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NYC restaurant owner on stimulus: ‘We need something to keep us going’

Amanda Cohen, James Beard-nominated Chef & Owner of Dirt Candy in NYC joins Yahoo Finance's Zack Guzman to discuss how her restaurant is faring amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Video Transcript

ZACK GUZMAN: At this time, we were expected to be well above 50% indoor capacity. But delays due to the spikes in cases across the country held that up. Still, just about 25% of indoor diners allowed. And that's putting a lot of pressure back on restaurants.

And it's today's focus in our Road to Recovery segment presented by International Well Building Institute. And for more on that, I want to bring on our guest. Amanda Cohen is a James Beard-nominated chef and owner of Dirt Candy in New York City.

And Amanda, I appreciate you taking the time to chat. Talk to me about how big of a struggle this is for you guys. Because I know last time we talked to you, you said you weren't even going to allow indoor dining, even though you could bring it back at a 25% capacity, because it didn't make financial sense for you to do so. So talk to me about that and how things are holding up now.

AMANDA COHEN: Yeah, so we still don't have indoor dining. We only have our outdoor dining, and it is definitely starting to get cold. And we don't really have a lot of guidance yet on how we can go forward with outdoor dining.

At one point, the mayor and the governor, they were like, OK, you know, you can use gas or propane tanks and electric heaters on the street and build outdoor spaces because that's really what we think you should do to keep your staff and customers safe.

And the FDNY has a very different idea. So we haven't been given the green light to go ahead with the propane tanks, which means that we're all going to be relying on electricity. Most of us are in old buildings. There isn't that much electricity. So we're are struggling to find it.

Plus, it's expensive. We personally are in the middle of building our outdoor space, but we have to find the money for it. It's going to cost us anywhere between $10,000 and $15,000. And I'm willing to do that to keep my staff safe because I still don't feel comfortable watching the numbers rise.

We just listened to the last segment. It doesn't seem like a good idea to have a lot of people indoors at one time. And I can't risk closing down again. So, that is our plan for the moment. But it's not much of a plan.

ZACK GUZMAN: Well, I mean, you're doing what you can here. And that's kind of the problem across restaurants, is that, you know, with shaky guidance, as well as the health problems of your staff to think about, it becomes very difficult.

There was one option on the table, and it's kind of one floated in a bunch of communities across the US. And that would be the collective surcharge the City Council allowed restaurants to potentially go through here, a 10% surcharge on top of the bill to kind of cover some of these costs you're talking about in building out outdoor dining. How is that actually to be used, though, as a restaurant owner since it adds to the total that customers are going to be paying if they come to dine at your restaurants?

AMANDA COHEN: It does, and it's an unfortunate burden to place on the customers. But I think it's incredibly smart. It just has to cost a little bit more right now to go out to dine, to have that privilege to eat out in a restaurant or outside of a restaurant, wherever you're eating. It just costs so much more.

We have these extra costs. We have to build our outdoors. If you're eating-- dining indoors, they probably had to put in a new filtration system. All our PPE equipment is just costing us a lot of money. And we have to be able to pass that on because I guarantee you right now, nobody's making a lot of money in restaurants.

We don't have-- it's not even like it was six months ago when we might have had some reserves. None of us have anything left. And if we don't, if we're not able to pass this charge on, we will close. And we will start closing rapidly.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, I mean, we're already kind of starting to see that play out here in New York City with restaurants closing down permanently. But on that front, I mean, talk to me about how the stimulus that came through that first round of PPP money might have helped back then, but now as we talk about the stimulus bill being held up in Congress and in discussions in DC, about how desperately needed that next round of PPP money will be as you continue through the winter.

As you're saying here, it's not just a New York problem. This is something that a lot of cities are dealing with.

AMANDA COHEN: Yeah, I like to think of it as the stimulus, like, roller coaster. Some days, we have a stimulus. Some days, we don't. The original PPP was great. And it really helped restaurants for the time that it was supposed to help us, which was the beginning two months to 24 weeks. And that's what allowed most of us to stay open.

But now we're still in the middle of the pandemic. We see no end in sight. And we need something to keep us going. And that's the Restaurant Act that has been passed in the House. We need it to get passed in the Senate. And we need that money to survive so that we are here at the end of this pandemic.

This is the real sort of crux of the problem. If we all close, these jobs aren't going to come back. We're just going to keep our employees on unemployment. We're going to have massive unemployment numbers. So we have to be able to stay open throughout the entire pandemic so we're there at the end to hire people back, and also to do what we do, which is to welcome guests into our dining rooms and serve as a place to celebrate.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, I mean, that's the important thing here. And that's what we saw work so well, at least in the earlier months of the pandemic.

But lastly, just to kind of present the other side that we do hear from viewers here every now and then, talking about what other options might be there to weather the storm as a restaurant owner, you're talking about very expensive upgrades. The ones required by the city for indoor dining, you can upgrade your HVAC system. But a lot of restaurants, as you're describing, don't have the money on hand to do so.

So outside of the dwindling PPP support here, is there-- are other options that you've seen maybe other restaurant owners turn to that you've been able to turn to here to maybe use as a stopgap for the next couple months if we don't get another round of stimulus?

AMANDA COHEN: If we don't get another round of stimulus, I don't think any of us have any good plans. I'm relying on my customers, the good grace of my customers who've been supporting me. And that's all I can keep asking them. And I think the reality is, if you have a favorite restaurant, support it as much as you possibly can. Because even that little bit of business might help them to keep their doors open.

ZACK GUZMAN: It's a good reminder for all of us here. I appreciate you taking the time to chat about all of that going on. We'll see what happens on the stimulus front. But Amanda Cohen, James Beard-nominated chef and owner of Dirt Candy here in New York, appreciate you chatting with us.

AMANDA COHEN: Thank you.

ZACK GUZMAN: Be well.