Valentine’s Day is always a big night for restaurants, but two South Bronx eateries see this year’s celebration as something really special – the start of a path back to normalcy.
“A light at the end of the tunnel,” said Sam Toosi, manager of Charlie’s Kitchen & Bar in Port Morris, which will welcome back seating diners indoors this weekend, under the latest pandemic reopening schedule announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The return of indoor dining comes just in time for couples looking to go out for date night. Cuomo announced restaurants could resume indoor dining at 25 percent capacity as soon as February 12. It will be the first time South Bronx eateries are able to offer indoor dining since December 14.
Charlie’s Kitchen & Bar lacks an outdoor space and has been offering only takeout since indoor dining shutdown. “It is always a huge night for us. To have us to be able to have people back in the tables will be a boost for us,” said Toosi.
The commercial holiday typically accounts for a large percentage of restaurant revenue for the year. According to the National Restaurant Association, Valentine’s Day is the second highest night for dining traffic in the United States.
Big nights are critical: Already in 2021, South Bronx eateries have missed out on New Year’s Eve and last weekend’s Super Bowl, two other key annual chances for boosts in revenue.
Along with the extra revenue from the holiday, Toosi is excited to welcome back additional wait and bussing staff, who had shifts reduced as a result of the ban on indoor dining. But adjustments still must be made.
For Toosi, some of the precautions include spacing out seating options and penciling in more time between reservations. On Sunday night, Charlie’s will have a Valentines’s Day menu to go along with traditional specials.
At Seis Vecinos in Longwood, technology installed since the start of the pandemic is allowing guests to view the Valentine’s Day dinner menu online, ahead of their visit Sunday night. That menu includes multiple drink specials and a pre-fixed food menu.
“I wanted to implement a digital menu with a QR code before COVID-19 hit. Recently we have focused on rolling that out quickly to our guests,” said Omar Canales, brand manager for the restaurant.
The restaurant has invested more with advertising, particularly on social media, which has brought in a steady flow of customers, despite the indoor dining restrictions. Seis Vecinos has an outdoor space that the staff constructed which features active ventilation and heaters. Valentines’ Day diners will have the option of eating indoors or outdoors.
Canales is expecting a high turnout, and ordered a paging system that Seis Vecinos plans to begin using this weekend. He hopes that improved systems will reduce wait times while also keeping the space clear of those waiting for tables.
Both Charlie’s and Seis Vecinos have worked hard to stay in compliance with city regulations. They perform temperature checks of both staff and patrons, separate tables to comply with social distancing, and require masks at all times except when guests are seated.
“Our staff has been accustomed to changes on a daily basis at this point, so we are comfortable operating under the circumstances and it being just as enjoyable for the guest,” said Canales.
For Toosi, he sees this week as a chance for many in the industry to turn a corner, citing the vaccine classification that designates restaurant workers as next to qualify for the vaccine. He is focused on bringing indoor dining and restaurant staff back.
“We get to welcome some staff back this week so it is very exciting for us,” he said.
Both restaurants still have availability for reservations on Sunday night.