Although restaurants along Cross Bay Boulevard in Howard Beach have adapted in order to survive the economic pressures of the pandemic, it’s unclear when the strip’s night life will return to normal.
The boulevard is home to a 24/7 diner, mom ’n’ pop eateries and a group of established Italian restaurants like Lenny’s Clam Bar, Prima Pasta, Gino’s and Bruno Ristorante that attract diners from across the city.
While civic and business leaders haven’t heard of any closing along the corridor, they pointed out that many restaurants are just eeking by and can’t predict how long they can keep open with reduced capacity.
Although Gov. Cuomo loosened indoor dining restrictions to 50 percent capacity last month, many restaurants say they’re still relying on takeout as a major source of income even as the weather warms and makes going out more common.
“People are hesitating a little bit. Some people are just open to life and some people are a little terrified,” said Tony Modica, the owner of Prima Pasta. Modica said that his bottom line has recovered with the loosening of restrictions but still has a way to go toward stability.
Whereas he estimated that when relying on takeout alone the restaurant lost about 80 percent of business, now, “we’re doing about 50 percent of business,” he said.
When the restrictions are fully loosened some restaurateurs wonder whether nightlife in the corridor will be the same.
Joe DeCandia, the owner of the Roma View catering and Lenny’s Clam Bar, a Cross Bay mainstay since the ’70s, recently said while Lenny’s is doing well under the circumstances, he has noticed people’s dining habits have changed.
“We used to be open until 2 a.m. and do business until 2 a.m. Closing at 11 clearly hurts our bottom line, but I find that Cross Bay after 9 o’clock it’s dead. It used to be a late night [destination],” he said.
Pablo Flores, manager of the Cross Bay Diner, said that he is eagerly looking forward to returning to 24/7 service, but isn’t sure when it would be allowed.
“Hopefully we’ll go back to 24/7 soon. We don’t know how long it’s going to take — maybe a couple of months — we don’t know,” Flores said.
Last Friday evening diners populated Lenny’s Clam Bar, but with an open table or two separating most of the dining parties. DeCandia said that he had learned Lenny’s could rely on takeout for a lot of his business, but the fact that the restaurant was doing only that from Thanksgiving until Valentine’s Day weekend left a dent in his income streams.
“Opening on Valentine’s Day really was a gift,” he said.
While many of the more established restaurants on Cross Bay have been able to hang on to their customer base through takeout options, newcomer businesses have struggled to find their footing.
Frank Zummo, the co-owner of Etto Espresso Bar, a small artisanal coffee shop that opened up in October, said that it’s been really tough for him to hang on.
“For small businesses, it’s harder than ever,” he said.
Zummo had to close down the coffee company’s flagship store in Long Island City over the past year. In Howard Beach, his main competitor is the Starbucks a few blocks away — a challenge that has prompted him to create a custom-built app just to compete in the world of made-to-order takeout drinks.
“It’s the businesses that were doing OK that need the most support post-pandemic and they have to get that or else they will be gone. That’s where the support should really go, to businesses that really need it,” said Zummo.