Arthur Backal, founder and CEO of Backal Hospitality Group, has for many years been a leader in the New York City restaurants and events businesses. When restrictions on public gatherings imposed to stem the spread of Covid-19 largely shut down the City’s restaurant and hospitality industries, both major employers, Backal pivoted to keep as many restaurant workers employed as he could doing the work that needed to be done – feeding frontline healthcare workers. He mobilized workers and other restaurants for the Thank Our Heroes drive to provide meals to the emergency room staff at Lenox Hill Hospitality, one of the busiest in the country.
Below he shares his thoughts on the demands of the health emergency and the future of the restaurant and hospitality industry in the nation’s largest city.
GD: The basic business of Backal Hospitality revolves around serving people in large groups, whether that is a business gathering, a crowded restaurant, or a full hotel. How hard has the pandemic been on your business?
AB: It’s been extremely challenging. As a hospitality group, the majority of our business revolves around in-person gatherings. When everything shut down last March, it was difficult to envision how we would move forward. We had to take a step back and creatively re-think hospitality, including how we can utilize our existing resources to keep our business alive, while supporting our partners when we could.
One of our first initiatives was focused on giving back with our Thank Our Heroes program, helping local NYC businesses, while also feeding the frontline at Lenox Hill Hospital’s ER. With everything that our frontline workers have done to keep New York City safe and healthy, we wanted to show them a token of our continued gratitude and appreciation.
For Backal Hospitality Group’s properties, we had to adjust many of our business models, and therefore launched “Hampton Road Trip” (HRT), which brings customized F&B experiences to individual customers in a safe and social-distanced way. The concept first started in June 2020 when we created thematic summer picnic baskets, available for delivery to various NYC parks to bring the “Hamptons” experience to Manhattan. After that, we officially launched HRT and expanded the experience to elevate guests at-home dining experience with thematic packages, from summer treats to Thanksgiving meal kits and our latest New Year’s Eve Party Box (of up to 2). In 2021, we will continue to expand our HRT offerings to provide our clients with the best of hospitality.
Now that we’re in the early stages of the vaccine distribution in 2021, we are working on several new initiatives at BHG that we’re looking forward to announcing in the coming weeks. So, when things can reopen and restrictions are lifted in New York, we will be ready to hit the ground running.”
GD: You began the Thank Our Heroes in March 2020, at the very beginning of the pandemic. Was there something in particular that prompted you to launch this so early in the crisis?
AB: The pandemic happened very quickly and with the complete shutdown, it took a huge toll on many critical communities that needed support. My wife and I have always had a philanthropic drive, and we believe it’s important to give back where you can. The Thank Our Heroes program started with my wife, who connected with individual businesses, learned about their stories and got a sense of what they needed during the start of the pandemic. One of those first businesses was Butterfield Market and Catering, a third-generation family-owned catering company in New York City. After learning about their story and struggles to retain staff with business restrictions, we were immediately inspired, created a donation page and reached out to friends, family, and our network asking for support. One hundred percent of the funds was given directly to Butterfield Market and Catering, and in turn, their staff prepared meals for us to deliver to the frontline health care workers at Lenox Hill Hospital.
After our first couple visits to the hospital, we were able to get to the know the staff and asked them what they needed most and how we could continue to help. Since they advised that their top priorities were PPE and feeding their staff, we started expanding the program and partnered with additional local NYC businesses including Café Evergreen, a Chinese dim sum restaurant in Upper East Side; The Penrose, a staple in Upper East Side; Anne Margaret O’Hare, a single mother who owns and leads O Cuisine, a culinary studio that provides private dining, cooking classes, boutique catering, and private chef services; Il Mulino, a New York staple that has been around for over 35 years; and Ron Ben-Israel, owner of Ron Ben-Israel Cakes + TREATS in Garment District.
To date, we’ve delivered over 40,000 meals and it’s been one of our most rewarding initiatives during COVID.
We’ve also started redecorating the ER break room to create a more vibrant and welcome atmosphere. In advance of Valentine’s Day, we created thematic decor, including a photo op setup, to help share the love. While these are smaller gestures, we’re just hoping that it offers some reprieve during their long days while they bravely continue to take care of New Yorkers.”
GD: Many of us thought, or were at least hoping, this would all pass in a month or a few months. Almost a year later the pandemic is worse now than when it began. From your perspective, how are frontline health care workers holding up under the stress?
AB: First and foremost, the frontline health care workers have been incredibly resilient and are proven to be our real-life superheroes. In beginning of COVID, it was all surreal and unknown, since we were learning in real time about this unprecedented virus and the number of patients going into the emergency room was overwhelming. However, a year later, while we are currently in our second wave and as the virus continues to evolve, we do have a year more knowledge about the virus and are able to better prepare for the immediate future with social distancing measures. Fortunately, the vaccine distribution process has started, and I think it’s providing a lot of hope for this year.
GD: The restaurant industry in New York is pushing for looser restrictions on indoor dinner but frontline healthcare workers stress the importance of reducing the number of infected people requiring hospital admission. Given that you’re in the hospitality business, but you have also been basically a support person for one of the busiest hospital emergencies rooms in the city, what’s your perspective on the restrictions on public gatherings?
AB: It’s not a simple answer and I don’t think you can lump all public gatherings into the same category. In regard to indoor dining in NYC, the data shows that restaurants transmit only 1.4% of the spread, while roughly three-quarters of all cases transmitted in the State have occurred in small social gatherings inside people’s homes where social distancing protocol is not enforced. We’ve had to temporarily close one of our managed properties, VERSA Rooftop & Restaurant, located on the fifth floor of the Renaissance New York Midtown Hotel and steps away from Madison Square Garden, due to the indoor dining closures in NYC and we’re hoping we’ll be able to reopen our doors again soon. Unfortunately, over 1,000 businesses have had to permanently close in NYC during COVID, and with no strong relief package and only outdoor dining permitted, that number will continue grow.
When you look at larger public gatherings and big-scale conventions and events, those are going to have to be executed in a more measurable way and will require a lot more protocol. As much as I want to get back to events, we’re going to have to wait a bit longer for those but should be able to safely handle smaller scale events in the near future.”
GD: Do you think there will be long term changes in the hospitality industry because of the pandemic, such as less business travel or people avoiding crowded rooms that didn’t think twice about entering before all this?
AB: Yes, I think the overall mindset has shifted. Once we reach heard immunity, I don’t think everything will automatically be switched back to normal during pre-COVID days. The pandemic has impacted businesses in unimaginable ways and forced everyone in the industry to reimagine how they can operate. With corporate events, you might see more technology involved with streaming and smaller hybrid gatherings. In terms of larger events, it’s going to take longer to get back to that comfort level. Our industry has learned to execute events virtually while engaging with a large audience, so you might see that continue as an ongoing trend. Recovery will be a gradual process and I think the focus and priority will be on smaller, quality events to ensure the safety of guests.
GD: Is there a particularly memorable or poignant or uplifting story from these months of working to support ER staff that you’d like to share?
AB: It’s hard to pick one since each visit is a memorable experience and motivates us to do more. Every time we hand deliver the meals or re-decorate their break room, it’s the smiles on the staff’s faces that is the biggest reward. It’s everyone from EMTs, nurses, doctors, security, janitors, and all other frontline workers who sacrifice themselves for everyone’s safety. It’s a humbling experience. Our goal now is to be able to deliver meals multiple times a week until the pandemic is over.
GD: Tourism and dining are major employers in New York. How long do you think it will take for those jobs to return, assuming the pandemic is no longer a factor sometime this year?
AB: It’s going to take some time. A lot of hardship has happened, and tourism, hospitality and restaurants have been devastated due to COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, from 2009 to 2019, jobs in the restaurant industry grew by 61 percent and establishments grew by 44 percent, double the overall rate of growth. Recovery will continue to be a gradual process and I think it’s going to take a number of years to get back to where we were before the pandemic. With that said, I’m optimistic that we are on the road to recovery, especially with the early stages of the vaccine distribution in 2021. The City will start to get busier when businesses are able to re-open and jobs return. COVID-19 is once-in-a-century international crisis and I think it’s important for New Yorkers to continue to work together – while social distancing – so we can get back on our feet. New York will come back, and we will proudly be part of the welcoming back committee when locals and tourists are ready.