Peter Sedereas was grateful Saturday when he looked around the diner his family literally built and has operated since 1987 and saw customers sitting inside and enjoying a meal for the first time since March.
The Townsquare Diner in Wharton had tables, booths and stools marked off to ensure it only could be filled to the 25% capacity allowed by the state. But no such markings were really needed. The popular diner on Route 15 — the one right across from the Costco — wasn’t close to that limit.
And that’s OK, Sedereas said.
This weekend, he said, was just about the start of a return to normalcy for the restaurant industry. One Sedereas knows is still a long way into the future.
“It’s Labor Day weekend, so it’s going to be slow,” he said. “And it’s beautiful out, so it’s going to be slow.”
Then, there’s this: “It’s going to be slow because half the population still wants to stay at home because they are worried about the pandemic.”
Sedereas understands all this, and one more key aspect to his bottom line: The first customers willing to venture in from outside almost certainly will be customers who were previously sitting outside. Opening indoor dining will not necessarily lead to an immediate increase in revenue, he said.
“What I’ve noticed, and what I’ve heard from other restaurants and diners I’ve spoken to, is right now we’re really just moving some customers from outside to inside,” he said. “We’re not necessarily getting more customers.”
Most of them were still sitting outside — in the patio and parking lot area the diner has had going since June.
Sedereas said the first thing indoor dining allows him to do is to be able to maintain those customers when the weather turns colder — and it gets darker sooner.
“That could be October or November, but it could be September, too,” he said. “Lunchtime will still be good, I’m sure, but dinnertime — once the sun goes down earlier — no one is going to want to go eat outside. That’s when we’ll see the biggest difference.”
Sedereas is one of dozens — if not hundreds — of restaurant heads who have been working with elected officials to help the industry. He credits the efforts of those in New Jersey’s 25th Legislative District, specifically Assemblywoman Aura Dunn (R-Randolph), Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-Denville) and Sen. Anthony Bucco (R-Denville).
And, as a member of a diner coalition, he said he was able to meet with Gov. Phil Murphy’s staff on Zoom calls numerous times this summer.
“We spoke to them about what we’re doing here in our diners to get ready to open and on the economic impact it is having not only on our businesses, but on the state, because the trickle-down effect impacts our vendors,” he said.
Sedereas said he found the administration receptive. Because of it, he is not concerned that it will turn back the allowance — as it did before the July Fourth weekend, the first time the state said it was going to allow indoor dining.
“I’m confident that’s not going to happen this time,” he said.
Sedereas also understands things are not going to go back to normal anytime soon — if at all.
He has reduced staff and his menu — taking it down from 16 pages to one for now.
“We had to reinvent ourselves,” he said. “Our prep time was different, so we took a lot of things off the menu. The labor-intensive, high-end items we took off. We had to.”
Now, it’s just time to play the waiting game.
The return of outdoor dining on June 3 was a boost right away.
“Outdoor dining has been fantastic; it was a huge help,” he said. “We were down 75% when we were just doing takeout; now, we’re down 40%, so it definitely helped.”
The impact of indoor dining will be more gradual, he said.
The governor has to increase the capacity. More importantly, the general public has to feel more comfortable.
Sedereas said his comfort level has increased. And he has a sense of optimism for the first time in a while. In fact, he admitted that he bought a little extra food in preparation for the weekend and the opening of indoor dining. He didn’t want to miss out on a potential opportunity.
Sedereas said he’s willing to wait for it to come.
“This is just a starting point,” he said.