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MADISON, NJ—Thomas Donohoe knows a few things about the restaurant business. The Morristown native has worked at virtually all types of eateries, and if you name a job at a restaurant, he's done it.
"I started working at Rod's Steakhouse the Madison Hotel when I was 12," Donohoe said, "I worked in restaurants throughout college, and the moved out to Montana to be a head chef out there."
Donohoe worked under several prominent chefs across the country before moving back to New Jersey in 2009. That's when he started to look for a restaurant of his own.
"I found Shanghai Jazz as a customer," he said, "the food was good, the music was good. I have no musical talent, but I care about food and hospitality, and I liked to go there to sit there and listen to music and eat."
In June 2017, he decided to buy the Main Street restaurant, and he set the menu to compliment his style, calling it a fusion of Chinese, American, and other Asian tastes. Business was strong, and there was live music several nights per week.
But if anyone knew the challenges of running a restaurant, it was Donohoe. Perhaps his toughest hurdle has been owning Shanghai Jazz during a global pandemic which closed every dining room in the state earlier this year.
"The weekend leading up to the shutdown," he said, "I had just over 300 reservations for the three nights, and we did about 120 of them. That Sunday, we went from 85 reservations to four. I had to call those four and tell them we can't do it."
Donohoe said he began to ramp up the takeout operation. But, for a place like Shanghai Jazz, which counts live music and environment as big parts of its appeal, it was a tough hit to take.
"People love the food," he said, "but without the music, people don't think of Shanghai Jazz."
Donohoe soon discovered another, more pressing problem.
"At the time," he said, "my cooks all lived in New York, and I was renting them an apartment here. They went back to New York and couldn't come back, so I didn't have cooks."
Donohoe said he had to step in and cook in addition to trying to keep the restaurant afloat while everything was shut down. It took about two weeks before he could hire any new staff.
"I ended up prepping, cooking, doing everything," Donohoe said, "until I could hire four new guys to work in the kitchen."
Donohoe said he had to reconfigure Shanghai Jazz's menu to accommodate the takeout business model, and the restaurant survived the spring. In mid-June, Gov. Murphy allowed outdoor dining to begin, and Donohoe rushed into action.
"We're really fortunate to own a 14-space parking lot behind the restaurant," he said, "so we can fit 25 tables and a stage for live music out there. It's a big advantage."
Despite the good fortune, there were still big expenses tied to opening for outdoor dining. Canopies, tents, outdoor chairs and tables, in addition to more sanitary equipment to supplement the already-strenuous cleaning process, all had to be purchased.
"I just bought brand new propane heaters for outside," Donohoe said. "But if it gets real cold and we're allowed to have 50 percent occupancy inside, we'll give that a shot."
Shanghai Jazz has two indoor dining rooms which can hold about 175 people in total, with the main room also containing a performance space for live music. Donohoe also built a speakeasy in the basement.
He said operating at 50 percent capacity will enable the restaurant to get by, especially combined with the 100 outdoor seats available.
"I'm sure there's a handful of exceptions," he said "but any restaurant that tells you they're profitable this year is lying."
Donohoe has credited his staff for the way the restaurant has been able to adapt.
"I'm incredibly fortunate to have an amazing staff," he said, "as short-staffed as we are right now, they come in every day and work their tails off to set up outside. It's a lot of extra work."
Donohoe said he's noted changes in customers tendencies since the resumption of outdoor and indoor dining, most notably that he's almost exclusively seating parties of two.
"No one is coming out in large parties anymore," he said, "so it's really difficult."
Looking toward the future, Donohoe said he's been pleased to see some of his regular customers, but many haven't returned yet.
"Some haven't returned because they're afraid," Donohoe said, noting that he understands the concern customers have about sitting in a restaurant right now. "One of my favorite customers is a 70-plus year old cancer survivor who was on a ventilator for a week and survived covid."
Donohoe said when he redesigned the menu during the shutdown, he made the cuisine more diverse and varied, in hopes of appealing to a wider audience. Still, he knows there is more work to be done.
"It's an incredibly difficult time to do business for everyone right now, across the board," he said. "Everyone is working harder for less revenue. People are working their tails off just to make it by."