In normal times, the odds of a new restaurant in New York City lasting a year or longer are not good – maybe 50-50, according to much anecdotal and statistical evidence.

In the abnormal times of the current pandemic, which has forced many restaurants here and around the country to close their doors for months and – when reopened, to limit the number of diners they can serve, in order to abide by social-distancing regulations – the odds are even worse.

Nearly two-thirds of the 50,000 restaurants in the New York State are “likely” or “somewhat likely” to go out of business by the end of the year, according to the state’s Restaurant Association, especially if they do not receive extensive government financial aid, and thousands of restaurants in New York City are likely to close in the next five years, businessinsider.com reports. The pandemic shutdown has already seen the closing of such prominent kosher eateries as Abigael’s and Fine & Schapiro in Manhattan, and the Wolf & Lamb Steakhouse’s Brooklyn location.

So who would open a restaurant in this economic climate? Why would someone take that financial chance?

“I have wanted to open my own restaurant for a long time. I have a great passion for food,” says Albert Shay, owner of BurgerSpot, a glatt kosher restaurant that will open in Forest Hills, on 108th Street, “G-d willing,” by the end of this month, pending final inspections by the city’s Fire Department and Health Department. A native of Uzbekistan who moved to the US with his family 27 years ago, a member of a family of experienced cooks and bakers, he lives in the nearby Fresh Meadows neighborhood. Forest Hills was a natural site for his restaurant, he said, and the pandemic did not discourage him; the building’s owner waived rent payments for four months this year to enable the business to buck the pandemic.

Burger Spot is not alone. It is part of a counter-intuitive mini-trend that has taken place in the adjacent Forest Hills-Rego Park neighborhoods in recent months; it is the third kosher restaurant to open there since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has drastically cut or bankrupted thousands of businesses of all sorts in the city. The other two are the Fortune Glatt Kosher Chinese Take Out restaurant on 63rd Drive and the Boulevard Prime Grill on Queens Boulevard. In addition, the NetCost supermarket – down the street from Boulevard Prime – the Rego Park branch of the network of local groceries owned by Russian Jews, opened an extensive kosher section, featuring a wide selection of packaged and refrigerated items, adding to the store’s traditional offerings of largely non-kosher foods that appeal to customers with roots in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet union – customers who are proudly Jewish but not necessarily kosher-observant.

All three restaurants and the Netcost kosher section are under the kashrus supervision of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens.

All three new restaurants are low-cost, fast-food fleishig establishments.

All three are located in small sites.

All three are concentrating, until the pandemic subsides and extensive dining-in is permitted, on take-out and delivery business.

All three, located on streets that feature much foot traffic, are appealing to non-Jewish, as well as the standard kosher-observant, Jewish customers.

Why are these new Jewish food businesses b’davka in Forest Hills-Rego Park, a “hot spot” area with a high concentration of COVID-19 and strict government enforcement of pandemic regulations? Home to thousands of Jews with roots in the former Soviet Union, particularly Bukharian Jews from now-independent Uzbekistan, neither neighborhood would seem to be a natural draw for a sudden spurt of kosher restaurants – not compared to nearby Kew Gardens Hills, a strongly black-hat neighborhood.

And why now? Why during a recession, a business environment in which an investment in a start-up business would seem to be a precarious decision?

“I am very, very surprised,” said Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills and a longtime observer of Jewish life in central Queens.

Rabbi Schonfeld said that he has no firm explanation for the recent phenomenon, but offered a theory: the reputation of Bukharian Jews as likely “loyal” customers of the new kosher restaurants.

The rabbi, a veteran officer of the Queens Vaad, said the Bukharian community shares a contrarian “chasidic outlook,” a dedication to members they see as the primary needs of the community and an inbred skepticism of government dictates; in other words, Bukharian Jews are likely to stubbornly patronize new local businesses while public officials urge people to largely shelter in place.

Bukharian Jews, while not always strictly observant, are typically respectful of Jewish traditions, including the biblical dietary laws, Shay said.

The owners or managers of the other new kosher establishments were not available to comment on the local trend.

The ethnically mixed area of Flushing, where Forest Hills and Rego Park are located, has witnessed the largest share of new restaurant applications filed in the city since the start of the pandemic, according to the thecity.nyc website.

Fortune magazine, which called 2020 “the worst year in the history of modern restaurants,” stated that “given how long it takes to open a restaurant in the first place … there might not be much choice for some owners except to press on. Investments have been made, contracts and leases signed, and opening and reopening (even if only for takeout, delivery, and perhaps outdoor dining) are the only paths to recouping any losses sustained during the shutdown.”

“There are a few advantages of opening a new restaurant currently,” said Joe Pawlak, managing principal of the Technomic food service consulting firm.” First of all, there isn’t much “newness” in the industry, and a new market entrant could offer differentiation and excitement for consumers who are relatively pessimistic right now.

“Although there are a lot of restaurants closing due to COVID, we are also seeing a number of openings of new restaurants,” Pawlak said. “One of the main reasons for this is that commercial real estate and lease rates are down considerably, which makes it more attractive to enter the market. A concern, however, is how to sustain business, given a dive in traffic due to COVID, especially for sit-down restaurants; but if an establishment is oriented toward takeout and delivery service, they can weather the storm if they have the correct menu and value proportion.”

Shay said his restaurant will offer affordable meat meals – especially, as his restaurant’s name suggests, burgers.

With five recent years’ experience in kosher catering, he learned many cost-cutting techniques, he said. “I am going to be able to feed a family a meal for $10-to-13” – an important consideration at a time when many providers have lost their jobs and income.

His restaurant will employ about a half-dozen people.

Shay said his decision – and of the owners of the other nearby kosher establishments – is a combination of religious faith and sound business acumen. People need to eat, pandemic or no pandemic, he said – the combination of some restaurants closing or reducing their hours left a clear path for a place like BurgerSpot, he said.

How will he judge the success of his restaurant?

“If I am still open in a year, if I keep all my employees – if I am still able to feed people – that will be a success.”

By Steve Lipman

 

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