What's Left of the Hudson Valley Food Industry When the Virus Is Gone?
Food Writer and Author | Columbia County
I’ve spent the last six months working on a documentary. I spend all day, every day talking to farmers, fishermen, chefs, people in charity space, you name it, anybody who has an impact on the food landscape. I’ve been checking in with people on a regular basis since early March. The reason I’m doing this is because it really hit me that this was, to use the word everybody’s using, a pivotal point in American food. None of us knew where it was going to end up, but nothing was going to be the same at the end of this.
It seemed to me that there were two distinct possibilities. One is that restaurants would go out of business, farmers would fail, fishermen would dock their boats, and 40 years of work on sustainability would go out the window. We would end up with an even more industrialized food landscape than we have now. Or, Americans will start cooking again, will connect to their food, will start shopping with farmers, will understand how important food is, and that the food system is terribly broken. Maybe this would be a moment when we fix it. To be honest, I don’t know yet where we’re going to end up.
It’s very clear that we’re going to have a lot less independent restaurants when this is over. I don’t think we’ll really know where farmers are until mid-November when farm loans come due. But, just about everybody is expecting an awful lot of farm failure at that point.
If it doesn’t work out, it’s pretty scary. We have the cheapest food in the world in this country. It’s government policy to do that; it has been since World War II. It was a way of fighting the Cold War. What it has given us is incredible efficiency at the expense of the land, our health, etc. Six out of 10 Americans suffer from chronic diseases, which are mostly food-related. In the worst case scenario, that just gets worse.
In the better case scenario, where people understand that their health is very dependent on what they eat, people will start to eat good, nutritious food; will start going to farmers who raise more nutritious food; will start cooking and having family dinners.
Every chef in America is thinking: How do we fix this model? How do we make it better?
The restaurant industry is going to be really interesting. We are going to have enormous failure across the country. We know that. What that will mean is an opportunity, a year, two years down the road, for people to get into the business who couldn’t have before. Rents will be lowered; we will not be so saturated. I think, in a couple of years, you’re probably going to see a burst of creativity in the restaurant landscape, but first we’re going to go through some really wrenching closures and changes.
The restaurant business model is a terrible model in every way, from abuse of staff to the fact that tipped employees are paid less and that the people in the back of the house are vulnerable. Every chef in America is thinking: How do we fix this model? How do we make it better?
What is it about farming that doesn’t work? Why does every farmer have to go and beg for loans at the beginning of every season? Is there a better way for us to do that? There’s no question that, horrible as this pandemic has been, it has really forced us all to face some very harsh realities. The idea that farming in America does not provide a living wage to people is absurd. It is an essential business. Most farmers in America have to have second jobs or third jobs to keep their farms going. That’s crazy. The American food system has relied on exploiting people and the question is: How do we fix that?
For our particular region, it’s a pretty rosy picture. The independent farmers I’ve been following, who were very nervous in the beginning, can’t get enough product. As people flee the cities and move to the Hudson Valley, independent farmers are banding together; they’re creating farm stores. There’s a whole new range of customers. I don’t think that reflects what’s happening in the rest of the country.
I will tell you that I’ve been writing about food for 50 years, and I really thought I knew a lot. But, I’ve learned so much in the last few months it’s sort of stunning. I’ve always thought consumers could fix it, but I increasingly have come to believe that government policy is the biggest driver of our food system. We need anti-trust work. We need to get back to a regional food system. In the State of New York, there are something like 57,000 farmers and 137 of them are black. That also has to do with government policy, and we need to fix that. There’s so much that the government could do. It’s time we agree that the people who produce our food are essential workers and think about, from a policy standpoint, what that means.”
Michelle Adams & Chris Vergara
On the Line | Dobbs Ferry
March 16 everything shut down. Those first couple days, nobody knew what was going to happen or how long we were going to be out. But we knew we needed revenue, and we knew we had product that was going to wind up in the garbage. So, we closed down Saint George [Bistro in Hastings-on-Hudson], moved everybody over to Harper’s, and just started processing and donating food, figuring out what we could do to keep people employed.
We knew there were going to be restaurant industry people in need, so that was the first thing we put out there. If you need a meal, come get it. Simultaneously, we were reaching out within our community to say, ‘We think we could use restaurants to feed people during this.’
We could use restaurants to feed people during this.
We set up a fundraising account and started reaching out to other restaurants to see if they would want to participate. It was very simple. How much money is coming in? How much can we allocate this week for meals? Who needs meals? We would present it to restaurants as this number of meals on this day, and here’s how much we can pay.
We found an organization to do hospital meals. They had an online system for people to start their own chapters of fundraising, so we merged our fundraising efforts. We think we raised close to $70,000.
In terms of impact, we definitely got a range of feedback. We had people eager and able to do hundreds of meals in a day, and we had people who [thought] the price point was too low. We were closed, but the busiest part of our summer was trying to get those meals out, trying to get people together to turn their stoves on.”
Fishkill Farms | Fishkill
I’m a third-generation farmer. My grandfather started the farm in 1913. The core of our business is on-farm sales, centering around pick-your-own, but also lots of value-added products in our farm store. This year, for all small businesses, it’s been difficult and nerve wracking. We are lucky to be a farm that is selling direct to customers and not to restaurants as our primary means of sales.
In March, we pretty quickly decided to close our store, but, as we realized that supply chains were being affected, we wanted to continue to provide for the community. So, we started rudimentary pre-orders. It’s a very slow time of year for us, but in March, April, and May, our sales were double what they normally would be.
People have wanted to buy local food online, and now, because of COVID, farms are figuring out how to make it work.
Then, getting into pick-your-own [season], we had to figure out a way to limit the number of people visiting the farm. In the past, folks could just show up, pay admission, and pick whatever they like. [This year,] we developed a reservation system to spread the flow of customers so we didn’t have everyone showing up at noon on a Saturday, and, to make sure our crop is picked, we made the reservations a picking package.
In the summer, we’re normally serving food and we have a cider bar. We were not able to open those until August. So, we took a pretty big hit on the auxiliary sales. But, I’m very thankful that [infection rates] seem to be staying under control. We’re now in apple season, which is by far the biggest time of year for us. Probably 60 percent of our revenue comes in two or three months. The fact that we’ve been able to continue to operate has been huge. If we weren’t able to do that now, I don’t even like to think about what it’d be like.
We’ll have to see how it nets out. By the end of the summer sales were quite a bit down, but apple season started off really strong. I’m optimistic that we’ll close out the year on par with previous years.”
Atticus Farm | West Shokan
Atticus Farm started six years ago. It’s a regenerative farm. Primarily, we sell pork and some chicken. We have a CSA. We have a farm stand on weekends. We sold a lot to restaurants, including The DeBruce, Silvia, and the Catskill Pines
Obviously, the restaurants all shut down. I was pretty worried about that, but people have become a lot more passionate about local food and knowing where their food comes from. So, we haven’t seen any drop in demand. Now, what we were selling to restaurants, we’re selling [directly to consumers].
Restaurants are starting to come back, which is great. We want them to be successful and open up, but we’ve found there’s been no slowing of the demand. We’re at a point where, everything we’ve had for sale, we’ve sold. We’re just going week by week. As soon as we have product, we’re able to sell it very, very quickly.
I don’t know that it’s been better or worse. Personally, I love working with restaurants. It’s really fun to talk to chefs, but I’m also really happy that there’s been such an increased interest in the quality of food, that people are cooking more, and becoming more adventurous cooks. I hope that stays. I hope that people continue to value really high-quality, local food because it’s so important for our community.
I’m also the chief operating officer at a company called Harvie, which helps small-scale farms sell their products online to local consumers. That company has seen 500 percent growth in the last six months. People have wanted to buy local food online, and now, because of COVID, farms are figuring out how to make it work when, before, they weren’t incentivized to. I think we’re going to see that [continue]. Now that local farms are online and consumers know where they are, they’re going to expect that.”
Alewife Farm | Kingston
We grow just about every vegetable you can grow in the Northeast. We mostly sold directly to restaurants and through farmers’ markets. Last year, we were doing four weekly markets, all in Manhattan, including two days at Union Square.
This year, with COVID, things have shifted pretty dramatically for us. I made the call to reduce from four markets to just Union Square on Fridays. Even after places in the city started outdoor dining, many of our regular customers were [not] open, let alone in a position to be buying much.
We’re working a lot more with wholesalers and home-delivery services. I think, at the end of the year, our total sales will be down by about a third from normal, which I actually consider to be not that bad all things considered.
I’ve been running a smaller crew this year. A lot of that is just because it takes a lot of people to staff the markets, so now that we’re only doing one market instead of four, that’s a much smaller team. And, we’re doing a little less on the farm because we have fewer sales.
Going forward, I’m still evaluating options, but I think it’s likely that we will continue on the path that we’re on now, which is a lot less emphasis on our farmers’ markets in the city. I’m debating whether or not it makes sense for us to keep doing that at all. Even before the pandemic, I’d seen the purchasing power of chefs who shop at the market decreasing because their cash flow was getting more and more constrained.
If we [stop doing markets] our crop plan can totally change. The market, it’s sort of like a CSA, we want to have a diverse set of offerings every week to put on the stand. But if it’s just wholesale, it makes more sense to focus on a smaller list of crops that we can do really efficiently in wholesale quantities. We might go from 40 different crops to 12 or 15.”
Blue Hill at Stone Barns | Pocantico Hills
I think we’re going to see the greatest shake out of restaurants in modern history. I don’t think there’s going to be anything we can even compare it to. There’ll be a before and after moment from this pandemic, where you will look back and say, ‘I remember when all these restaurants disappeared.’
The farms that we really care about are largely supported by a good restaurant economy. With that disappearing, you’re going to lose farms that you really need. They’re taking care of soil health and creating the kind of flavors and diversity that are key to our health. That’s our vaccine.
Look at the pandemic, 90 percent of people who succumb to COVID have underlying conditions. What are underlying conditions? Something like 94 percent of underlying conditions are either diabetes, heart disease, or obesity. And what connects all three of those? It’s all food. It’s a diet disease. The reason COVID has been so disastrous for this country, besides our ineptitude at dealing with it, is that our personal immunities are weak. That’s from food. Food is the great defense before the vaccine.
I think we’re going to see the greatest shake out of restaurants in modern history.
We have a dire emergency with our food system, and it’s killing us. That’s going to be the story that comes out of COVID. The answer is restaurants that are independent, local, support local farms, and that produce fresh food, often delicious food, [with] lots of vegetables and grains, not with meat as the main driver. Those are the restaurants you want because they influence the culture and influence eating habits. Good chefs celebrate diversity. Restaurants are really the meeting places of healthfulness. Legislators, I don’t think they’re thinking about it in those terms.
[If there’s one positive, it’s that] people have been forced to have a new relationship with food, which is exciting. You’ve been home more; you’ve been cooking for yourself more. That’s the trick for a better food system. Cook more yourself because, when you let other people cook for you, you very quickly get food that’s less good for you, less tasty, and you generally eat more of it.
What this pandemic has forced is connection. It’s so sad that it took COVID to see this in the way that people in the sustainable food world have been talking about forever. Maybe it leads to some profound changes on the connection between our health, our food, and farming. It’s all one subject. Losing these farms that are in trouble because of restaurants going under is an irony that’s so cruel because these diverse farms are the ones we need most. My hope is that there’s an appreciation for diversity, and that the work they’re doing leads to a consciousness coming out of this. That’s something to hope for.”
What’s Next for Blue Hill?
In August, Blue Hill at Stone Barns announced that it would not reopen with its pre-COVID iteration, but would transition to a chef-in-residency program starting in 2021. Dan Barber explains how the restaurant adapted its recently Michelin-starred dining experience during COVID, and why now felt like the right time to make a change.
When COVID started, how did you respond?
Since March, we’ve been producing this range of curated food boxes that you pick up at Blue Hill. We have a meat box, fish box, dairy box, vegetable box. There’s been a pretty robust program that we had to do overnight. It’s worked. We started a picnic in late June, where people picnic outdoors right on our patio, lawn, or courtyard. That’s been going great. Now the weather’s turning cold, so we have to figure out what our next move is.
Why did you decide not to offer indoor dining?
First of all, we have a lot of advantages that other people don’t have. We have a lot of outdoor space, so, if we didn’t have to serve inside, that was preferable.
From a revenue standpoint, how do the boxes and picnics compare to normal dining?
We’re charging a lot less for a picnic. The box is really expensive to run. But the main point of all of this was to keep our employees employed and keep farmers farming who have special contracts with us and who rely on an institution like a restaurant to survive because they don’t have a strong retail presence. That was key.
Can you tell us about the decision to change to a chef-in-residency program going forward?
The chef-in-residency program is a project in the works, but it’s essentially turning over the walls of Blue Hill in 2021 to a chef who would create a menu in keeping with the protocols we’ve established over 20 years, the things we’ve learned about working with different farmers, and the way we collaborate and cohabitate with Stone Barns Center. Someone will be free to create a menu under some of the guidelines we’ve established, but also to do it with different cuisine, different perspective, and from voices that aren’t heard that often. We’re not trying to pick famous chefs. We’re picking chefs who, for the most part, have lost a stove during COVID and are looking for a place to land in the interim.
Why did this seem like the right moment?
Well, obviously, COVID had something to do with it. Already, one in six restaurants in the United States have gone bankrupt or out of business. That’s the beginning of what seems like a huge, catastrophic moment for the restaurant industry. We have a very blessed canvas to work from, and allowing other people to express themselves in this place is very unique. So, we all felt that was something important to do.
New York State Restaurant Association | Albany
The outdoor dining experiment has been pretty successful. We’ve been lucky to have some nice weather this summer, and I think all the levels of government really worked well at cutting through the red tape and making it easier for restaurants to use expanded space. But, I’m definitely hearing a lot of concern as to what happens next as the weather gets cold. If outdoor dining isn’t a viable option anymore for these locations, then what? How are they going to make it through the winter?
We did two [statewide] surveys in August. The first, was talking about whether or not [restaurants] were going to be profitable, and 90 percent of the restaurants we surveyed came back and said it was unlikely or somewhat unlikely that they were going to be profitable in the next six months. We really started to think, what does that mean for their long-term viability? So, we followed up with a second survey within a matter of weeks. That came back, and 63.6 percent thought they were likely to close by the end of the year without additional financial assistance.
All along, we’ve been working with our national partner, the National Restaurant Association, on federal relief packages. Federal funding seems to be key to the long-term viability of these restaurants because they aren’t anywhere near their 2019 sales, [but] a lot of their expenses, like rent and utilities, have continued at their pre-COVID levels.
We always said a typical restaurant was probably operating at a three to five percent profit margin before the pandemic. So, you can imagine, if your sales drop even marginally, you’re no longer making money. And, they’ve dropped far more than three to five percent. It varies region to region, and I would say the Hudson Valley, having been open for outdoor dining and indoor dining longer than, say, a New York City restaurant, is probably faring better. But, some of them are still down 20, 30, 40 percent.
Restaurants aren't meant for social distancing.
If they had to shut down and go back to delivery and takeout, I think it would be far worse than what we’ve even seen so far. I don’t think many restaurants would be able to survive; it’s just too much to ask at this point. We’ve taken drastic measures in New York to reopen slowly and carefully. I think the goal is to keep moving forward and to not have to shut down again, but I know the operators are worried about it.
A lot of them have made changes to their businesses that you would likely see continue in the future. I think the rent and landlord relationship is going to have to change. People are going to want way less space. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.
Everyone can agree that most people have a favorite restaurant, a place where they like to go out and celebrate family events, birthdays, anniversaries. They are a cornerstone to the community, so losing a significant percentage of them during this pandemic is going to impact our culture and our social fabric. Restaurants aren’t meant for social distancing; it’s not what we do. Hospitality is all about smiling, making contact, making people feel welcome. It’s tricky during these times, but we’re still doing the best we can with the rules we’ve been given.”
Bia | Rhinebeck
Bia opened in June 2019, so we only had about eight months under our belt before news of an imminent global pandemic started to circulate. We were just starting to build momentum, and things started getting pretty dire in mid-February, long before Cuomo ordered restaurants to close.
The full-service, dine-in restaurant model has been dealt an unprecedented blow that has laid bare how fragile this business model really is. We are lucky to have secured some low-interest loans that allowed us to re-open our doors in August. When that money runs out, we will have to re-evaluate where we stand again.
The full-service, dine-in restaurant model has been dealt an unprecedented blow that has laid bare how fragile this business model really is.
Chains, fast food, and the like will be just fine through COVID. Their sales are booming, while independent businesses are shuttering left and right. [To help independent restaurants,] eat out as often as you can afford to; buy a gift certificate; share your positive experiences on social media; get takeout. Learn about and support the work of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which is lobbying local, state, and federal agencies to establish a meaningful relief package and legislation that will actually help small, independent restaurants survive this nightmare.”
Terrapin | Rhinebeck
Business isn’t what it used to be. We’ve taken advantage of the beautiful weather by adding plenty of patio seating. We’ve seen an increase in takeout business, and we’ve added family-style options to our takeout menu. We’re crossing our fingers that we don’t see another surge in the virus. Eventually, we’ll lose our patio seating. With our tent and heaters, we’re planning to extend patio dining at least through the end of November. But once the cold weather arrives, we’ll lose a lot of seating capacity.
We’ve already lost a number of local establishments. Restaurateurs are going to be forced to evaluate the margins we operate on, and business models will need to be adjusted. Creativity and innovation are going to be crucial as the restaurant scene adapts.”
Cosimo’s & Hudson Taco
We were forced to realign our model for operating in a new COVID world. Now, it’s half of a dining room and the patio, but we really do a lot of takeout. The biggest downfall will be at Christmas because our restaurants do a lot of holiday parties. How will these holiday parties be handled? Obviously, there’s not going to be as many. If it’s at 50 percent occupancy, it’s going to be very difficult.
I do believe that we will continue to do a large amount of takeout. We’re doing a refresh to one of our restaurants, and we’re designing a takeout room. Our staff will be taking orders, they’ll be brought [to the takeout room], and, from there, it goes to a person’s car or to delivery. I think [most] restaurants will be doing more takeout in the future. Obviously, that’s going to level off a bit when COVID goes away, but I think many people are used to picking up the food and bringing it home, and there’s a comfort level associated with that.”
Liberty Street Bistro & Newburgh Flour Shop | Newburgh
The effects of this pandemic on our businesses have been unparalleled. As most small business owners can relate, being down 25 percent or more of previous years’ revenue, while simultaneously trying to maintain standards and quality, is next to impossible. Combine that with federal aid policies that are half-baked at best, and you have a workforce mired in confusion that is working for less money and, often, for more hours. If I had to put one word on it, “discouraged” would be the one.
Help us by being part of the solution, not the problem. Wear your mask where you are supposed to, wash your hands, speak up so our staff can hear you. Our staff is doing their part to clean and sanitize on a consistent schedule, wear their masks, socially distance as much as possible.
Help us by being part of the solution, not the problem.
If you are a member of the public that feels entitled to waltz into our dining room or cafe with no mask, invading personal spaces, then do not come here. The privilege to be able to go out and be social is a two-way street.”
Goosefeather | Tarrytown
Last week, we found out one of our employees tested positive for COVID. We had to close, get everyone tested, and then the whole restaurant sanitized. The hardest part is the unknown. Are people down to sit outside when it’s cooler weather? If not, it’s fairly simple math. If money coming in isn’t equaling money going out, then I have to reduce staff.
We’re going to take advantage of the fact that we’re outside. There’s going to be a hot pot that’s over open fire; there’s going to be food finished over this open fire. We’re going to have hot drinks that are finished tableside.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and I refuse to put the torch down.
Long-term, I think there will always be an appetite to go out to eat because it’s entertainment. It’s not just satiating your hunger. It’s the idea of going out. It’s seeing people. And I think people will always crave that because we’re social animals. Is it going to be dinner and show to get the price point up? That’s being discussed right now at our property. How do we utilize the space?
Roost | Sparkill
When COVID-19 struck, we were on the verge of opening in a new location. For a moment, it seemed that all of our hard work over the last year might be lost. Luckily, we have been able to safely open with outdoor seating, and our business is thriving. We have been proud to keep our staff employed and pay our vendors. Our new-kid-on-the-block status has helped.
We have a unique layout; our location was formally a firehouse. So, we have large garage doors that can be opened on the ground floor, even once our outdoor seating closes in the winter. We are very grateful that we have been able to open at 50 percent, [and] for our base of loyal customers.”
There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and I refuse to put the torch down.”