Instead of grilling a gorgeous steak and creating a beautiful plate presentation late last week, restaurateur Tony Gullace was alone in the kitchen at Max at Eastman Place, cutting raw steaks and sealing them by Cryovac so customers could cook them at home.
In the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants and many other businesses that rely on gatherings of people for their existence are now essentially shut down to prevent their operations from becoming vectors of disease.
Nevertheless, some business people are looking — sometimes desperately — for ways to continue their economic survival. And some make creative and innovative leaps.
Currently in New York State, restaurants can only offer takeout, delivery or drive thru service, all of which limit human contact. Concerts and public performances are shut down, putting musicians and other performers out of work. Most office workers have been sent home, with or without work. And some non-essential factories are shut down, too.
“We’re really exploring numerous ways to generate revenue, Gullace said. “The challenges are enormous, but it’s what we have to do.”
In light of the restaurant restrictions, Gullace closed Max at Eastman Place first because its fine cuisine doesn’t lend itself to takeout. Until Monday, he was offering takeout from his two other restaurants — casual Italian at lunchtime from Aunt Rosie’s on East Main Street and a dinnertime menu focusing on steaks and sides from Max’s Chop House on Monroe Avenue in Brighton.
“The chop house seems to have a nice local following, plus we’re doing delivery out of there,” Gullace said. But on Monday he shut down the entire operation, announcing to followers that while he appreciated the takeout orders, it wasn’t worth health risks.
“This whole to-go thing is an interesting experiment,” Gullace said before he closed down. It was not an experiment that provides full employment, however. The Max restaurants normally have 50 people on the payroll. They were offering takeout with just three people.
Sandra Holloway, owner of Tasteful Connections in Irondequoit, sent out a notice exhibiting pluck in the face of adversity but also showing how shaken caterers are now that events — the bread and butter of their business — are off the table.
“In 35 years of business in our community, we have never laid off any staff until this past week,” she wrote. But she also said the staff are ready to do what they must to continue to earn income.
“True caterers are a resourceful breed. We work under pressure. We improvise at the drop of a hat. We thrive in uncomfortable work spaces, we deal somewhat graciously with spur of the moment changes and we are the masters of picking up where others leave off,’ she said.
Holloway offered her staff and four vans to take on tasks ranging from yard work and moving to bookkeeping and organizing.
“We are not afraid of hard work and heavy lifting. It’s what we do every day in the catering industry!” the letter read.
The notice has earned some criticism from tradespeople who do the types of work Tasteful Connections offered to do, such as moving or landscaping.
“We’re not looking to be a mover, we’re just trying to fill in,”Holloway said.
She’s furloughed most of her workers, but retained a staff of three to handle the few catering jobs still coming their way: No elegantly passed hors d’oeuvres, but cold box lunches are still occasionally in demand for health care workers working long hours or for other essential workplaces that want to treat their staff or vendors.
Some businesses have completely changed gears to be of assistance in the fight against the deadly virus. The state’s closure of restaurants and bars shut down the tasting room at Black Button Distilling Co. on Railroad Street on March 15. But within a day of laying off most of his 80 employees, master distiller and President Jason Barrett found new work for his production staff: making hand sanitizer.
It took Barrett several days to procure supplies and set up orders largely from the health care industry. By March 20, Black Button was shipping its first load of hand sanitizer.
At least two other Finger Lakes distilleries have joined the effort: Finger Lakes Distilling in Burdett, a Schuyler County town near Watkins Glen, and Antler Run Distilling on Keuka Lake are both making sanitizer. Finger Lake Distilling said it will fill locals’ empty bottles, while Antler Run is focusing on health care, retirement and nursing home communities to start.
Robb’s Glass in Warsaw, Wyoming County, has switched from making windshields to making glass shields protecting bank tellers. And startup M3Dimensions, which makes 3-D surgical models for veterinarians and vet students, has switched over to making face shields for healthcare workers, an item sorely needed in these times.
While many consumers are thinking mostly of necessities, many performing and visual artists are trying to looking for ways to continue earning money from their talents. Some local musicians have started offering online concerts, asking for donations so they can continue to survive.
Churchill’s Chis Wilson, who has his own performance venue in a refurbished barn but tours widely in the Rochester area, has started offering twice-weekly online concerts. His Songs of Faith concerts on Sundays have a playlist he determines ahead of time, but fans can log onto his Wednesday night concerts and make requests from his playlist, ranging from pop to folk to spiritual. And they can donate as they listen.
Naples musician Aaron Lipp, who plays solo and with three different bands that he manages and books, earns 95 percent of his income through live performances. He’s doing a streamed concert on Friday (March 27) in conjunction with the Steuben Brewing Company in Pulteney, on the west side of Keuka Lake. (His and the brewing company’s social media will carry the feed.)
He’ll play remotely and the concert will be streamed in the brewery, which is opening for sales of growlers to go, hoping to bring more business to a venue that has hired him many times in the past for live events. Lipp will offer a “virtual tip jar” to listeners, hoping it will at least provide him enough to cover gas and food for a little while.
“This is an experiment. The virtual tip jar thing is not like in person,” Lipp said. “It’s different. It’s really a bit more of a step than reaching into your pocket and getting a $5 bill and throwing it in the tip jar. You have to know your way around the computer. ”
Lipp said he expects virtual tips won’t be as lucrative as in-person tips, and certainly less than being paid for a gig, but if it goes well he’ll probably try a streaming concert again, despite his belief that “everything musically is better in person.” Short of being able to do that, he may rely on selling off his excess inventory of refurbished instruments and his skills at carpentry and woodworking to replace some of the six weeks of gigs that COVID-19 has cancelled.
Tech worker Sam Jividen had already created ShopLocalli.com, a website connecting a variety of artists and art-related businesses to consumers, late last year. Since the pandemic, he’s been trying to connect more potentially starving artists and independent shopkeepers to the site, making it a virtual marketplace that includes same-day, touch-free delivery.
“It all came from my own personal problem when I first came to Rochester. It was hard to figure out what artists were available,” Jividen said. You can go online and see everything Home Depot has for sale, he said, but not so for local artists and artisans.
“The challenge with small businesses is they’re small, but if you bring them all together, it makes it easier for consumers to find what’s available,” he said.
Besides individual artists, ShopLocalli carries the goods of small, specialized stores like skateboard shop Krudco, Aaron’s Alley and Mythic Treasures. Jividen uses inventory management systems some businesses already have in place to create ShopLocalli listings. For artists and shops that still rely on pen and paper to keep their inventory, Shop Localli has an easy-to-use interface allowing them to create listings quickly, he said, using photos they take or they get from their wholesalers.
He picks up goods by appointment, making sure to follow Centers for Disease Control recommendations for prevention of the virus.
“The customers are safe and the retailers are safe and they maintain some kind of continuity for their business,” Jividen said.
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