In the summer of 2020, I visited Manhattan’s Midtown East neighborhood – home to many office buildings, including Marketplace’s New York office – to see how the lunch spots fared during the closures.
I went back there last week, after over a year. It’s still frozen in time.
When I got to our floor, I walked past containers of disinfectant wipes and 2019 holiday wrapping paper rolls on my way to my office. I opened one of the drawers and found a card that one of our former interns had written to me, and a bunch of stickers with cats on them – I couldn’t remember where I found them .
Once down, I made my way to the MacarOn Café, which once sold sandwiches, tea, and macaroons.
When I came here last summer, there was a display case in the Valentine’s Day display, with a giant heart made of macaroons. Now the window is covered with plastic sheeting. The interior is gutted, with plywood on the floor and “Caution” tape hanging from the ceiling.
Down the street at the Comfort Diner, co-owner Tarek Soliman tried to resist. “We never thought it was going to last like two years, the pandemic,” Soliman said.
Last year, he didn’t think the company would get away with it. He had so few clients that he went to his owner during the summer and told him he couldn’t do it anymore.
“I call him and say, ‘Come and get your key.’ I say, ‘because I’m not making money.’ They made a deal: he would pay 25% of the rent.
Recently, the owner of Soliman came back and asked for 50%. Sales haven’t grown much, he said. “I said ‘No, I can’t pay 50’, so I gave him 35%. I tell him that in January we are coming back to talk.
Forget about making a profit. One thing that kept him going? He wants to work, he doesn’t want to stay at home.
It is not all gloomy. I walked past a chain of restaurants and saw people who must have been office workers lining up to order lunch in their shirts and pants.
Paulina Lis, general manager of an Irish pub, The Perfect Pint East, told me that business is picking up and it feels good. “People need to be together, you know? People are not meant to be alone, ”she said. “Once we’re alone, we start to go crazy.”
Down the street, there’s a cafe called Little Collins, which opened in December 2020 and serves things like espressos, cold brews, and sandwiches.
“Every week, except maybe, like a few weeks of vacation, it picks up,” said co-owner Nic Curnow. But even with this increase in sales and a federal pandemic loan, the company is in debt. “You know the rent is backdated. We won’t be in the green, I don’t think, for a little while. “
It’s just the reality in this neighborhood right now. Things are improving, but they are still far from normal.
It’s one of those split times. No one expected to be here, and no one knows what’s on the other side.