Open Letter: Restaurants will need government help to survive

Ron Silver, the founder and owner of Bubby’s, on what’s at stake for our neighborhood and beyond if the city’s restaurants and their thousands of employees are not offered significant support.

Our Knives are Sharpened and We Are Ready to Work
We can all agree that whatever the restaurant situation is when the lights go back on, it will be more than subtly different than it was when the lights went off. But if New York City does not play its cards right, many successful and talented restaurateurs and chefs will not return. Post-pandemic, many will take their sharpened knives elsewhere.

Certainly there will be interventions and supportive words from the mayor, governor and federal government. But waiters in gloves and masks who have to get their temperatures taken working in restaurants with only a quarter of the seats used kind of takes the fun out of grabbing bagels and lox at your favorite brunch spot.

Of course even this scenario might only apply to the 20 percent of restaurants where the owners are certain they will be able to reopen, according to a recent survey by the James Beard Foundation. Many of the rest will not make it. So according to my back of the napkin calculations, less than half of New York City’s restaurants will be back after the pandemic.

This number is impossible to digest. Not only will New Yorkers have a very different New York City without restaurants, this puts the hundreds of thousands of cooks, servers, wholesalers and suppliers who service the restaurant world in a bad spot, and it is a downward spiral. The business that is most associated with “turning a neighborhood around” is the first to come in and the first to go out as the neighborhood begins its not-so-slow decline.

Restaurants are essential to thriving American communities, employing over 260,000 people, with an estimated $17 billion in revenues in New York City alone. As chefs, we have a job of cooking good food for people, creating convivial atmospheres, and creating good work communities. There are people working in my organization who started when they were 14 years old and now they’re in their 30s with children. They’re serious professional people with families working in a community that they count on.

We are also the place where life memories are made. I can tell you about at least five couples who had their first date at Bubby’s, got engaged there, celebrated their marriages there, then got pregnant, had that baby, and I watched that baby grow up and go to school, and then have their first job at Bubby’s. These are intangible profits that don’t show up on a balance sheet. It is called good will — and it costs nothing.

New York City has taken a huge financial hit as a result of COVID-19. Many organizations sprouted up overnight to help fund and support the restaurant community. But those are not enough. Now that we are starting to see a move toward reopening, we all must cooperate and work together to make sure there are tangible measures that will jumpstart our industry when we are allowed to fully operate.

For the record, this is not my first rodeo, although it is the most drastic. But having been on the same corner since 1990, just blocks away from the World Trade Center, I have seen how things go when the chips are down, and it does not favor small family businesses. This time must be different. I suggest that we coordinate with our landlords so rents are adjusted to a percentage of post-pandemic revenues. And while many of us are doing this and having unofficial conversations with our landlords, there are no formal protections in place—for them, or us. For that to happen, rent relief efforts from the government must also be enacted.

We must hear from Mayor De Blasio and Governor Cuomo on this. It is imperative that we collaborate on policies at the city and state levels, so we can then use that collective power to advocate for additional aid at the federal level. If we need a new fund that will help landlords make their payments for the building and taxes, then so be it. We need guidance from the government so we can come to an agreement for both tenants and landlords that will benefit both parties.

Restaurants and retail are a fundamental driving force of New York City’s economy. Ultimately, if they can’t feed themselves, they’ll go somewhere else and the spiral will be devastating to landlords, banks and to the city. We need to stay ahead of this and all work in tandem to ensure effective business models for restaurants, patrons, landlords and taxes that replenish New York City’s coffers.

Our knives are sharpened and we’re ready to return.



  1. ” Post-pandemic, many will take their sharpened knives elsewhere.”

    What does that even mean?

    To open up the first paragraph with that hollow threat, dulls the impact of the rest of the piece. I assume it’s possible that all the great NYC chefs will pick up their sharpened knives and relocate to Camden, NJ, but in all likelihood I doubt this will be the case. It’s the same story everywhere. More likely, current locations will close, chefs will bring their “sharpened knives” down the street and re open a concept in a different location. Who knows maybe this will open the doors to fresh new talent.

    Everyone is hurting in this environment, and restaurants are a big part of the economy. Unfortunately, to single out restaurateurs as the ones who are most deserving of handouts at this time seems somewhat myopic. Maybe governmental money can be better spent supporting the health and well being of the sick, hungry and less fortunate people of our community.

    It is also possible that even with government intervention, restaurants will still fail as most people have learned to cook for, and feed themselves over the past 2+ months and have learned that paying the price of a week’s worth of groceries for an excellent (or mediocre) meal makes less sense that it used to. Maybe if “NYC doesn’t play it’s cards right” and the number or restaurants decreases, the reduced number will be the perfect number for our new world as people will no longer want to go to restaurants as they once did.

    In any case threats of leaving for mystical greener pastures mid pandemic, while simultaneously asking for handouts, might not be the best optic for this moment in time.

    • Well said – I am still trying to digest his words- the prices became obscene, and they stopped treating the locals like we mattered. A little humility might go a long way.

  2. Recently appearing on the Huffington Post: ‘How Restaurants Will Be Different When They Reopen After COVID-19 Closures’

    “Most of all, Silver hopes the city handles post-COVID better than it has handled past disasters. Working with Bubby’s since 1990, Silver saw Bubby’s become a distribution hub for first responders after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

    ” ‘But what came after that was a disgrace,’ he said. ‘The city tripled our sidewalk café fees and sent in Consumer Affairs, the Sanitation Department and the Health Department to extract erroneous nickels and dimes from us. There was something else at every turn. We do not want to see that again. Our industry was arguably one of the hardest-hit, and we hope the city does not attempt to recoup lost revenue by coming after us struggling restaurants.’ ”

    • Ron’s take comes across as very entitled, and his threats to take his business elsewhere really don’t hold up. Where is he going to go? Lancaster, PA isn’t going to pay $20 for pancakes or $7 for “maple water” one of the more ridiculous things to appear on his menu. Ron’s workers might deserve a bailout, but he definitely doesn’t.

  3. For the Federal level, maybe consider what other industries, like nightclubs, are collectively doing: hiring pro DC lobbyists. No one’s at the wheel in the useless admin branch, but Congress might hear them, if you can afford it.

    • Let’s face it. Everything in New York is overpriced. Yet many of us choose to live and work here because of all that this city has to offer.

      I’m a fan of Bubby’s and I do not know Ron. I get frustrated by their pricing as well. But he merely articulated what not only every restauranteur is thinking, but what every small business owner is thinking.

      Do you think Broadway is thinking any differently? Or a great bookstore like the Strand? Or a gym?

      I do not think we should sacrifice safety for money, however our elected officials do have to carefully consider what the return looks like, or else there will be even more chain restaurants and chain stores that will make NY look just like every other city, which sadly, is already starting to happen.

      Many restaurants have provided a small taste of normalcy during this horrible pandemic. Most of you did not move to Tribeca to sit in your apartment.

      Think about it. Do we really need another IHOP at the expense of a Bubby’s or diner in the neighborhood?

  4. I am sure Ron will also be adjusting his prices post-pandemic to aid patrons hit hard. $20+ for a burger or pancakes? Come on now.

  5. As both a landlord and owner/operator of a 43 year old business, I hate to say it but NYC has become the an undesirable place to be either. From a landlord’s perspective, the taxes are so high and always going up, doubling every 6-7 years. That’s partially why there are so many retail vacancies. The city needs to reduce property taxes. The current taxes that we pay doesn’t justify what we receive in return, which I feel is an inefficiently run government. There also needs to be some sort of mortgage relief. Without that, it’s hard for landlords to help tenants. As a tenant and business owner, PPP has been helpful but there needs to be rent relief, which will only happen if landlords are compelled to help.

  6. Staff and customer safety is infinitely more important than how waiters look.

    Too bad that you have to take an employee’s temperature with a no touch temporal thermometer and send them home if they have a fever. This is the new reality until a vaccine can be created and even then you’re serving me food with a normal temperature and gloves and I don’t care how it looks cuz I know the deal.

    Just where are these chefs moving to where it’s better, Allentown PA? Chicago or L.A. will be better? Go ahead Ron. Relocate Bubby’s to either and tell us how it works for you.

    The problem with NYC is everyone wants to move here because they’re too stuckup, stupid, scared, or lazy to make somewhere else like Allentown a place to be. NYC or bust. Everyone thinks they’re the next whoever. This mentality inflates the cost to live, work, and do business here. Yes, many, MANY parts of this country suck but many don’t. Give them a try.

    With all due respect I can make my own killer burger with any kind of bread I want, or I could use lettuce leaves instead, or have it bare. One 50 cent potato nets me 20 potato slices. A bare burger, potato slices, an entire onion (also 50 cents), and an avocado ($2-3) is a delicious bountiful meal for less than $6.

    Restaurants which will survive are ones who make food you can’t make as good or better yourself and cheap eats with high volume.

    People will cook more and go out to eat as much as people did before 1990.

  7. He’s right. It’s not like restaurants are making absurd money. Margins are extremely tight in a FULL restaurant. It is impossible to fathom operating at 25 percent capacity without breaks in place.

    Where would chefs go? Anywhere else probably where they could afford such square footage in order to serve an amount of socially distanced patrons that makes it profitable for a chef and staff to feed their family. It’s not a threat, it’s the truth. No one would run a business that loses money.

    There will be a detrimental decline to neighborhoods with all these vacant restaurants. A lot of people will flee this place and that means lower property values, less money the city takes in and it snowballs.

    I won’t get angry that a lot of people in the city could afford a 20 dollar burger if it means the flidside is a city in decay with skyrocketing crime run by a government whose game plan of always increasing taxes no longer works.

    • The issue with moving your business to a place where there is cheap rent, is that areas with cheap commercial space won’t command NYC menu prices or NYC customer flow.

      Also lower property values just mean rents come down, both commercial rents and residential rents. Sure the city will look different but people fill the spaces, restaurants will return to the cheaper spaces and life will go on.

      Things will definitely not be the same when all this is over. Our city will look different for sure with different people and different businesses. Not necessarily worse, just different.

      • The flaw in your argument is that rents will come down. Look at the numerous shuttered places in tribeca pre-covid. The entities that own all the property would rather sit vacant than lower rents. If the private equity holdings firms kept this mantra for years prior, they’ll be able to hold out for another 12-24 months during the pandemic. Or fill the spaces with more banks and Walgreens.

        There will not be a rent that will allow an interesting non chain restaurant to operate at 25-50 percent capacity. It’s not possible. Restaurants and bars are a lifeblood of a community and if they go the community suffers. It absolutely will trickle down to less people, and less revenue for a city that already wasted so much tax monies from the wealthy.

        Even in good times Nyc restaurants barely make it, the margins are so slim. They deserve assistance from the government to bide some time. They have families to feed and employ many people. If they don’t get help they absolutely will flee in order to earn a living. And jobs will be lost. Stores will shutter. It’s not a “threat”, it’s reality.

        From a federal level it’s absurd to bail out cruise ships who are all registered foreign companies. But local restaurateurs who give something back to a community, some with decades of local roots, and work their ass off are expected to pound salt. We all suffer and no one wants more Walgreens and banks, or worse, an Applebee’s.

        Not to derail things too much further but it’s ironic that people will lament a (quality) $20 burger but will also purchase a $6 cup of coffee without skipping a beat.

        • The flaw in your argument is that no one said they’d pay $6 for coffee, but not $20 for a burger. You created that for your argument. Price gouging is price gouging.

    • Right cuz if we don’t spend $20 on a hamburger or $3000 on a 225 square foot studio apartment we’re going back to the bad old days. Get a grip.

      These chefs have nowhere to go save L.A. and wherever they can carve a niche.

      If this city went down to six million people (not because of COVID 19 deaths) with people moving in and out we’d not only still be the most populated city in America by three million people but still the one with the most jobs, opportunity, culture, singles, restaurants, bars, tourist attractions etc. We’d just GASP! pay less rent and less to live. Property tax would still be an enormous revenue generator.

      Spare me your less taxes nonsense unless it’s less taxes for everyone making up to $25 an hour.

    • Yeah, if you can’t afford a $20 dollar burger then the city will decay and crime will skyrocket and government will increase taxes. Not. The city will not decay and if Ron and his sharpened knives want to go elsewhere, good luck to him. We shouldn’t accept price gouging. $20 pancakes?! What’s the margin on them hotcakes?

  8. No one knows what is going to happen. It depends on too many variables not just whether restaurants return. How long will it take tourism to resume, will large companies now that they have discovered many employees can work from home efficiently decrease their nyc footprint, which in turn impacts other local small business. Which people will then ask themselves if I do not need to commute why pay these rents and taxes maybe I should find someplace cheaper with a different quality of life. ( do I want to work from home with two small kids in a 2 bedroom apt) It can be a downward spiral. The population size is irrelevant. NYC in the 1970s and 80s had over 7 million people unfortunately it was a poorer population. The spiral down of nyc was created by the ” white flight” starting in the 1960s which is what can possibly start to happen now. It might not be a white flight it will be the leaving of high paid individuals out of the city. Always remember nyc is not Manhattan alone. Will it go back to that I doubt it. But there will be impact no doubt.

  9. One big result of closed restaurants, cafes and bars will be the darkening of our streets. Doormen from restaurants and bars provide a second set of eyes on our streets and help to keep us all safe. The lights from these businesses burn into the late hours and keep the streets open and safe for you to walk home from your meetings with friends. I remember well, having lived on Mulberry Street in the late eighties, how I would start to walk home from work at the Bitter End, and get to Broadway only to hail a cab and have him wait for me to enter my apartment. Those last two blocks were just too dangerous for a young woman to navigate. Once Bleecker Street bar opened in 1990, it was a different story. It lit up the entire block and there were people on the street until 4 am. We need commercial rent regulations to help save our City!

  10. So many myopic comments posted. The varied array of small-operator restaurants and bars brings visitors and their spending to the city, provides good paying jobs, fills the city’s tax coffers, brings life, light, and safety to otherwise dark neighborhoods, and provides a nice diversion from everyday life. Higher and higher regulations, payroll (about 40% plus of revenues), rent (about 20% of revenues), costs of goods sold (25% of revenues), insurance, garbage removal, etc., etc, mean already slim margins of about 10%. These higher costs mean higher prices – not price gouging. With more restrictions and less business, these small restaurants and bars won’t make it. The few that do will have to charge even higher prices for a lesser experience. Restaurant owners and workers will move from NY, because no matter how magical NYC is (or was), there are other places and jobs. The loss will be more than a ripple in our local economy, and it’s not so cool to be flippant about business and job loss.

    • Blah, blah, blah, so the $20+ pancake is only at a 10% margin? I guess those Bubbidiots standing in line for brunch don’t know the bonzo deal they’re getting! It’s almost like Bubby’s is paying them to eat there!

    • Well said, I can’t understand the anger from supposed “locals” at not being able to follow the bouncing ball. It will be a worse place to live by every possible metric if the government doesn’t step up for our bars and restaurants. If they do not, then yes, workers will have to move elsewhere.

      It’s pretty simple.

  11. I don’t see any “myopic” comments here.

    Restaurants and workers will move to where? They won’t make the money they’d make in NYC wherever they move – not even close.

    Less restaurants means more money for those places which have a business model to exist. This city did just fine in the 80s and 90s and up to I’ll say 2002 – see all the places which opened then and before then still kicking ass in this neighborhood alone.

    We could see a spike in grocery stores, food trucks and carts, and new ways of selling food: cooking ingredient supply depots, cooking services, specialty food makers, private chefs, micro-farmers markets, cooking classes, commisaries, mergers etc.

    People want to go out to eat great food – others will find a way to bring it to them.

  12. Yet another local who stopped going to Bubby’s long ago when it became clear that they didn’t care about the community (locals) anymore. Their food was never worth the cost, but I liked the long-time employees that used to work there and I felt obligated to go out of long-time loyalty.

    But the way Bubby’s always lets their messy garbage and outdoor plants cause aggressive rat problems for the block irritates me to no end.

    If Ron wants us to support his business maybe he should start caring about this neighborhood a little first.