Some NJ eateries still resist on-site dining two years into COVID
Early in the first summer of the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants were able to welcome diners back to outdoor dining in New Jersey, with indoor seating returning at limited capacity at the end of that summer.
While capacity limits fluctuated for a time after that, patrons have once again been able to sit down and enjoy a meal inside a public place for the better part of a year and a half in the Garden State.
There are a few holdout establishments, though, who aren't considering table service anytime soon — and they're not regretting that decision.
It's never been an option for Ghost Truck Kitchen in Jersey City, which opened about a year before the pandemic began, offering walk-up ordering, takeout, delivery, and catering services.
Founder Andrew Martino said COVID all but eliminated the walk-ins and catering, but takeout and delivery business remains strong.
Pivoting even faster was Jarrett Seltzer, of Bagels by Jarrett in West Orange, who opened his shop just three weeks before pandemic shutdowns started.
Bagels by Jarrett never had sit-down service to begin with, but Seltzer said during peak hours at the start, about 75 customers per hour were shuttling through the store.
'The food's going to be taking longer if I have less hands cooking'
Seltzer's food was obviously proving popular, but he had to devise some way to keep people coming back, even if they had to have their meals brought out to their cars. So he is constantly expanding his menu.
But that has required a focus on the kitchen, and as staffing shortages continue to plague the state as a whole, he said allowing patrons back inside to order became unlikely.
"That takes a person to be at that counter, and we used to have two people at that counter," Seltzer said. "That's two hands that aren't cooking food instead. The food's going to be taking longer if I have less hands cooking."
Both Seltzer and Martino feel the quality of takeout food has improved, somewhat by necessity, over the last two years in New Jersey, and both feel the shift away from in-person dining will increase.
'It's not that big a deal if there's 10 boxes of fryer oil in the front-of-house'
However, Martino conceded that adapting to COVID may have been easier for him than others, because of the way he designed his business in the first place.
"It's a very hard model especially if you had a full dining room, and you're paying rent as if you had people seated," Martino said. "There are a lot of complications, logistically, that come with doing delivery only."
Indoor real estate that might have been filled by tables and chairs has become useful in other ways, according to Seltzer.
"Because we were able to have that extra space, I realized it's not that big a deal if there's 10 boxes of fryer oil in the front-of-house, because there's no customer in here anymore. And I just ran with it," he said.
One other thing Seltzer and Martino agree on is the importance of ordering online directly from an establishment rather than a third-party delivery app.
As Martino puts it, restaurants' profit margins are thin enough as it is, without DoorDash and others dipping into the pot.
He said he and about 10 other eatery owners in the Jersey City area will soon be establishing their own, mutual delivery platform, and believes that could become a trend of its own.
"I definitely think these hyper-local delivery marketplaces are going to become more and more popular, not just in New Jersey, but throughout the country," Martino said.