasio’s term ends in December. ”If we don’t value it, it will leave,” he said.

The pandemic upended New York’s restaurant scene. Overall, employment in the city’s dining and drinking establishments plunged 43% last year from a year ago, according to state labor statistics. The industry, which employed 324,500 people at the end of 2019, only counted 183,800 jobs by December. New York’s restaurants and bars lost 11,400 jobs from November to December alone, after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo shut down indoor dining and the weather got colder.

Still, restaurateurs are hopeful. “I think there is light at the end of the tunnel,” said Colicchio, who owns Crafted Hospitality and is the head judge on Top Chef, the popular cooking reality television show.

For one, dropping rents have actually attracted some groups of people back to New York City, including young chefs who had been priced out of rising retail rents. “Now young people can move back and creative people can move back,” Colicchio said. “The neon is great in Times Square, but we need a little grit back.”

The restaurateurs are also hopeful for federal support: The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed a resolution Thursday calling for grants for independent restaurants and bars affected by Covid-19. While the vote was 90 to 10, the amendment does not guarantee funds will be included in the final version of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion virus relief package.

“We’re in really good shape right now but it’s not over,” said Colicchio, who helped found the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which has been lobbying Congress for aid.

Celebrity Chefs Chart New Future for NYC Restaurant Scene

As of this week, restaurant workers are eligible for Covid-19 vaccinations. Samuelsson said he already got his first shot. And indoor dining in the city is scheduled to return, at 25% capacity, on Feb. 14, or Valentine’s Day. Cuomo had shut down indoor dining on Dec. 14 after holiday gatherings and travel drove a surge in Covid-19 cases.

Chefs are learning to do more with technology, promoting themselves on social media in new ways. Samuelsson also suggested that people could volunteer to help their local restaurants in unconventional ways, like reviewing lease agreements or stimulus documents.

Samuelsson, who has roots in both Ethiopia and Sweden, runs several restaurants in the U.S., Europe, and Canada. This month he launched the Black Businesses Matter Matching Fund, an effort to raise money for Black-owned restaurants and local businesses, with support from Uber Eats.

“You will probably see one of the interesting, fascinating creative times in the restaurant industry ever,” Colicchio said.

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