Certified Public Accountant, former nightclub/restaurant operator and current managing partner of Branches Catering in West Long Branch, New Jersey, Carmen Penta discusses the catastrophic effects the global pandemic has had on the hospitality industry.
ALLENHURST, NJ: Serving food out of take-out boxes and to-go cups has been a challenge for restaurants forced to transition from in-house dining to curbside pickup services. Unlike pizzerias and fast-food establishments, which have benefited from the uptick in delivery orders and drive-thru traffic, sit-down restaurants and banquet facilities are uncertain that they will ever be able to adapt to the strict limitations on dining capacity. Former nightclub/restaurant operator and a current owner of Branches Catering in West Long Branch, New Jersey, CPA, Carmen Penta predicts a rocky future for the hospitality industry – especially for banquet venues.
A long-time Jersey Shore resident, Penta started working in the food and beverage business at a young age, first as a short-order cook at the Surfside Beach Club in Long Branch, New Jersey in high school before managing the Deal Casino in Deal, New Jersey while in college. His experience led him to open Montego Bay – a popular nightclub in Belmar, New Jersey in 1982 that would reach its 1,000 person capacity almost every night. “That’s how we made money, and that’s something I think we’re not going to see for a long time,” said Penta. Currently a Certified Public Accountant with Addeo, Polacco, & Penta, Penta represents over 50 restaurants in New Jersey. He is also part-owner and managing partner of Branches Catering in West Long Branch, New Jersey, a business that has faced many obstacles due to the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s a disaster,” said Penta about the slow reopening of the hospitality businesses. New Jersey restaurants were able to open for outdoor dining beginning last week and indoor dining can resume July 2nd with 25% capacity. “We’re still not there and starting curbside pick-up and outdoor dining is really starting a new business for most of us,” said Penta.
But the reopening of catering and banquet facilities poses a new set of questions including: (i) Can a profit be made on significantly smaller gatherings? (ii) Will guests feel comfortable being in a crowded room full of people again? Already, many of the venue’s previously scheduled weddings and corporate events have been postponed and rescheduled for the fall with a significantly reduced guest list. “You can imagine the profit margins I’m missing out on for an event of 40 people versus 150, it’s extraordinary,” said Penta. The facility also had to lay off employees including waitresses, bartenders, and party planners, who they have had difficulty hiring back due to over-generous unemployment benefits and the ongoing fear of being exposed to the virus. “It’s been very difficult to bring back most of our help,” said Penta who credits the paycheck protection loans for helping to keep his business open. “Without that, we would have had a major problem and that was certainly something that was needed for all of the restaurant industry,” said Penta.
Although restaurants are permitted to reopen dining rooms once again, Penta isn’t convinced that the added business is enough. “The industry needs another step up after this indoor dining because at 25% capacity, we’re still unable to tee up the levels of volume we had before,” said Penta. While Branches Catering will be opening for inside dining, outdoor dining and curbside dining will no longer be available. “We want to go back to doing what we do best, which is catering,” said Penta. Instead, Penta is exploring implementing backyard and off-site catering, hoping people will be more comfortable hosting a party in a more familiar environment.
Despite the prolonged reopening, Penta believes that it is long overdue. “It’s definitely too slow for the businesses, however from a health standpoint you have to balance that,” said Penta. “It had to be done, unfortunately hurting a lot of businesses.” Looking back on the progress New Jersey has made in containing the spread of the virus, Penta commends the decision to close early on. “Trying to have events in April and May would have been a disaster health wise and people probably wouldn’t have attended. It was the right decision, but now they’re too slow,” added Penta. The summertime has undeniably helped businesses attract customers with the option of dining outdoors, something Penta has been taking advantage of as a consumer. “I think I would be reluctant right now [to dine indoors] especially because it’s summer and we have the option to dine out[side]. I would do that over dine in[side],” said Penta. The future is still troubling for banquet facilities who may not be able to reopen at all. “My prediction is you’re going to see some of these catering facilities go out of business and/or merge probably to lower overhead,” said Penta, suggesting that “ghost kitchens” may become more of a reality for catering businesses.
To view the full video interview, visit Bielat Santore & Company’s website at www.123bsc.com, Facebook page and stay tuned for next week’s “Thursday Restaurant Rap” interview.