N.J. bars and restaurants figure out next course in keeping business open

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Patrons dine at The Brass Rail in Hoboken, N.J.

Patrons dine at The Brass Rail in Hoboken, N.J., Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

When New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy instituted new restrictions to mitigate a further spike in COVID-19, bars and restaurants in the state were just starting to get used to operating indoor dining again with seating at just  25% of the dining room’s capacity. Murphy has kept the capacity limit in place, but has prohibited dine-in service between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. and has prohibited bar seating.

Some establishments will be less hampered by the new restrictions.

Kathleen Rana, chef/owner of Jersey Girl Café in Hamilton, Mercer County, says even with their adjusted operating hours, they are well within the governor’s restrictions.

“We were never open very, very late,” Rana said. “Most of our business is at lunchtime and some dinner time service; breakfast mostly on the weekend.”

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Even still, she says business at her café is off by about 25-30%. That doesn’t include her corporate catering business, which is down about 90% because people are still working from home and not in the office.

“The larger orders we used to get just kind of aren’t really there.”

In addition to adjusting her hours, Rana says she has also adjusted her staffing and her menu with more family-style meals to get by.

Klee’s Bar and Grill in Seaside Heights, Ocean County, is an institution in the Jersey Shore town according to its general manager Glen McCarthy.

“We’ve been here a long time, we have a lot of very loyal clientele that have continued to support us and other small businesses in the area,” he said. Established in 1931, it has been operating under its current owners for more than four decades. It’s also one of the few year-round businesses in the town.

McCarthy said the new restrictions announced Monday by Gov. Murphy were a step backwards.

“The fact that the weather is changing and now he’s basically affecting the only business we have going forward is a big, big kick in the gut,” he said adding that he understands the concern about having people inside where the disease can spread but says “it’s gonna happen no matter what cause people are going to be confined in their houses.”

“You can’t be outside in the cold weather that much and it’s just going to go up anyways,” McCarthy said. “Why do certain businesses have to suffer for it is lost to me.”

Klee’s operation has been revamped three times, according to McCarthy. They went to total take out and added delivery service while making sure employees were working when it was more beneficial to them. They also took advantage of outdoor dining when that became permissible in June.

When the state permitted indoor dining at 25% capacity in September, the establishment’s two buildings were joined together. Under normal circumstances, capacity would be at 240. But under current restrictions, they are limited to 60 people.

But with the new restrictions, much of the space is further limited.

“We have a fairly large bar area that people were sitting at the bar to eat spaced six feet apart and now that’s been taken away,” said McCarthy who hoped the capacity ceiling would be lifted over time. “Our 25% now has to be squeezed into the rest of the area we have.”

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Rana at the Jersey Girl Café said her seating capacity is normally 50, but with the 25% cap on patrons, it’s been reduced to 12.

“We basically have three tables – a table for two, a table for four and a table for six – and that is it,” she said. “For our empty tables we decorated it so it looks pretty.” Outdoor dining is available “as long as the weather is not too chilly or breezy.”

She’s still weighing all of her options to continue with outdoor dining as the weather gets colder.

“The township is helping out with paying for purchasing propane,” Rana said, “so if we decide to get heaters for outside, they will certainly help with that which is fantastic.” She adds that there is an overhang of her building with three sides and is not sure what a heater would do in the space.

Back in Seaside Heights at Klee’s, McCarthy said outdoor dining winds down earlier now because it gets dark by 6 p.m. Also, because of their proximity to the ocean, it gets damp. He expressed concerns about the cost of installing dining igloos as well as what possible regulations there are to having them.

McCarthy hopes things will level off soon and that Gov. Murphy cracks down on those who are having large gatherings and not taking precautions like wearing masks and social distancing.

“There’s a lot of stuff out there and every time there’s a little bit of an outbreak, he just wants to shut everything down instead of directing the attention to why the outbreak happened,” he said.

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