BEDFORD-STUYVESANT, BROOKLYN – Charlotta Janssen opened Chez Oskar in 1998 and, like other neighborhood restaurants, has worked tirelessly in the years since to build a reputation to provide quality food and service to local residents.
But in the three months since the coronavirus began, Janssen – like other area restauranteurs – has struggled to keep her French bistro afloat at a time when dining rooms have been forced to business owners have been forced to rely only on takeout and delivery services. Now, Janssen is part of a coalition of 30 restauranteurs in Bedford-Stuyvesant that is petitioning New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council members to allow eateries to offer outdoor dining as a means to save their businesses.
In a 4 ½ minute video entitled, ‘Let Bed-Stuy Eat In The Street’, a collection of restaurant owners make their case for limitations on outdoor dining to be lifted while the city remains in Phase 1 of its move toward opening. If not, many owners fear their restaurants will go under for good.
“We won’t make it through the winter if (city officials) don’t get their act together,” Janssen told Patch in a phone interview on Friday.
She added: “We are dying here.”
In the video, neighborhood restaurant owners express the struggles they have endured since mid-March when the pandemic forced eateries to close their dining rooms. Since then, restaurants have seen their business drop dramatically, which has caused owners to struggle to pay their bills and has forced them to lay off employees.
Owners from Secret Garden, Brooklyn Beso, Skal Café, Mom and Pop – along with others – share in the video their desire to continue to serve the neighborhood. But to do so, they say that not only are they in need of assistance to continue operating, but they need city officials to allow them to expand their current dining options. The majority of the impacted restaurants have space to accommodate outdoor diners, Janssen said, but many are unable to pay the expensive licensing fees needed to allow them to serve customers on sidewalks and other outdoor spaces.
Janssen, along with others, is frustrated with the amount of time de Blasio took in capping fees that are charged by what she characterizes as “evil, evil predatory” third-party online apps like GrubHub and Seamless, for delivery, which has further strapped small business owners.
In the video, one restaurant owner, Kirk McDonald, who runs Southern Comfort along with his wife, says that his business is down 60-80 percent. Another owner, Donna Drakes from Brooklyn Beso, calls the pandemic “very disastrous for everyone”. Even looking ahead to Phase 3 when restaurants will be able to offer in-house dining, it will happen with only a percentage of seating available due to social distancing guidelines.
Frustrated by the mayor’s lack of action in allowing restaurants to reopen, the local group of restaurant owner has found a champion in Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who has proven to be a point of support for local businesses. The group has also found in ally in actor Jeffrey Wright and his Brooklyn For Life initiative, which, as of Friday, has raised more than $339,000 of a $1 million goal to provide food delivery to front line workers.
But restauranteurs insist there is a need for more immediate relief.
“If we don’t open up fast, we’re just going to be another business that is out of business,” McDonald from Southern Comfort says in the video.
His wife, Shawanna, adds: “If you allow us (to offer) outdoor seating now, we have a chance to survive. But if not, we’ll fail as a small business – and we don’t want that to happen to any of us, especially in this community.”
Restaurant owners like Janssen acknowledge in the midst of so much uncertainty, their chances of survival are hinging on life support. Although she characterizes herself and her fellow restauranteurs as optimistic, the reality of not being able to hold on if nothing changes becomes more real by the day.
Many of the restaurants are owned by women or people of color, all of whom, Janssen said Friday, are capable of making decisions for their respective eateries and can figure out how to properly and safely set up outdoor dining space if given the opportunity.
If not, though, the future looks grim.
“What (city officials) are doing is that they’re killing all the little guys,” Janssen said. “If they want the little guys to survive, they have to act now, they have to do something inclusive and they listen to us and not treat us like bad children…with outdoor space, we can survive if we work together.”