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CityWatch: In the long run, New York’s recovery needs its restaurants

Why is this year different from all other years?

For one thing, it’s the New York City Marathon’s 50th. For another, last year’s was a pale imitation of the world’s largest and greatest long-distance foot race, a COVID-choked, D.I.Y. “virtual” affair, meaning last November’s marathoners were told, “Just go out and run 26.2 miles, and let us know how you did.”

What kind of New York City Marathon was that?

No set course, no cheering crowds and none of the other thrills of pounding through all five of the city’s boroughs on leg strength, lung capacity and the special fuel that comes with hordes of New Yorkers cheering you on.

What a difference 12 months and a vaccinated population can make! Now that the city’s infection rate is south of 1%, the marathon is back again on Sunday.

When COVID first came to America, it did what immigrants have done for centuries: It went to work in New York. 

But if anyone still needs proof that the city is truly emerging from its pandemic haze, forget for a moment the recent shouting over the tiny percentage of police officers and firefighters who are refusing to get vaccinated. Focus instead on the 30,000 runners who will set off together from Staten Island, loop through Brooklyn and Queens, head west across the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan, then nip into the Bronx before finishing in Central Park. It’ll be an amazing spectacle that could easily bring another million people onto the streets, cheering the runners on.

These people are what a resurgent city looks like, and 10 of them are running to rescue one of COVID’s lingering casualties: the city’s vital restaurant industry and the hundreds of thousands of cooks, waiters, bartenders, reservation takers, produce-delivery drivers and other New Yorkers who make it go. That’s become a marathon tradition, raising money for worthy causes by the mile. None is more tied to the city’s future than this one.

“Whenever we’ve been in a crisis in New York, 9/11 or whatever, we’ve been able to figure out opportunities and provide a launchpad,” said Sean Feeney, a Goldman Sachs
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and Anchorage Capital refugee who owns the buzzy Brooklyn restaurants Lilia and Misi. “If we do this right, New York City can become the dining capital of the world again. We haven’t been that for a while.”

Also see: Companies are upping their food game to lure back skittish employees

Feeney is also co-founder of ROAR, Relief Opportunities for All Restaurants, which started in March of 2020 to salvage a battered industry and rescue its suddenly stranded employees. The group has raised more than $4 million, sponsored a restaurant-industry vaccine bus that inoculated 50,000 workers, distributed 6,500 cash grants to people who’d lost their jobs and is now building out an array of health and wellness programs.

Feeney and his nine ROAR teammates are running on Sunday to fund one-on-one training for industry employees in three kinds of fitness — physical, emotional and financial — with partners like the Financial Gym and the mental-health training organization Coa.

“In this industry,” he said, “everyone looks different. We come to work with all kinds of different attitudes and challenges. But we all come together so we can bring something special to people we don’t even know, who come through our doors every night. We need to think of ourselves as a collective force and a vital part of the fabric of New York. That’s how our city will come back strongest.”

Related: With potential fines on the menu, restaurants grapple with New York City’s vaccination mandates

The pandemic, Feeney said, has revealed some deeper issues in the city’s restaurant industry, long known for its rapid turnover, slim margins and volatile fortunes. “We have to be able to rebuild an industry that’s more financially healthy—4% margins? That’s not a business. That’s a hobby.”

And the future, he said, rests on a strong and stable workforce. “We need government understanding,” he said. “At the same time, we have to be better operators. We need to organize ourselves, and it won’t happen overnight.”

Sunday’s long run, he said, is a similar challenge. “I used to be an athlete. I’m 40 now. I have three kids. I’m an out-of-shape dad. But I’ll be out there. One step at a time.”

Ellis Henican is an author based in New York City and a former newspaper columnist.

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