New York City’s bar and restaurant owners will rally again at City Hall on Monday to demand that Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio push for federal aid to save their industry. Mark Fox, the Irish organizer of the event, is encouraging all to attend and show support.
The main organizer of a rally outside Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Midtown Manhattan office on Monday, September 28, says absolutely not, and he’s calling on business owners to turn out in huge numbers to let Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio know that they must do more – much more – to help the pending Restaurants Act pass Congress.
Mark Fox, a native of Co. Dublin and owner of the Fox Lifestyle Hospitality Group in New York which operates four bars/restaurants -- a planned fifth is on hold -- told the Irish Voice that the livelihoods of tens of thousands of workers depend on owners coming together and demanding passage of the bipartisan act which was introduced in June and seeks to create a $120 billion relief fund for the industry.
“This is an emergency call to action. If our industry does not get help then much of it won’t exist. It’s as simple as that,” Fox said.
“I cannot stress strongly enough how much we need a big turnout on Monday. If you are a bar or restaurant owner come join us at 330 East 38th Street at 11 a.m. to march to the governor’s office on Third Avenue, and bring your staff too. Our jobs and our way of life depend on it.”
Restaurants in all of New York State – except for the city’s five boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island and Manhattan – have been permitted to reopen at 50 percent indoor dining capacity since June. But the city’s establishments have been left to survive on takeout and outdoor dining only, pending the September 30 opening of 25 percent capacity indoor dining.
That’s way too little and much too late, Fox says. “They waited too long. We needed this at the start of the summer so we could build up at least some cash flow,” he adds.
“My biggest place, the Ragtrader (on West 36th Street) can seat 300. With 25 percent maximum capacity in the place, you’re looking at around 50 diners at a time. That just can’t work. It would be cheaper to close it.”
Fox plans on opening his four businesses on September 30 for indoor dining and he’s spent money to ensure they are compliant with all regulations, including new ventilation. But staying open indefinitely won’t be an option, he says, unless the industry is assured that financial help is on the way.
“I’m going to open for two weeks and see how much revenue that brings, and also to see if there’s any movement on the Restaurant Act. On October 15 I’m going to have to make a call. I can’t survive through the winter on 25 percent dining, and even if it goes up to 50 percent in November, it’s tough,” says Fox, who also owns the White Oak Tavern and Sapien Foods on Waverly Place, and Street Taco on Third Avenue.
“The problem is that you are incurring more debt at 25 percent capacity and the Paycheck Protection Program is now exhausted. And even if it goes to 50 percent there’s no way of catching up. You will just fall further into debt.”
Fox says it’s the responsibility of elected politicians – de Blasio and particularly Cuomo – to ensure that the concerns of the bar and restaurant industry are being heard on Capitol Hill.
“Even though they are not members of Congress they have a responsibility to us. When they are asking Washington for aid, that has to include us too,” Fox says.
“And they’ve yet to do that. We demand that they answer to us. It’s become quite apparent that Governor Cuomo has positioned himself as the chief COVID slayer, and that he thinks he can hang the economic collapse of our industry around the neck of the mayor.”
Fox adds, “What I’d say to the governor is this – we will not forget that if we fail he did nothing and that when the time comes for him to run for higher office, which he will, we will be there to remind everyone that he cannot be trusted to take care of their house because he couldn’t even take care of ours.
“If he stays silent on the Restaurant Act, he’s all but assured our demise.”
Fox was completely supportive of March’s COVID lockdown – “understandably that had to be done,” he says – and his landlords have been cooperative in negotiating rent relief.
“I am one of the lucky few. I have wonderful landlords. They have been understanding and patient and have worked deals with me to try and help me get through this.”
His businesses were doing well before COVID hit. But the layoffs have been painful – the payroll has been slimmed to 50, from a high of 130. Outdoor dining has been working fine, Fox adds, but the city’s sidewalks weren’t made for huge numbers of eaters and chilly weather is looming.
“We’ve been filling up all the tables but it’s nowhere near getting us the revenue we need. I don’t have a patio area where we can seat 100,” Fox says.
Last week the New York City Council approved a measure that would temporarily allow restaurant owners to add a 10 percent surcharge onto a bill, in a move aimed at helping recoup the staggering losses incurred since March. Fox is thankful that council members “acted in good faith,” but has concerns that the charge could not only keep customers away but also impact tips.
“I’m worried that our customers might see it as punitive,” he said. “We don’t want to do anything that might persuade them to not come back. And more importantly, I don’t want to put our guests in a position where they might tip less which would hurt our staff even more.”
Fox left Ireland in 1994 for New York. He found work as a bartender at Joyce’s on Second Avenue and eventually went into business with fellow Irish publicans Andy Breslin and Ronan Conlan, opening Bloom’s in Sunnyside, Queens, the Banc Café on Third Avenue in Manhattan, and Cask on East 33rd Street. He sold his interest in those places in 2004 and created the Fox Lifestyle Hospitality Group.
The American Dream was going quite well for Fox until COVID-19 took over. How does he feel seeing his years of hard work imperiled?
“What weighs most heavily is the toll on my employees. They are in a tougher spot than me,” he says.
“I’ve got to make sure I take care of my wife and kids. I’m a survivor and a fighter and I will always figure my way out. But there’s a lot of people who rely on me for a paycheck. And that really impacts me.
“The human cost associated with the failure of the restaurant industry in New York will be profound,” he adds. “We will live with it for years to come if it is allowed to continue.”
Gyms, casinos and malls throughout New York State have been allowed to reopen at various capacity levels and have done so safely. But Fox feels the restaurants and bars of the five boroughs have been senselessly cast aside, even though owners are ready to do whatever they need to resume immediate indoor dining at 50 percent.
“We are willing to follow rules. We are willing to keep our staff and our guests safe -- of course we are,” Fox says. “If it can be done only a short distance away on Long Island, why can’t it be done here?
“We’ve not been given a chance, and we’ve not been given any answers by our political leaders. That has to change.”
The rally outside the governor’s office in Midtown Manhattan begins at 11 a.m. on Monday, September 28. Attendees will gather at East 38th Street and march to the office on Third Avenue and 41st Street. The rally has been permitted by the NYPD, and a flatbed truck and PA system for speakers has been organized.
A rally organized by Fox at City Hall on September 14 attracted a large crowd, but he says even more industry representatives are needed for the 28th. For information visit www.flhgrp.com/nyc-restaurants-march or follow #nycrestaurantsmarch on social media.
“We encourage everyone to come out and support us,” Fox says. “We are not going to give up. Right now our reality is bleak, so our only real option is to change our reality and demand answers from our politicians.”