Syracuse, N.Y. — It’s March 17 and the Brewster Inn, for decades a destination for fine dining dinners and leisurely Sunday brunches along Cazenovia Lake, is delivering family-sized portions of chicken tenders and meatloaf into waiting car windows.
The March 16 shut down of dining rooms across New York due to the coronavirus pandemic forced all restaurants to reevaluate, if not fundamentally change, the way they served customers.
The Brewster Inn, which opened as a restaurant in 1988, and other longtime restaurants in Central New York and beyond, had to ditch the formula that brought them success for decades and adapt in order to both feed their customers and keep their staff and the public safe.
Syracuse.com | The Post-Standard caught up with the owners and managers at the Inn Between, Joey’s and the Brewster Inn recently to discuss how the restaurants survived and how things have changed.
The Inn Between, an 1880s farmhouse named for its location on Route 5 between Camillus and Elbridge, is a throwback. In a review, former Post-Standard restaurant critic Yolanda Wright described the crudités that start each meal at the Inn Between as “old-fashioned.”
That was in 1998. Dinners at the Inn Between still start with crisp raw vegetables and dip, slices of homemade date nut bread and green salads with honey poppyseed dressing, just as they have for decades.
For months now, those meals, however, were exclusively being packed to go.
“Nothing like this has happened before,” said chef/owner Chris Cesta, who has led the kitchen at the Inn Between for more than 40 years.
The mid-March closure coincided with Camillus Dining Days, when the Inn Between and other Camillus-area restaurant offer $25 multi-course dinners. Cesta said he decided to continue the promo price throughout the length of the dining room closure.
Even now, more than six weeks after Central New York restaurants were allowed to reopen dining rooms at 50% capacity, the $25 takeout meals remain on the menu — veggies and dip, breads, salad and dessert included, of course.
“It was very well received,” Cesta said of the takeout menu. “Takeout was the savor for us.”
At its peak, the restaurant did around 200 to 250 takeout dinners a week, though Cesta said that number was halved after restaurants reopened. Overall, business at the Inn Between dropped 70% compared to last year.
“We’re considering this year a total loss, but we’ll get through it,” Cesta said.
Cesta called his decision to finally reopen the Inn Between for dine-in customers at the end of July a “leap of faith.”
Yet all were hopeful for the future because of the support they received from the community throughout.
Cesta offered work to all his staff that wanted it. Most of his employees stayed on, even if that meant doing cleaning and maintenance around the 16-acre property. Some of the staff even did odd jobs for neighbors and longtime regular customers. Others helped with brush work at a nearby farm.
“The property has never looked this good,” Cesta said with a laugh.
When the shutdown began, Cesta thought it would last a few weeks. That turned into a month or two. They hoped to reopen the dining room for Easter. Then they shot for Mother’s Day. That went by too.
“Some days you think of throwing in the towel,” Cesta said.
But the community’s support made it worthwhile. Cesta missed interacting with the guests and seeing the diners face-to-face, even if those faces are behind masks for now.
The Inn Between has been host to countless birthdays, anniversaries and other life milestones. For Cesta, the friendships he shares with the diners is the biggest joy of running the restaurant.
“You become part of the community and they become part of you,” he said.
Joey’s is a classic Italian-American restaurant in a city with no shortage of red sauce joints, but it’s gained a strong fan base since it opened near Carrier Circle in DeWitt in 1982. The signed pictures of athletes, actors, politicians and other celebrities that line the walls are all the proof you need.
Business had been good to start the year — until the pandemic hit.
“It’s been devastating,” said general manager Rick DeCuffa, whose brother is the chef/owner of the namesake restaurant.
The DeCuffa brothers sat down the day dining rooms closed and talked about what they would do next. Ultimately, they decided to temporarily close the main restaurant downstairs and use Pronto Joey’s, the more casual bistro upstairs, as the hub for the newly-centralized takeout operation.
Most meals on the new takeout menu were around $15. Like so many other restaurants, Joey’s added family sized meals, designed to feed four people for around $50.
The takeout was popular, but with its lower price point compared to a usual dine-in dinner at Joey’s, it could only offset the losses so much. They missed graduations, holidays, parents weekends and other special occasions, though they were still able to donate 50 Easter dinners to first responders and their families. The tableside Caesar salads and flambéed desserts have been put on hold.
Business dropped by more than half.
“We’re still keeping our head above water,“ Rick DeCuffa said. “We’re working ten times harder with fewer employees to make it work.”
All three restaurants have since reopened to dine-in business. At Joey’s, only the Pronto Joey’s dining room, the downstairs bar/lounge area and a few outdoor tables are open. DeCuffa said it simply wouldn’t be profitable to open the main lower-level dining room at this point.
Most restaurants around Syracuse are currently doing more takeout than dine-in. DeCuffa said Joey’s typically does just 4% of its business as takeout. Now, it does 60%.
“Hopefully we see a light at the end of the tunnel—we just hope it isn’t a train,” DeCuffa said.
Stephen Franks watched the news on TV for hours that Monday, in awe of what he was seeing. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the Friday before (March 13) that restaurants would have to run at 50% capacity, so when the decision to shutter restaurant dining rooms came down that Monday evening, it was more of a question of when, not if.
Franks and three partners purchased the Brewster Inn in 2017. All longtime employees, they had 50 years of experience working the Brewster prior to the sale. But little could prepare them for the changes they’d have to make next.
They flipped the menu on its head and didn’t know what the public would think. The kitchen began churning out meatloaf, chicken tenders, pasta and meatballs, roasted turkey and gravy and chicken francaise—all for less than $15 a portion, salad and bread included. The food needed to taste good, but also work for takeout.
“No matter what, fried calamari doesn’t travel well,” co-owner Caitlin Gambee said.
A tiny grocery market in the front of the restaurant, where the Brewster sells meat, seafood, prepared foods, and accompaniments, suddenly became a lifeline for those who couldn’t risk shopping in a supermarket. They stocked produce, eggs, flour, pasta and other kitchen staples, all available for curbside pickup.
Being forced to step back from fine dining was humbling, Gambee said, as the focus of food moved from one of pleasure and celebration to one of necessity.
“Sometimes, chicken tenders fit the bill a little bit better,” Gambee said.
At the Brewster Inn, the restaurant’s expansive lawn and lakefront location have made outdoor dining a lifesaver.
They’re doing three times as many dinners at the restaurant than to-go (with the exception of their Friday fish fry, when they do 150 to 200 takeout meals, compared to 50 takeout meals on an average night) but very few are actually being eaten indoors. Save for a few inside tables a night, customers are eating outside. They turned the bocce court into a dining area.
They’re even doing around 15 dinners a night as dockside takeout for those boating on Cazenovia Lake.
“Right now, people don’t want to eat inside,” Franks said.
That dependence on outdoor dining is a double-edged sword, however. Their business on any given day is dependent on the weather. If it’s raining, they’ll get half as much business than they would on a clear night. Thanks to a hot, dry summer so far, business has been good.
Things didn’t go perfectly at first.
It’s March 20, the first night of the Brewster Inn’s new family-style takeout menu. With little time to prepare, the restaurant had to come up with a system to get food to waiting cars instead of to the tables.
It’s also fish fry night and word had spread. A line of cars backed up around the corner, down the block and onto Albany Street, past the Brae Loch Inn, waiting to pick up their food.
Gambee said the system they devised was a “big mess.” Customers called in their orders and were given an approximate time for pickup. Some came before their assigned time, others came after. When customers arrived, servers went out, got their names and went back to the kitchen to find the order in a sea of tickets.
The wait lasted 90 minutes at times. Gambee and Franks said the crew was physically and emotionally drained. Worse, they ran out of food.
At last, the final customers arrived to pick up their fried fish dinners. Gambee estimated they waited two hours for dinner and the kitchen was all out of fish.
They gave them chicken tenders instead—the only thing they had left.
But the customers were regulars. They were just happy to see the restaurant open.
Gambee remembers what the customers told them when they finally got their dinners.
“You’re doing it! You’re doing it!”
Jacob Pucci writes on food, restaurants and all things gastronomic across Central New York. Contact him by email at email@example.com.