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How the NYC Wine & Food Festival has adjusted this year's events due to COVID-19

Lee Schrager, NYCWFF Founder & Director, joined The Final Round to discuss this year's festival, how it is balancing both virtual and small in-person events, and his outlook for the New York restaurant industry.

Video Transcript

SEANA SMITH: Welcome back to "The Final Round." Well, indoor dining returned to New York City this week, but a new report from the New York state comptroller's office showing how dire the situation still is, warning that up to half of the city's restaurants and bars could close for good because of the pandemic. So for more on how the restaurant industry is navigating the pandemic, and also how it's impacting live events, we want to bring in Lee Schrager. He's the founder and director of New York City's Wine and Food Festival, which gets underway tonight.

And Lee, I first just want to talk about that pandemic's impact on the restaurant industry, because I know you speak with chefs, with the owners. Many of them are involved in your festival. Just give us a sense of how they're feeling right now and how they're navigating the challenges of the pandemic.

LEE SCHRAGER: Thanks, Seana. On a good day, it's hard to make money in a restaurant, especially in New York City, with union and the high rents, so it's incredibly hard. When you take, these restaurants have been closed for many months and they've had minimal outdoor seating. And now they're allowed to do 25%. A restaurant can't survive off of that.

Unlike where I live in Florida, where the governor did the exact opposite and opened everything up, I don't agree with that either. But I will tell you, it's going to be tough for these restaurants if they don't open up indoor dining for significantly more people before it gets really cold and impossible to eat outside. I just fear that some of our favorite, some of the smallest mom and pop restaurants, some of the white tablecloth restaurants just won't be able to survive or hold on.

SEANA SMITH: Well, Lee, it's interesting, because we're talking about how restaurants have had to pivot their business to make the necessary changes in order to survive. New York City Wine and Food Festival starting tonight, which you're behind. You've had to restructure things. What is it going to look like this year? And how is the past couple of months been trying to plan an event like this?

LEE SCHRAGER: Well, it's going to look and feel different, but our message will remain the same. to eat, drink and end hunger. The festival benefits the Food Bank for New York City and No Kid Hungry. We kind of spent the summer saying, it's going to happen, it's not going to happen. We're going to go live, we're going to go virtual, we're going to do this, we're going to do that.

And finally, our tickets for the New York Festival normally go on sale in June. We have four months of selling. Our tickets went on sale two weeks ago, because we really held off as long as we could waiting to hear if we were going to be able to any outside events, obviously, following every protocol and policy that we had to. And about 2 and 1/2 weeks ago, I just said, this is not going to happen. And we pivoted everything.

We're doing all the culinary demos, we're doing a whole series, 40 of 50 culinary demos with some of the greatest names in the world, not just in New York, but throughout the country. And we have chefs joining us from Paris, France and Spain doing culinary demos. We've introduced a new virtual series called Cook from the Book that will kick off tonight with Martha Stewart.

October is normally that month when a lot of new cookbooks come out, so there's a whole series where you can sign up, take a virtual class with a Martha Stewart, a Yotam Ottolenghi, a Jeff Mauro, a Thomas Keller, and cook along with them right from their book and receive a copy of their book. The day that it comes out, it will be in your mailbox.

We're also doing our signature event, the Johnnie Walker Burger Bash, which would normally be a live event. We normally would be on the roof of Pier 92 and have 3,000 people spending $200 a ticket next Friday night, and we have gone virtual. We are going to do it in a catering commissary in Bronx. We're going to have the last five years of winners, the top chefs in the city who have won the Burger Bash. They'll be doing it live.

We have a panel of judges. Elvis Duran and the Morning Show will be picking the judges' choice. Then consumers will be able to vote on their favorite burger at home. If you sign up for the class, you get a box of burgers and Cabot cheese. You get Martin's Potato Rolls and Pat LeFrieda meat. So you can make the burgers along with the chefs that night. And also a Johnnie Walker kit, so you can make the cocktails along with the professionals that night. So you can eat and drink at home, you don't have to get dressed, you can just watch it on Zoom that night and enjoy it and then ask questions as we go along.

SEANA SMITH: All right, Lee Schrager, unfortunately we're out of time. I know it's been a challenging couple weeks, but it sounds like you guys have a couple of fun events lined up. So we wish you all the best.