NYC restaurants coming up with creative offerings to stay in business

Emilee Geist

New York City restaurateurs are concocting novel ways to drum up business during the holidays, even as a looming COVID-19 lockdown threatens to shutter their venues citywide for the second time this year.

The Tao Group — which was forced to close many of its high-profile hangouts this spring because of the pandemic — is now offering “virtual holiday parties” after Mayor de Blasio warned last week that another lockdown is likely to slam restaurants “within the next week or two.”

That means live, private cooking classes online not only for easy, no-fuss dishes like Tao’s lobster guacamole but also more complicated creations like chicken parmigiana and homemade pasta. There’s even a fortune-cookie baking class, said TAO Group partner Paul Goldstein, who oversees the virtual program.

“One family asked for a virtual cooking class to learn how to make a full Chinese meal, with a Q&A from the chef,” Goldstein said.

Yes, the tab was luxury-priced, at $5,500. Nevertheless, “the more people invited, the less the cost, as the cost of a virtual chef is the same for a family of five or 100 people,” Goldstein says.

Other venues are banking on their outdoor dining areas, devising fresh ways to make them enticing as temperatures in the city become increasingly frigid. At Ten Hope in Williamsburg, owner Bill Zafiros partnered with Greg’s Trees owner Greg Walsh to transform his outdoor eating garden into a festive holiday space.

“The trees on site will be for decoration only, but diners can click on a QR code and have them delivered straight to their homes already decorated,” Zafiros said. Knickknacks and popular holiday menu items like homemade brittle will also be for sale, he adds.

Stratis Morfogen, owner of the Brooklyn Dumpling Shop and Brooklyn Chop House, has meanwhile created a new line of frozen signature dumplings — filled with New York classics like pastrami — that can be ordered on the restaurants’ Web site and shipped overnight in dry ice. The full line will be available at Walmart nationwide in February, he said.

“We need to keep our revenue options open if the mayor pulls the plug on indoor dining,” Morfogen told Side Dish. “Everybody has to pivot and do what they have to do.”

Indeed, Morfogen’s new line of home products also includes lychee flavored frozen rose wine pouches ($139.95 for a 10-pack) and even dolls that he designed and produced himself with names like Joey and Bella D from Brooklyn.

“Let’s just say I had a lot of time on my hands during quarantine,” Morfogen quipped.

The last-ditch efforts come as nearly 90 percent of all restaurateurs can’t pay their rent, according to a recent survey by the New York Hospitality Alliance. A second lockdown looms even as restaurants have grappled with a 25-percent capacity limit on indoor seating, confusing regulations on outdoor heating and a 10 p.m. dining curfew.

On Friday, Danny Meyer — the first prominent restaurateur to shut down in March — announced that he is closing indoor and outdoor dining at Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern and Blue Smoke at Battery Park City ahead of a state-mandated shutdown.

In the meantime, Tao is scrambling to stay upbeat, offering a New Year’s Eve virtual party that promises a taste of the revelry guests remember at its nightclubs that remain shut down.

A private Webcast kicks off with cookie decorating and charcuterie plate design in the early evening. That’s followed by cocktail making with a mixologist at 9 p.m. and a comedian at 10 p.m. before a champagne toast and a DJ.

Virtual programming “won’t keep the lights on” forever, Tao Group co-founder Noah Tepperburg said. But while the chain continues to weather the coronavirus, “it will keep between five to 10 people at each restaurant employed.”

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