Danny Abrams opened a restaurant six blocks from the World Trade Center site six weeks after 9/11.
Even during that difficult time, the restaurant was welcomed by the city with more than 100 covers a night for the first year.
“But this is very different,” Abrams said. “It’s hard to compare.”
This, of course, is the pandemic.
Abrams and his partner, Cindy Smith, run seven restaurants in New York. They recently made the difficult decision to close The Mermaid Inn in the East Village after more than 17 years.
“I think there’s a restaurant-closing tsunami on the way,” Abrams said. “It’s going to happen after September. They’re not seeing a wave of closings yet because people are still trying to hang on and people are still playing with some of the PPP they might’ve gotten.”
The Mermaid Inn, which was known by locals for its happy hour deals, had about 80 seats inside, 20 in the garden, and 16 on the sidewalk. Abrams said it typically did strong business in the spring and summer, before quieting in the winter.
“We really needed May, June, July, August, September,” he said. “If we miss that window and then get to do 50% in October, 50% in November? Forget about it.”
Abrams and Smith wrote a detailed letter, explaining the closure and detailing the current pressures on independent restaurant operators, and shared it on their Facebook page.
The two are currently doing everything they can to reduce expenses at their existing concepts, to try to stay afloat until this crisis passes.
“It’s all about survival right now,” he said. “I want to be the last man standing.”
This letter, written by Mermaid Inn co-owners Danny Abrams and Cindy Smith and shared on social media, has been edited slightly from its original and shared here with their permission.
The Mermaid Inn at 96 Second Ave. Farewell Letter
To All Our Valued Guests and Friends
It is with great sadness that we announce the closing of The Mermaid Inn at 96 Second Ave. Our lease expired on August 31st and we were not able to come to an agreement with the landlord on how to move forward both during and after the pandemic. We want to thank all of our wonderful guests and employees for supporting us over these past years. What began as a little 29 seat restaurant on a sleepy stretch of Second Ave. grew into a place that had welcomed hundreds of thousands of guests and employed thousands of people over the years. We are extremely humbled that so many embraced our restaurant and that we were able to succeed as long as we had. For a restaurant to survive and thrive in New York City for 17.5 years is an accomplishment of which we can all be proud. And we could not have done it without all of you.
We all mourn the loss of our favorite restaurants for they provide us with so much more than food. They provide nourishment for our soul and when they are gone, much of the soul of the neighborhoods in which they resided will be gone as well: missing out on seeing our favorite bartender who remembers what we drink, saying “hi” to our favorite server and sitting at the table that makes us most comfortable, talking to the owner about life in general, seeing the hardworking support staff take extra care to provide us with a dropped napkin or a missing fork. All of these small gestures that make us feel at home in our neighborhood will be missing. And that will make our neighborhoods feel lacking as well–less interesting, less familiar, less inviting. These are one of the things that defines BEING AT HOME in our community. They are a gathering place to share accounts of our days, to celebrate big events in our lives or just share a table with our friends.
Mermaid By the Numbers
We are sharing this information to illustrate what ONE SINGLE RESTAURANT adds to its community and to the city. Many restaurants have closed since COVID and many more will close as the pandemic continues. The ripple effect will be incalculable.
Over the years, The Mermaid Inn on Second Ave has:
Welcomed over 850,000 guests
Paid over $15 million in wages to our more than 2,000 employees who have spent time with us
Contributed more than $2.1 million in taxes to the city, the state, Medicare, SS, UI, etc
Sent in excess of $4 million in sales tax to New York state
Paid over $ 15 million to our hundreds of hard-working vendors
Given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the city and state for permits, licenses, etc
We are providing these numbers to show the effect that the closing of a SINGLE restaurant has. Now multiply that by THOUSANDS of NYC restaurants closing. The loss of opportunity for employees, the loss of income for city, state and local governments, the loss of sales to our fish companies, our vegetable company, the linen company, even the company that comes to take our used oyster shells or our discarded grease. If we don’t pay them, they do not pay their employees and so on and so on. The chain is never ending.
The restaurant and hospitality industry has been woefully neglected during this pandemic. Actually, all small businesses have. The Payroll Protection Program has given us eight weeks of funds for what will be a 52-week problem. And look at who that money was allowed to pay: we were only allowed to pay for payroll (which is good) but also to the landlords, the insurance companies and the utility companies. Think about that for a second. Real estate owners, insurance conglomerates and large utility providers. Not one cent could go to the hundreds of small businesses that had provided us with goods and services. NOT ONE PENNY. Having lived in NYC since 1984, it seems that during every crisis, the big companies get bailed out and taken care of—the banks, the airlines, the insurance companies, etc. During the Great Recession, the banks and insurance providers played fast and loose with their money and brought the world economy to the brink of failure. They got bailed out with OUR TAX DOLLARS. Where is the reciprocity? Why do the small businesses always give and never get? It seems immeasurably unfair.
Our restaurants were MANDATED by the government to close down on March 16. Some of us had closed in advance of that date for fear that our employees and guests could get sick. We did so willingly so we could do our part in helping to contain the virus. But here we are, five and half months later, still closed, with no clear indication of what our future holds. There is no clear communication from the City or State that we can point to.
As for business in the meantime, we have few options. Delivery, while keeping a few people employed, does not provide any profit for the restaurant. The outdoor seating has helped some restaurants but it is weather-dependent, which leads to much uncertainty. And re-opening at 50% for many restaurants is a non-starter. How can a 75-seat restaurant, that only makes money in the best of times given the cost of doing business in NYC, reopen with 40 seats and no bar? Seriously? We would not even be able to make enough money to pay the employees, let alone our purveyors or rent.
We cannot continue to pay our key employees. The federal supplemental insurance has ended. Servers, bartenders, managers, bussers, food runners, etc. who had been making a decent living by New York standards are now left with only NYS Unemployment which pays out $504 a week AT THE MOST. How is anyone supposed to be able to provide for their families on $504? And that is for the top earners. Most of the recipients are getting far less than that. This is a slow-rolling humanitarian disaster and financial disaster in the making.
What hope do we have? The PPP money has run out. There is no more money to pay the rent. We are at the mercy of our landlords to give us some relief. We go to them like beggars, hoping they will find it in their hearts to allow us to survive. And if they don’t, then we are out of business. Just like that. How is that fair? Is that how an industry that provides so much in terms of employment and contributions to the economy should be treated?
When a restaurant is forced to close suddenly, as NYC restaurants were, there is no time to prepare for “the end.” Not only do we lose our income from that business but now we are saddled with debt to our vendors, utilities, insurance, etc. If someone said to us that you have to close your business in six months, we could plan and walk away. But the suddenness has left us all unprepared. Restaurants operate owing vendors 30 to 40 days’ worth of bills. As long as the business continues, everyone gets paid. This is like some cruel game of musical chairs and when the music stopped, small businesses were the ones left without a chair. The larger companies can tap credit lines, take out loans or avail themselves of other solutions that small businesses don’t have. Sure, some have been lucky to get Economic Injury Disaster Loans from the SBA but to what end? Why should we take on debt only to be opening to an uncertain future, not knowing if we can pay it back?
The Hospitality Industry needs a bail out just like every other large business. Not loans, but grants for us to pay our employees, vendors, to keep the lights on and be ready when the pandemic ends. We have earned it. We deserve it. Everyone knows that opening and running a restaurant in NYC is a herculean task. But we do it because we love it and we deserve to get some love back from our government. There are several bills floating around— a new round of PPP (helpful but not the best solution) and another bi-partisan bill called the RESTAURANTS ACT. This bill actually addresses our needs. I encourage all of you to call your representatives to express support for this legislation. We also need rent relief and a unified way for restaurants to negotiate with landlords. We need the insurance companies to honor the business interruption insurance that we’ve been paying for years. We need the loans we have received to be converted into grants. We need the street seating to continue each year. We need a way to use the street seating during the cold weather so we can at least keep some people employed. We simply need the basic relief and assistance that every other big business has received when faced with similar economic circumstances.
We have dealt with NYC adversity before. We opened a restaurant six blocks north of Ground Zero, just weeks after September 11th, 2001. It was the first business to open in Tribeca after that tragedy. We have felt the outpouring of love and resources available when the government has the will. We got through the Sandy Blackouts. We survived (barely) the Great Recession. We may not survive this if there is not some action at the state and federal level.
Lastly, I do not believe all the predictions that New York City is “over.” It will be back. It may take longer than it has in the past, but it will come back. New York will continue to be the beacon for theater, dance, food, music, nightlife, tourism and financial services. It will always draw young people, eager to express themselves in a place that allows for that. It will continue to encourage talented young chefs to open their own restaurants. It will always beckon people to come here to open a new business or just be in a place that has the energy that New York has. I believe the Jerry Seinfeld op-ed that said you won’t feel that energy over a ZOOM call. And if that becomes the norm and somehow replaces the energy that we have come to love and expect from NYC, then maybe, just maybe, we will have to move out as well. And your beloved NYC restaurant will disappear as well.