Nestled in the heart of downtown New Brunswick, and surrounded by Rutgers University, Salt is a restaurant that has thrived from the energy of being in a college town.
“Typically a Friday, Saturday night, we were fully booked, sometimes a week in advance,” said Tammi Graciano, who opened the upscale seafood place with her husband, chef Christian Graciano, two years ago.
Popular with parents visiting their kids on campus, college faculty, and people doing business with the university, the Gracianos recently started to expand to host larger events.
COVID-19 changed those plans, as Rutgers emptied of students and faculty this past spring. “I cancelled, maybe 50 graduation parties,” she recalled.
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All businesses took a financial hit under the statewide quarantine. But for the restaurants, bars and other small shops located in college towns, the sting of the pandemic is feeling especially cruel this fall, as college campuses remain desolate.
Hundreds of colleges and universities around the country have moved to a remote learning format as a way to limit and reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
For small businesses in college towns, that means losing the financial boost that usually arrives each fall with the return of students on campus.
Rutgers University has some in-person courses, but the overwhelming majority of students are learning remotely.
Last year, there were nearly 16,000 students living on campus. This year, there are 970.
“That’s 14,000, 15,000 students who are not going to convenience stores, buying pizza, buying sub sandwiches, you know, frequenting the bars,” said Christopher Paladino, president of the New Brunswick Development Corporation, also known as DEVCO, a private non-profit developer.
And it’s not just the students: their parents, visiting sports teams and faculty and staff also fuel the local economy.
According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, only about 4 percent of colleges and universities are resuming full, in-person classes this fall. More than half will hold either mostly online or hybrid classes. That publication also noted that more than 19,000 higher education workers were laid off between February and March alone, and that the sector will lose tens of thousands more jobs due to the pandemic.
At the Heldrich Hotel, which was built by DEVCO, business is down 80 percent, said Paladion. It had been a popular downtown spot for conferences, and where many football fans stay when in town for games.
DEVCO also built a 500-bed student housing structure on campus; those beds are empty, Paladino said.
“The hotels obviously are impacted because of the lack of sporting teams from the Big 10 visiting the city and fans coming to football games. So it's had an extraordinary impact and we don't necessarily see things improving real fast.”
The absence of students is particularly noticeable at fast-food eateries.
Prradnya Mundra bought the Jersey Subs sandwich shop in downtown New Brunswick nearly two years ago. It was a favorite for students.
“In the lunch hour, we were crazy busy,” she said. The most popular sandwiches were the chicken or meatball parmigiana.
“That is a whole different world,” said Mundra, who struggles to pay her rent.
With no students on campus, the long lines have vanished, and there are no catering orders for tailgate parties. The football stadium is closed to fans this year.
Mundra has cut her staff in half, from nine, down to five workers.
Pamela Stefanek is executive director of City Market New Brunswick, which promotes downtown establishments. She said the statewide shutdown of businesses coupled with the loss of students was too much for some owners.
Two businesses—Fatto Americana, a specialty pizza shop, and Caffe Benet, both closed for good, she said.
But the city and City Market have been collaborating with businesses to stir new life into the downtown. They’ve blocked off the streets on weekends so they can be used for outdoor dining, offered up to 30 minutes of free parking in a section of the parking deck, and brought in live bands.
“The outdoor dining scene in New Brunswick has been fairly vibrant,” said Mayor Jim Cahill, who worked with the downtown establishments to block off streets. “All of that has helped generate the activity … so the summer has been fairly successful, of course, from a relative perspective.”
Cahill said that the absence of college students was enticing other residents to patronize local businesses.
“Folks who live in New Brunswick or in the greater New Brunswick area are more likely to come to go out to dinner in New Brunswick because they are not going to be in such competition with those other types of folks.”
Back at Salt, Graciano said the outdoor dining has helped to attract new diners. But it is also demanding.
“You have to redesign your floor plan. You have to train yourself on it. You know, the table numbers and then you know the kitchen. It's not that easy to just take tables and put them outside and say, ‘OK, now we're open for outdoor dining.’”
But she said she has also seen the downtown businesses come together during a difficult time to show support, and has found it encouraging.
Much of her time these days is spent trying to keep tables and chairs and the food clean and safe, so no one gets sick.
“It's been very difficult to look towards the future and come up with any business plans or marketing plans,” Graciano said.
“It’s crossing your fingers and just hoping and praying everything is going to get back to normal sooner rather than later.”