Restaurants in New York are facing a dire winter, now that cold weather has ended most outdoor dining and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has placed further restrictions on indoor dining as COVID-19 rates rise.
One of those restaurants is the Savoy Taproom in Albany, which has been in business since 1936. It was known as Justin’s for many years and has long been a gathering place for some state lawmakers, their staff and lobbyists. That was back when the Senate and Assembly used to actually meet in person, before the pandemic.
When I first visited the Savoy, the warm fall weather still lingered, outdoor dining was in full swing, and owner Jason Pierce was apprehensive but hopeful about surviving the pandemic.
“I have woken up many a morning since March 16 and just thought, ‘My God, what am I doing? This is too much,’ ” Pierce said. “But the reality is, I have staff here who need to eat, who need money in their pockets, and I have customers who have come to rely on us. So this isn’t just about me anymore.”
Assemblymember Patricia Fahy has been a champion of the city’s independently owned restaurants even before the pandemic changed everything. Fahy said the city’s arts district, where the Savoy is located, has had its ups and downs over the years, but it was on the rebound. She said she attended seven ribbon-cuttings for new bars and restaurants in 2019.
As we walked around the neighborhood in early October, she told me that the owners were doing “everything in their power” to keep from closing.
“The creativity, the fortitude and perseverance of these restaurant owners and staff is just absolutely amazing,” said Fahy. “But everyone is nervous with the cold weather coming.”
I caught up with Fahy by telephone again in late November. She said the challenges to the restaurants have only increased. The weather turned bleak, and there was a COVID-19 outbreak among staff at 11 restaurants in the city, including the Savoy, which had to temporarily close.
“With the cold, less people are going out,” Fahy said. “And yes, anytime you hear or read of a restaurant having an infection, that has a chilling effect.”
Pierce has had to retrench. Even though limited indoor dining is still allowed in Albany -- which isn’t the case in many other cities -- Pierce has decided to offer only takeout and delivery service for now. He said with many of his staff exposed to the virus in early November, it was the smart choice.
He said all of the employees who tested positive had minor symptoms, and all have recovered.
“But they did test positive, nonetheless,” Pierce said. “As a result, a lot of our other staff had to quarantine due to exposure.”
He believes the restaurant can survive the winter. But he said he needs more help from the federal government, and he would like to see the Paycheck Protection Program renewed. He used the loan program to pay employees in the spring and summer.
But now, without any further action by Congress, he said he’s going to have to -- for the first time since the pandemic began -- let some staff go.
“I would consider it shameful that our federally elected officials have not been able to come together to provide some type of meaningful assistance,” Pierce said. “Hopefully the next time they are up for reelection, we remember that.”
Pierce said despite the challenges, there is some good news: The Savoy’s whiskey sour and other signature cocktails are still on the takeout and delivery menus.
“And we’re doing it not only as single drinks, but also as mixed batch cocktails,” said Pierce. “Which contains enough to make four drinks at home.”
He said just don’t drink it all at once.