Binghamton alum is on a crusade to save restaurants
Dan Polhamus '00 is promoting what he calls #takeouttuesday to support local restaurants
A Binghamton University alum is on a crusade to help support local businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dan Polhamus ’00, owner of Food & Fire BBQ-Taphouse, has been promoting what he calls #takeouttuesday on his social media, showing that he patronizes different restaurants each week by ordering dinner. Among the restaurants in this lineup are The Belmar Pub and Grill, The Colonial, Dos Rios Cantina, Garage Taco Bar and many more to come. Through his simple act of kindness, Polhamus is doing his part to help local restaurants stay open.
It’s been a month since Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered restaurants to close for sit-down service and transition to takeout and delivery orders due to the coronavirus, and some alumni-owned eateries are starting to feel the economic burden. Polhamus said his own restaurant has seen a drastic decrease in sales, especially without the in-person dining experience most people are accustomed to.
“Our business model is based on dine-in service and the shift to takeout only has dramatically decreased overall food and beverage sales,” Polhamus said. “In order to serve the best product, we have modified our takeout packaging and preparation process and we are focusing more on to-go craft beers and cocktails. Still, alcohol sales especially are significantly lower than normal, but that’s to be expected with elimination of the in-house dining and bar experience.”
David Whalen ’05, owner of Binghamton HOTS, has had a similar experience. Although takeout has been relatively successful, he said the lack of business has been a large setback.
“Business declined significantly last week, but our takeout and third-party delivery sales were stronger than I anticipated them being,” said Whalen. “We’re certainly nowhere near profitability at these levels, but we can hopefully weather the storm if things continue as is.”
To cope with these changes, restaurants have largely relied on third-party delivery services such as UberEats and Grubhub, and have had to make a few adjustments. Binghamton HOTS, a popular eatery among students during late nights on weekends, had to shorten its hours to abide by the new 10 p.m. curfew put in place by the city of Binghamton, and The Colonial and Dos Rios Cantina had to temporarily lay off some staff. But for Food & Fire, this change meant a complete transformation of normal operations.
“To be of the most service to the community, we have had to modify virtually everything we do. Different labor models and staff responsibilities, new price points and a focus on cost-effective dining options for our takeout customers, different marketing tactics, and a revamped ordering and inventorying process,” Polhamus said. “In a lot of ways we are a whole different business. New hours of operation, offering curbside delivery options, leveraging relationships with food delivery platforms, modifying catering packages — there have been many changes to how we operate and the list grows every day.”
While Whalen hopes to keep operations as normal as possible for his employees, he said he is concerned about the uncertainty of the future with the coronavirus.
“Can we weather this storm financially? If so, what kind of fallout will we see in the meantime? Will we have to lay off employees? What impact will that have on their lives and will they be there when we need them back? I think there are a lot of things up in the air right now and it’s far too early to tell how this shakes out,” Whalen said.
Although the transition to takeout and delivery-only orders has been difficult, restaurant owners are grateful for the community’s support and want to return the favor. James Gray ‘13, MBA ‘15, owner of Despina’s Mediterranean Taste, said he was motivated to stay open to provide people with more options for meals.
“We wanted to be an outlet for people who are looking for better food options,” Gray said. “We’re here for the community in any way we can help. We just hope it continues to be busy and others are aware that we are staying open.These are trying times but we want to try our best to reciprocate the love and support for everyone.”
Binghamton University students are especially fond of the local food scene. Despite the switch to takeout, Mairead McCarran, a senior majoring in environmental chemistry, said she is still dining from her favorite restaurants.
“I’m eating more takeout and delivery than before, for sure. I think I’ve ordered food for delivery at least once a week, and I’ve been going through drive-thrus two to three times a week,” said McCarran.
And restaurants are doing their part to make sure locals are still getting affordable meals.
Although Restaurant Week, a popular, biannual event when restaurants offer fixed, three-course meals, has been canceled this spring, The Colonial and Dos Rios Cantina are ensuring people have access to budget-friendly meals and are continuing to offer $5 specials each week.
“We want to make sure there is something affordable for everyone during these tough times,” said Alex Jaffe ’12, MS ’14, co-owner of The Colonial and Dos Rios Cantina. “Everyone should be able to experience The Colonial and Dos Rios, even if they are financially struggling right now.”
Polhamus said he was also encouraged to stay open due to Food & Fire’s ability to offer affordable meals for families.
“Closing the doors to our restaurant has always been only a last-resort option,” Polhamus said. “We made some immediate adjustments to be able to best serve those looking for a great takeout experience. Because of that I feel we’ve been able to stay relevant in a challenging and vastly different marketplace. We also realized early on that we were in a position to offer a real value to families looking for an easy-to-order, cost-effective option for dinner.”
Along with providing locals with more dining options, some restaurants are taking this time to give back to the community. The Belmar Pub & Grill, Cortese Restaurant and several other local eateries are offering free meals for children in the wake of schools transitioning to online education.
While many are grateful that restaurants remain in business, McCarran said she is also concerned about those in the restaurant industry and other essential businesses.
“Even though I have been taking advantage of them being open, I know that quick-service foods can be a dangerous place for the spread of the virus, and I also feel bad for the people still working there,” she said. “However, many working people depend on restaurants because they don’t have the time and ability to cook at home. Everybody should be earning a proper living right now. I think the ideal situation would be that the government would help support local and small businesses until the virus passes, which also means ensuring that working-class people are still receiving income even if they cannot go to work.”
Along with ordering takeout, Polhamus suggests that people show their support by purchasing gift cards and promoting restaurants’ deals on social media.
“Food & Fire has always been rooted in the community and the relationships we’ve established have helped to keep us going both emotionally and financially. To support your favorite eateries please just keep ordering takeout, purchase gift cards for future use, and help share our specials and offers on social media,” Polhamus said. “These are challenging times but we are in love with the work we do and we want to continue to be of service. We’ll keep serving great food — please keep visiting us”
However, locals can go a step further. McCarran suggests that the community be generous with both their money and support.
“I think students can best support local restaurants by not only patronizing them, but tipping the employees well who are still obligated to serve them,” she said. “They may also consider lobbying and organizing around governmental social aid for small businesses and their employees.”
More importantly, Whalen urges the community to abide by social distancing protocols and to help support one another during this uncertain time.
“I think everyone should take this as seriously as possible and do what they can to follow social distancing protocols so we can all get through this as quickly and safely as possible,” Whalen said. “I think it’s also important that people do what they can to help others during this time period. Whether ordering takeout from a local business, buying groceries for a neighbor or any random act of kindness — we’re all in this together and we’ll come out stronger on the other side.”