Over the past few weeks, the bustling vibrancy of Morningside Heights has paled as thousands of Columbia undergraduates have departed campus for the remainder of the semester and other residents are staying indoors during the coronavirus outbreak.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that all nonessential businesses statewide must close in-office functions as of March 22. Although restaurants, cafés, and bars are considered essential businesses, all must close their dining rooms and switch to offering takeout and delivery only. As part of his “Policies Assure Uniform Safety for Everyone” executive order, Cuomo also required all non-essential gatherings to be canceled and all people to maintain 6 feet of space from others while outside.
Spectator compiled a list of over 100 restaurants, cafés, and bars from Morningside Heights and Manhattanville—including nearly every eatery on Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue between 103rd and 125th streets—and recorded their operating activity at the time of publication. Over 50 of these businesses—including popular sit-down spots like Le Monde, Community Food and Juice, and Friedmans—have shut their doors indefinitely. As others limit their hours of operations and services, hundreds of workers in Morningside Heights and Manhattanville have been laid off in the past two weeks.
Those businesses staying open have struggled to maintain a customer base following the new policies, and owners and employees have been required to find ways to adjust their business models and provide new services. Some open restaurants, such as V&T Restaurant & Pizzeria, have had to expand outside of the Columbia bubble to reach different clientele. In light of the departure of Columbia students, others, like The Heights Bar & Grill, have adapted their food services to create a sense of community, even going to the lengths of introducing virtual events.
Some of these changes were necessary for businesses to keep turning a profit, as restaurants that have chosen to stay open have noticed a substantial drop in revenue since transitioning solely to takeout and delivery. For Falafel on Broadway, a small Middle Eastern restaurant, business has been reduced to just a quarter of what it was prior to the coronavirus outbreak. As a result, chef Tareq Eid had to cut his menu in half, crossing out chef’s specialties that required hours of preparation and ingredients that most markets have stopped offering.
Other changes were necessary after the exodus of most Columbia students—a large customer base for restaurants near the University—from campus. Eateries like Falafel on Broadway and Dear Mama Coffee, which rely on Columbia affiliates for up to 75 and 90 percent of their respective clienteles, have needed to find new ways to market to a greater audience.
Anthony Gjolaj, who owns V&T’s with his father, said that revenues were down 70 percent and that the eatery was “just trying our best to keep our employees as long as we can.”
Last fall, between 60 and 65 percent of V&T’s revenue was brought in by Columbia affiliates, according to Gjolaj. In an effort to adjust to changes due to the coronavirus outbreak, the restaurant has expanded its delivery zone, and its delivery workers now use electric bikes.
Greg May, the co-owner of Hex & Company, a board game café that also relies heavily on clientele from Columbia, said that it has started selling half-priced beer. To continue to foster a sense of camaraderie between players, while maintaining its relationship with University affiliates, the café has created a server to set up online role-playing games in collaboration with the Arts and Sciences Graduate Council.
“All of the other coffee shops basically shut down … and it’s hard to get beer nearby. There was just very little within a couple of blocks that still remained open outside of grocery stores and pharmacies,” May said. “We’ve seen a lot of families come in and grab a game for the kids to pass the time for the weekend, and grab a latte while here.”
Like Hex & Company, some eateries have found opportunities in providing a sense of community to their clientele amid the separation caused by social distancing.
Yong Zhao, the CEO of the Chinese eatery Junzi Kitchen, said that Junzi has made all available items from its condensed menu à la carte and introduced a family meal option—family-sized portions of vegetables, proteins, toppings, and sauces served in recyclable containers that can be reheated at home. Additionally, Junzi has begun an initiative called “Distance Dining,” a “crisis pop-up” through which Junzi is offering special homestyle Chinese meals like Shanghainese meatballs served in a sweet chicken broth.
“We want to rediscover demand [for our products] so that we can hire more people. That's very important to provide stability to society through jobs,” Zhao said. “The whole company is full throttle into innovative mode trying to find new products.”
Gjolaj and May both noted that many customers have stopped by in recent weeks to thank their businesses for staying open and providing a sense of normalcy throughout all the chaos.
“I’ve never seen this side of people in New York. Every time they pass by, they wish us the best of luck,” Gjolaj said. “I think keeping our doors open is kind of enough to keep everyone’s spirits up. It keeps our spirits up, it keeps their spirits up.”
Due to a large number of people struggling financially due to the effects of the coronavirus outbreak, a number of eateries have introduced services to supply meals to individuals living in the local area.
Dear Mama Coffee has instituted a “Buy A Meal For A Neighbor” initiative. Patrons can donate a meal, and the store will deliver meals to people struggling due to COVID-19 in Harlem; the program began as a way to provide support for those in the hospitality industry who have lost their jobs, according to CEO Zachary Sharaga.
The eatery has also introduced a small marketplace to its store, which is stocked with essential items to help mitigate the crowds in supermarkets.
The Heights—which is currently displaying large spray-painted advertisements for frozen margaritas on its exterior—has been donating leftover produce to local food banks in addition to supplying meals for first responders.
“We just had a really generous donation from one of our regular [customers], and we’re in talks with St. Luke’s Hospital to deliver those meals over the course of a couple of days,” general manager Joost Charlow said.
For Fumo, an Italian restaurant on Broadway, business has dropped by 65 percent, although its delivery and takeout orders have stayed around the same as before the coronavirus outbreak. Despite this loss in revenue, owner Francesco Capolongo said he believed it was important to stay open for the community.
“Just by the fact of us keeping our stores open for lunch and dinner, that is the biggest service to the community that I think we can do at this time,” Capolongo said.