ICONIC SECOND AVENUE BUSINESSES STRUGGLE FOR SURVIVAL WITH SUBWAY CONSTRUCTION
The polished floors, brand new tables, restored 90-year-old paintings and modern updates to the historic Heidelberg restaurant seem to indicate a run-of-the-mill renovation, something that happens in the normal course of operating a business. But if you look closely at the gleaming hardwood and peek around the corners of the restored bar, you can see that these measures are the elements of an eleventh-hour effort to save the embattled German institution. The Heidelberg is playing against the Second Avenue subway construction, and this is their Hail Mary pass.
“Business is so slow in the summertime, and with all the construction and the blasting, we decided it was time to give it a little bit of a facelift,” said Eva Matischak, the owner of the Heidelberg, on Second Avenue between East 85th and 86th streets. Her family bought the place in 1964, but it’s been a German restaurant since 1902, back when Yorkville was home to thousands of German immigrants.
Now, only a few of the Old World establishments remain, and the subway construction is threatening to shutter one of the last standing family-owned German eateries on the Upper East Side.
It’s not just a few jackhammers and some orange fencing that’s cut the Heidelberg’s business by roughly 30 percent. Since it’s near one of the future entrances of the Second Avenue line, the entire east side of the block lies in the shadow of massive storage containers. They obscure all of the businesses, creating an imposing barrier that only those with a specific destination in mind would be likely to traverse.
“It hurts because a lot of people driving or walking by might come in,” Matischak said, if they could see the place. “It’s been kind of hard to keep the expenses and the income at a level where we’re not losing money.”
A few months ago, Matischak was contemplating closing the restaurant and selling it, but her regular customers convinced her to give it another go. She took out a $100,000 loan from Chase bank, shut down for about a month, and is putting her last hope into a financial turnaround. They’ve installed new flooring and kitchen equipment, torn down an old dividing wall (a holdover from the cigarette-smoke-filled pre-Bloomberg days separating the dining area from the bar) to make the room more open, and given the place a modern polish while still retaining its charm and authenticity.
To keep above the red, Matischak will have to reduce her staff of 33 to about 15. She will probably close one day a week and stop serving lunch. She can’t continue the catering portion of the business because there is nowhere close by to park a van, and she won’t be offering delivery anymore because the construction makes it too slow. She switched to wooden tables so that she wouldn’t have to use linen tablecloths, saving about $3,000 a month on laundering costs. The restaurant will probably switch to all-cash, since accepting credit cards is more costly and time-consuming. They’ve also installed energy-efficient lighting in an attempt to cut the $4,000 monthly electric bill.
“We really almost closed. It’s making it too hard, to fight everybody all the time,” Matischak said. “Hopefully that will help us to survive, all those little changes.”
The “everybody” that Matischak is fighting includes the myriad city agencies that all small businesses must navigate, but it also includes a few conundrums courtesy of the MTA construction. For one thing, they normally bring in a lot of revenue during the summer months with their sidewalk café, for which they have a permit with the State Liquor Authority. They can’t operate the café now, but they’ve had to continue paying fees in order to ensure the permit doesn’t lapse. Matischak said that she’s had to pour $8,000 into keeping the permit active.
“Obviously [the Heidelberg], as well as a lot of businesses along Second Avenue, has been challenged by the construction, especially the restaurants have all been dealing with mainly café license issues because they have to be cut back,” said Nancy Ploeger, the president of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce. She has worked with many of the affected businesses to alleviate some of the burdens that the construction has placed on them, acting as a liaison to the city’s agencies and pleading a case for leniency on some of the restrictions that could mean the difference between staying open and shutting the doors for many small businesses.
Ploeger and the Chamber have convinced the city to change a few small things that they hope will make a big difference. For example, restaurants normally have to resubmit an architectural plan for their outdoor café area if it changes in size. Restaurants on Second Avenue that are forced to shrink their sidewalk space due to construction have to abide by that rule, but the expense of hiring an architect to draw up new plans is a difficult one on top of the lost revenue from the outdoor tables that need to be cut.
“It’s not their fault that they’re being cut back,” Ploeger said. “They have to spend a lot of money to hire a an architect to make these drawings.” The city has agreed to allow those businesses to draw up and submit estimated plans themselves, without the seal of approval from an architect. Matischak also said that Ploeger is helping her negotiate with the State Liquor Authority to allow her to keep her sidewalk café license active without having to pay the fees.
Ploeger said that one of the biggest hurdles facing these businesses is the time associated with figuring out all the required steps to stay within the law when things change, and that the city should be more flexible in helping businesses navigate a problem that they didn’t create.
The Chamber instituted Second Avenue Restaurant Week, which ran in June this year, and tries to promote the businesses there and encourage them to offer special deals and promotions to get customers in the door. City Council Member Jessica Lappin conducted a survey recently of local residents, asking them what would persuade them to shop and dine along the areas of Second Avenue plagued by construction. While 86 percent of respondents said that specials and discount coupons would be the best way to get them in the door, business owners say that won’t make up for what they’re losing in foot traffic.
“There’s not too much that would help,” said Ralph Schaller, the owner of the Schaller & Weber butcher shop a few doors down from the Heidelberg. “Coupons? I don’t know. Either you come here or not. Tax breaks would help, that would be nice.”
Schaller, who works behind the counter at the German shop that he inherited from his father, said that he still gets a steady stream of regulars who buy the specialty meats and German import grocery items, but that his business is down significantly since the construction began.
“It’s bad. We’re 20 percent off [from normal business],” Schaller said. “We used to get a lot of people from out of town, but they don’t come anymore because there’s nowhere to park.” He said that the $115 tickets customers have gotten for double parking keep them away for good.
Schaller & Weber has been in business for 75 years, and Schaller said that the only reason he’s able to keep the shop open is that they own the building it sits in as well as a factory in Astoria that produces the meat products they sell in the store and elsewhere.
The furniture store next to the Heidelberg has also suffered. Ari Zaharopoulos, the owner of Gotham Cabinet Craft, said that their business is bolstered by their other locations (five total in Manhattan and 30 citywide) as well as repeat customers, but that their Second Avenue location has still taken a hit.
“It definitely has affected our sales because there is less visibility from the street,” Zaharopoulos said. “That location specifically caters to a lot of custom work. The potential buyers are not able to see our display. The traffic is diverted to the other side of the street.”
One of Zaharopoulos’ biggest concerns is what will happen when the city gets a major snowfall, a worry that Schaller echoed as well.
“If we have a hard winter, that’s going to be problem because if the snow piles up in that small space between the door and the equipment, no one will be walking by,” Zaharopoulos said.
He said that his biggest frustration is that the storage containers blocking the store seem to be there for the convenience of the MTA, rather than out of absolute necessity, and that they’re aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. The locals have been told that the containers will be in place for at least another two years.
Matischak is hoping that her cost-saving measures and general spruce-up will be enough to last that long. It was her regular customers who convinced her to stay in business, and she’s counting on them to keep coming back for plates of homemade schnitzel and glass boots (the restaurant’s signature) filled with frosty beer. The next few months will be telling, she said, as business gets back under way and she can determine whether her last-ditch efforts will pay off.
“There’s really no other places in Yorkville to give it character,” Matischak said. “People say we can’t leave the neighborhood, because if we go, there is no neighborhood.”
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