Gotham Gazette Thu, 13 May 2021 16:45:42 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) ‘Open Restaurants’ Shouldn’t Close Them Down food center frank ies dot

Outdoor dining (photo: @NYC_DOT)

Surviving as a restaurant in New York City was never easy. But more than a year of indoor dining restrictions and the economic ruin of a global pandemic brought many restaurants that were able to hold on to the brink of bankruptcy. That is why we cheered when the city announced the permanent extension of the Open Restaurants program back in September, preserving an estimated 90,000 jobs by letting more restaurants serve customers outdoors. 

If properly implemented, Open Restaurants should help lessen the pandemic’s economic impact on business owners and restaurant workers, including women, people of color, immigrants, and New Yorkers of all stripes who work in the restaurant industry. Unfortunately, the program has proved costly for the restaurant owners it was meant to help. It’s time for the city to fix it.

Open Restaurants has been plagued by challenges from the start. Restaurants had to use their remaining cash to build outdoor structures for their customers. Then came a cascade of costly, chaotic rules and regulations that changed month to month. The rollout of the safety barrier policy – intended to safeguard patrons from the danger of passing cars – left owners frustrated after the city failed to provide the free barriers it promised, only to then change its mind regarding what types of barriers were sufficient. Many restaurants had to pay out of pocket to construct, and then re-construct, their own barriers at a time when they could barely afford to keep their staffs employed. 

Six months after the program was made permanent, problems persist. Restaurant owners report that inspectors aggressively and inconsistently fine and issue cease and desist orders to “out of compliance” restaurants with hardly any time to remedy the violation.

Rather than regulating restaurants into ruin and their workers into unemployment, our city should bolster the Open Restaurants program so that it actually works with restaurants, rather than against them. 

First, the city should provide restaurants with the clear guidance and resources they need to protect patrons. The city should actively engage restaurant owners to understand the hurdles they faced during the initial rollout of the Open Restaurants program; their direct feedback will better inform a regulatory framework that supports restaurants and keeps patrons safe.

Second, the city should not enforce cease and desist orders against restaurants that make a good faith effort to comply with regulations. A cease and desist order can kill a business by forcing it to shut down, at least temporarily putting staff out of work. As long as restaurant owners are taking active steps to comply with the regulations, they should feel secure in the certainty that they will be able to stay open. The New York State Liquor Authority should also adopt a similarly transparent, fair, and consistent enforcement approach to liquor licensing. 

Finally, going beyond the Open Restaurants program, the city must codify its commitment to restaurants and small businesses alike. The Mayor just announced a $159 million investment in small business recovery and job training; we should increase this funding so that resources are available for small businesses in all of our communities and beyond this coming fiscal year. More so, at a time when thousands are still looking for work, we should invest additional funding in Apprentice NYC, a program that helps New Yorkers learn skills in industries including food service. Let’s also make sure our small business owners are aware of these programs by committing to direct outreach and informational campaigns.    

As the city works to fully reopen and support small businesses, it must take a comprehensive and thoughtful approach to address the Open Restaurants program’s flaws. Before the pandemic, the city’s 23,000 restaurants and bars employed 1 out every 12 private-sector workers in New York. The Open Restaurants program is our chance to save this vital industry. Let’s make it stronger, so our restaurants can safely declare themselves open for business.

Mark Levine is currently the City Council member for Manhattan’s District 7 and Chair of the City Council Health Committee. He is running to serve as Manhattan’s next Borough President. Shaun Abreu is a tenants’ rights attorney who represents low-income families from Northern Manhattan in housing court, and a candidate for City Council in Manhattan’s District 7. On Twitter @MarkLevineNYC & @ShaunAbreu.

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‘Open Restaurants’ Shouldn’t Close Them Down Tue, 04 May 2021 04:00:00 +0000
New York's Arts and Cuisine are the Soul of Our City, We Must Do More to Revitalize Them proclamation cast award

A darkened theatre (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)

The COVID-19 pandemic has been detrimental to New York’s economy, with people losing jobs, businesses shuttering, and our city government accumulating astronomical deficits.

While city and state governments continue to roll out recovery plans, industries that keep getting overlooked, like the arts and dining, have been the backbone of neighborhoods on the West Side of Manhattan.

Since the start of the pandemic, more than 1,000 New York City restaurants have been forced to shut their doors—and that number is climbing. The theater industry has experienced similar woes, with over 40 theaters closing and over 51,000 employees losing their jobs. 

Restaurants and the arts aren’t just staples of our neighborhoods, including the communities encompassed in the 3rd City Council District; they’re the cultural and economic lifeblood of our city. We need a comprehensive plan to revitalize these industries—one that allows them to thrive despite our current reality. Because let’s face it: these industries go hand-in-hand in our West Side neighborhoods, as people usually go out to eat and drink before or after seeing a show. If either one of them fails, they both fail.

Growing up in Hell’s Kitchen, I witnessed firsthand a cultural shift from a time when the streets were lined with pimps, peep shows, and drug dealers. An evolution began when artists came together and helped create a renaissance and true rebirth of the former red-light district, creating a place where people of all walks of life would be welcome and could come to raise families, create businesses and fulfill their dreams. Their careers in the arts embody the heart and soul of our city. 

Anyone who has lived here for more than 30 years has seen the landscape change, but if we don’t act quickly and effectively enough these industries could become perpetually debilitated. 

This is why we must denounce any notion of the arts as a luxury. The full diversity of the arts are a major tourist attraction and fundamental to our economic, psychological, and spiritual health. The essential revenue they accrue from both visitors and New Yorkers serve to replenish our city’s coffers over and over, helping the city to provide essential services.  

This is why in a time when our budget deficits run deep we need this crucial economic driver to rise from the ashes with fervor.  

We must swiftly organize a series of forums where constituents, independent theater groups, and local leaders in the restaurant and bar industry work to identify district priorities related to the arts. When I take office as the local City Council representative at the start of next year, I will organize such discussions and we will then formulate and execute a plan in conjunction with our mayor, borough president, and state representatives. By spring 2022, a pilot program will be implemented. 

We will work in conjunction with restaurants, bars, and other local businesses, utilizing every opportunity and resource available to revitalize our theater industry. This initiative will include regularly holding socially distanced and outdoor performances, as well as fundraisers in parks and open spaces. 

Once we are able to safely congregate again, we will bring this effort indoors and witness our theaters, cafes, restaurants, and bars resurrect themselves from the wreckage of the pandemic. We must give life back to these industries and preserve the vibrancy of our community—one that artists don’t just work in, but live in as well. 

While in the midst of a second wave of the pandemic, we can no longer rely on tourist dollars to fuel these industries. In 2019, New York City tourism reached a record high—66.6 million individual trips with about $47.4 billion generated in direct spending for the city, according to a 2019 NYC & Company report. However, tourism dropped more than 60% in 2020.

That is why we need a proactive approach.

Governor Cuomo recently announced a plan that would provide performance venues, as well as restaurants and other indoor spaces, a clear path to reopen. It will utilize mass-scale rapid testing, social distancing, and mask-wearing. It also includes 150 pop-up concerts and performances throughout the state, featuring stars like Chris Rock and Renée Fleming. In addition, the state has partnered with the Mellon Foundation to put 1,000 artists back to work through grants.

However, these efforts cannot stop there. Our city cannot shy away from forging public-private partnerships. A significant list of large companies and corporations within New York City will be more than willing to help if only asked, knowing the positive publicity and advertising their efforts will generate. According to Forbes, 73 Fortune 500 companies are located here, and we must take full advantage of their resources.

When people come to the West Side we want them immersed in talent, art, culture, and cuisine. That’s why my plan includes creating affordable art spaces in empty storefronts through a program that establishes a “Mom and Pop Way,” because we must never forget our small businesses. 

We will also implement a temporary Universal Basic Income (UBI) for small businesses and independent contractors, with the ultimate goal of instituting a permanent, universal UBI for city residents in the future. Federal PPP loans may cover payrolls for many business enterprises, but in a modern economy where so many of our artists and restaurant and bar workers are independents, it falls far too short of our workers’ economic needs. 

We will additionally push to implement rent stabilization for mom and pop commercial spaces and small businesses, and to establish a moratorium on big box stores so they cannot take advantage of the pandemic’s impact and snatch up these locations. Strictly enforcing the law written by Manhattan Borough President Brewer limiting storefront square footage must be a top priority now, and I will focus on its enforcement as a Council member.

While I don’t take the seriousness of coronavirus lightly, it is still imperative that we allow our restaurants to remain open using strict social distancing guidelines and other safety precautions to protect our health. The data clearly shows that an extremely small number of COVID-19 contractions occur in restaurants, a testament to the responsible behavior of these small business owners, most of whom have complied with regulations despite enduring such trying social and economic times, and the many thousands of New Yorkers who work in these establishments, as well as patrons.

Since theaters first opened in New York the arts and culture have been a driving force of our economy and the soul of our way of life, surviving even the darkest of times. This cannot stop now.

As they say, the show must go on.

Aleta LaFargue is a candidate for New York City Council in the 3rd District, which includes parts of Manhattan’s West Side. On Twitter @Aletafor3.

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New York's Arts and Cuisine are the Soul of Our City, We Must Do More to Revitalize Them Tue, 02 Feb 2021 05:00:00 +0000
Uncurb Our Enthusiasm: How the City Can Better Help Restaurants and Keep New Yorkers Moving feelthewyaido

Outdoor dining is proving successful (photo: @NYC_DOT)

With the City’s popular Open Streets and Open Restaurants programs, the de Blasio administration has taken important steps forward to support New Yorkers during the pandemic, helping to ensure that people, not just cars, have much needed access to our streets. 

Meanwhile, the success of these programs have been amplified by the continued growth of biking as a safe, socially distanced form of transportation, and by bikeshare’s ongoing expansion into the Bronx and Upper Manhattan. In New York City and elsewhere, restaurants have a long history of prospering in areas that prioritize walking, biking, and mass transit (studies show that restaurants in New York increase sales after Citi Bike stations are installed nearby, and bike lanes have shown to increase retail sales by up to 49%). This current moment is no different - if anything, the complementary nature of good street uses has never been more important.

It’s heartening to see that the city’s outdoor dining program is expected to continue into 2021 and we believe that the Department of Transportation (DOT) can make it even more effective. Specifically, DOT should develop policies addressing curbside space as part of the growing Open Streets and Open Restaurants programs that ensure all new users of our streets, whether restaurants, retail, cultural institutions, and schools can co-exist in limited space, and, most importantly, not disrupt our critical transportation system, including Citi Bike stations. 

While the city’s current approach to outdoor dining approvals and regulation has come with the benefit of flexibility and speed, it has also left a dearth of guidance on how to resolve complicated and unique situations that some businesses and residents may face. Over the last few weeks, as outdoor dining has continued to thrive, and as cyclists use bikeshare more and more, there have been a few instances where these popular users of streetspace have come into unnecessary conflict with each other. Restaurants found themselves unable to take advantage of the outdoor dining program because they were told by the city that the existence of transportation infrastructure like Citi Bike docks, loading zones, or bus stops precluded their ability to participate in the program. 

Combined, outdoor dining and bikeshare stations take up a small fraction of our city’s curb space: Citi Bike docking stations account for just 0.5% of curb space within the footprint of the bikeshare system’s service area. And according to Meera Joshi at Sam Schwartz Engineering, curbside dining eats up a similarly miniscule piece of the streetscape pie, occupying only 0.3% of curbspace.  

Given how integral both services are to our city, and how little space they take up, the city needs to make more space available and be more creative about the footprint of outdoor dining. Specifically, the city should look to take more free parking, which currently occupies around 75% of curbside space in New York City, as a lifeline to struggling businesses and critical transportation modes like biking and buses.  

Moving forward, we encourage the city to change the rules that limit outdoor dining to the spaces immediately in front of a restaurant’s building frontage. Instead, restaurants that may be currently limited or blocked from outdoor dining space due to the placement of critical infrastructure, should be able to access adjacent and available curbside space. We believe that this simple addition will both support our hospitality industry and keep New Yorkers moving. 

The future of New York City requires our leaders to reimagine our assets, including street and curb space, in support of tools that can benefit all New Yorkers.

Tom Birchard is the Owner of Veselka Restaurant. Danny Harris is Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives. On Twitter @veselkanyc and @DannyHarris_TA.

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Uncurb Our Enthusiasm: How the City Can Better Help Restaurants and Keep New Yorkers Moving Tue, 15 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
City Council to Pass Bill Capping What Food Delivery Apps Can Charge Restaurants, Sponsor Says images shot day

Restaurants are struggling to survive during the lockdown (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)

As New York City’s mom-and-pop restaurants struggle to survive in lockdown conditions owing to the coronavirus pandemic, the New York City Council appears poised to help them cut costs by passing a bill to cap fees charged by third-party delivery services, which have proliferated in recent years via phone apps.

Small restaurants that cannot afford delivery workers or have recognized the popularity of the apps rely on the third-party services like Grubhub, Seamless (which is owned by Grubhub), DoorDash, and Uber Eats, which charge significant fees that eat into an establishment’s profits. Those fees, hidden from customers who use the services, can include charges for processing, delivery, and commissions, and can end up hurting, rather than helping a food establishment’s business.

A particularly harsh example made waves on social media when a pizza restaurant owner, Giuseppe Badalamenti, in Chicago posted details of a Grubhub invoice on Facebook. Orders that totalled about $1,042 over the month of March only netted him about $376 after Grubhub took its cuts. “Stop believing you are supporting your community by ordering from a 3rd party delivery company,” Badalamenti wrote on Facebook in a post that went viral.

Grubhub defended the fees in a statement to the Chicago Tribune. “Restaurant owners select the services they want and only pay a commission to Grubhub when we help generate sales. Grubhub is happy to work with restaurant partners to help them manage costs and grow their business,” the statement said.

Restaurant owners and trade associations in New York City have been complaining about the fees charged by the app-based delivery companies for some time, with the temperature significantly raised amid the coronavirus shutdown wherein restaurants are only allowed to offer delivery and takeout. “The third-party delivery platform situation was a crisis before we were in this crisis,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, in testimony before a remote Council hearing on the bill on April 29. “What companies like Grubhub and Seamless are doing is using sophisticated techniques to basically extract as much money as possible out of businesses pre- and during this pandemic.”

The bill before the New York City Council, which its lead sponsor says will soon pass, will limit any fees charged by a third-party delivery service at 10% of the total purchase price of an online order.

The bill was introduced by Queens Council Member Francisco Moya in February, well before the coronavirus made it a far more urgent issue, and has since been amended to account for the pandemic. In the case of a declared public emergency, the bill limits delivery fees to 10% and prohibits any other fees. The law would go into effect immediately and carries a hefty $1,000 penalty for each violation. Moya told Gotham Gazette the bill will be voted on and passed at the next full meeting of the City Council, which was originally scheduled for May 5 but has been recheduled for May 13. "Yes," Moya said, when asked if the bill will be voted on and passed by the full Council (it will have to be passed in Council committee first).

A spokesperson for Council Speaker Corey Johnson declined to comment for this article.

When the outbreak began, Moya and others were somewhat optimistic that delivery service companies would come to the aid of small businesses. On March 13, Grubhub had announced that it would temporarily stop collecting commissions of up to $100 million, and set up a charitable fund for drivers and restaurants in several cities, including New York, San Francisco, Boston, Portland and Chicago, where the company was founded and is headquartered.

“Independent restaurants are the lifeblood of our cities and feed our communities. They have been amazing long-term partners for us, and we wanted to help them in their time of need. Our business is their business – so this was an easy decision for us to make,” said Matt Maloney, Grubhub Founder and CEO, in a statement at the time. 

But, as Badalamenti found out the hard way, Grubhub is still making a tidy sum off commission, delivery, and processing fees. His invoice also included charges for promotional services that he chose.

“There’s a word for things that feed off the lifeblood of others and that’s of course is leeches,” Moya said in a phone interview. “Grubhub is still coming after these [restaurants], and they’re gonna suck them dry if we don’t help level the playing field.”

He added of his district that includes Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, and Corona, “I represent an area where it’s a large immigrant community. These are small family-owned restaurants. They can barely afford to keep the doors open, let alone sustain the fees that they're being charged.”

Inquiries to Grubhub went unanswered. Harry Hartield, a spokesperson for Uber Eats said in a statement, “Restaurants have the option to choose different services at different commission levels. With Uber Eats, they can choose to pay a lower commission and pay for full-time delivery people themselves. Many restaurants don’t have the resources to do that and they choose to have Uber Eats cover all the costs and logistics of delivery. This law would simply shift the costs back onto small, local restaurants who can afford it the least.”

A DoorDash spokesperson made a similar argument, noting that the company has cut commissions in half for small restaurants as part of a $100 million effort at commission relief and marketing support. “Unfortunately, an arbitrary cap could limit the services we can provide to local restaurants and ultimately hurt couriers who need these work opportunities more than ever,” the spokesperson said.

The bill doesn’t yet make a distinction between those different types of arrangements. For instance, restaurants with their own delivery workers and those that rely on the service’s delivery workers would be subject to the same cap. Moya did say, however, that final negotiations about the bill are ongoing before it is passed, and that it could be tweaked to separate caps on delivery fees from caps on commission and processing fees. The bill has 14 co-sponsors so far in the 51-seat Council.

Moya’s bill is also part of a larger package of regulations regarding third-party food delivery services that were the subject of the remote hearing on April 29, held jointly by the Committee on Consumer Affairs and Business Licensing, Committee on Small Business, and Committee on Housing and Buildings. Other proposed measures include requirements for disclosure to consumers of the fees and commissions charged to restaurants as well as requiring a license from the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, among other bills.

Bronx Council Member Ritchie Torres said on Twitter the bills aim to “protect struggling restaurants from outrageous fees from food delivery apps & to ensure delivery workers receive their well-earned tips in full. We must protect restaurants so they’re able to return & thrive."

In the virtual hearing, Amy Healy, a Grubhub representative, called the bills an example of “government overreach.” Brooklyn Council Member Justin Brannan pushed the company to voluntarily commit to a fee cap, but the company said that would force it to operate with losses. “Restaurants may have been deemed ’essential’ during #COVID19 but it ain't peaches & cream. They are all struggling to make ends meet with take-out & delivery as their only means of staying afloat. NYC must institute an emergency 10% cap on all delivery apps,” Brannan tweeted.

Other proposed measures include requirements for disclosure to consumers of the fees and commissions charged to restaurants as well as requiring a license from the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, among other bills.

“[M]y agency and administration, generally we agree with the issues that the Council is trying to address with these bills,” said DCWP Commissioner Lorelei Salas, a de Blasio appointee, at the hearing. “Given the ongoing emergency and fiscal situation, it would be challenging for us to contemplate taking on a broad area of new regulation. With that said, we want to work with the Council to figure out the best pathway forward and what we can do to help small businesses that most need this help right now.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated to note that the next full Council meeting has been rescheduled for May 13. 

City Council to Pass Bill Capping What Food Delivery Apps Can Charge Restaurants, Sponsor Says Sat, 02 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000