Last Thursday evening, restaurant mogul Zach Erdem drove up to a customer’s swanky mansion in the Hamptons, rang the doorbell, and left a delicious dinner spread on the front doorstep, COVID-style.
Erdem — who owns Southampton hotspot 75 Main, a longtime hangout for celebs like Kim Kardashian West, Leo DiCaprio and Joe Biden — had hopped into his Mercedes G wagon to deliver the goods (grilled branzino, clams, lobster, chicken tenders, fries, apple pie, and chocolate cake). He admits this was never his routine until recently.
“The lady texted me, ‘Zach, was that you? I would never have wanted you to personally deliver our order!’ ” Erdem told Side Dish. “I told her I was happy to do it.”
As Hamptons restaurants prepare to open up for outdoor dining on Wednesday — the first time they’ve been able to welcome customers since the state lockdown began in March — they’re running into multiple hurdles, including a lack of employees.
Erdem is doing deliveries himself because he can’t find enough former workers to hire, with some pointing out they’re earning more from the US government’s beefed-up unemployment benefits than they would back on the job. He’s even done kitchen duty — burning his hand in the process — and paid a waiter $ 20 an hour to wash dishes during his shift.
“It’s my nightmare,” Erdem says. “Everyone is on unemployment and they want to be paid in cash, which won’t happen.”
For now, the restaurateur is hiring some team members who are now in Florida. But as he scrambles to get ready for queues of customers later this week, he remains short of staff — from answering the phone to waiting tables.
Some insiders fear the employee shortages could be a recipe for chaos, as throngs of city dwellers have been piling into the Hamptons for weeks, snapping up summer rentals to wait out the coronavirus.
“It will be a s- -t show,” predicts restaurant consultant Don Evans. “There will be lines. People are tired of eating home or takeout.”
Ian Duke, co-owner of popular hotspots Southampton Social Club and Union Burger Bar, expects queues will become safe and manageable once customers get used to the new situation.
“I think there will be lines and general confusion at the beginning, but I’m hoping it will be controlled, organized chaos,” Duke said. “We’ve had a lot of time to plan. Do I anticipate a lot of people standing outside Social Club? Yes, but I hope people will understand and get comfortable with reservation policies.”
After waiting in line, customers have to be seated. In the case of 75 Main, neighboring shops are helping out by allowing Erdem to set up outdoor seating in front of their own storefronts.
Indeed, outdoor dining may turn the Hamptons into one big block party, he says.
“Everyone just wants to be outside,” Erdem says. “I will have tables six to eight feet apart, but also 20 feet apart for my customers who ask for it.”
Other top restaurants planning on opening outside include Nick & Toni’s, Duryea’s and Gurney’s, as well as Gosman’s Restaurant, Bostwick’s Chowder House, Almond, Fresno, T Bar Southampton and the Southampton Inn’s Claude Restaurant.
Indoor seating is currently slated to become allowed by authorities on June 24 — although consultant Evans contends most people will still prefer to dine outside for safety reasons.
While the reopenings are good news, it’s a mixed blessing for restaurants, which have been closed for two and a half months, except for curbside pickup and deliveries.
“All restaurants in the Hamptons are hanging by a thread. Some will not survive. We will not know the damage until next fall,” Evans said.
For his part, 75 Main’s Erdem doesn’t think he’ll make money this summer, but he hopes to at least break even. “I’m hoping July and August will start to make up for what we have lost since March,” he said.