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The Fine Art Of Outdoor Pandemic Fine Dining

Benjamin Prelvukaj is co-owner and co-founder of the Benjamin Restaurant Group, which operates three restaurants in New York City, one in the New York suburb of White Plains, and two more in Japan.

From March 15, we were in lockdown. We had to lay off 90 percent of our staff so that people could collect unemployment. Seafire Grill and Benjamin Prime were closed completely.

RIght away, we did takeout and delivery at our Benjamin restaurant on 41st Street. We had a lot of inventory of meat. We usually buy meat four or five weeks in advance so it can be aged, so we had tons of meat. What are you going to do with close to half a million dollars worth of meat? The best thing to do is try to sell it. Maybe some raw and maybe some cooked. We did $99 packages. It was a really good deal. You got two filet mignons, two junior sirloins, four burgers, and two steaks. A family of four could basically eat for $100. It’s a very good deal. We were just trying to get the inventory going.

We did the same thing at Benjamin in White Plains. That was where we sold a lot more, because people out there grill more at home. But even in New York, it was as good as it can be. Steaks usually can last up to three months in the aging process as long as you keep them cool. So 90 percent of our inventory was eventually sold.

But I had stopped ordering two or three weeks in advance before lockdown because I felt it coming. I think my last order was at the end of February.

The outdoor dining tent setup in the suburban parking lot at Benjamin Steak House in White Plains. Photo: Courtesy Benjamin Restaurant Group.

We opened White Plains first. Up there we have a huge parking lot, so I rented a big tent, about 40 feet by 70 feet. We made it like fine dining. So White Plains is actually doing pretty well. You also have 50 percent capacity, but it’s a large space and you can sit close to 300 people indoors and outdoors, including six feet apart and all the regulations that we follow. But we’re still only doing about 50 percent of the business we usually do there.

The city is a different story. We just reopened Benjamin Prime on 40th Street recently. We got the license from the Department of Buildings. We took the parking lane. It’s about 35 to 40 seats. I tried to do the same thing as White Plains. I rented a tent and put in music, but you’re still on the street. It’s a struggle, it’s a serious struggle. Because we’re not cheap. When you come to the steakhouse you’re going to spend at least $100. You want to have some kind of fine dining experience.

The tented section of street now enclosed for outdoor dining at Benjamin Prime in New York. Photo: Benjamin Restaurant Group.

Seafire Grill is probably going to be closed until Labor Day because we have a bike lane in front of the restaurant. I’m fighting with the DOB to take it out, but there’s no chance. At 41st Street, the original Benjamin’s, there’s nothing there because we’re inside a hotel and have very little space outside. That’s probably going to be closed until Labor Day too.

Where we can, we keep restaurants open for two reasons. The number one reason is so I can employ my staff and try to help them. The federal unemployment bonus is running out. How are you going to live on $400 a week? That’s why I’m trying to employ people, to bring them back, so they can survive. The number two reason is that I want to have a presence in the city. I have two restaurants here, and I want at least one to be open for my regulars, for my VIPS that I’ve been supporting for the last 15 years. They can still come and have a decent meal.

One of the best things about New York City is the restaurants. But the city has been tough on the restaurant business. It’s not fair. You can find any type of cuisine and enjoy it—French, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, American, whatever you like. That’s what makes New York City great—restaurants and theaters and all the entertainment. Over the last couple of years, they’ve raised the minimum wage, raised the tip wage. It’s not easy doing business because the bottom line shrinks every day. At the end of the day, you’re in business to make a decent living. There’s only so much you can work for free.

To get out of this, the government has to bail out the landlords. And then the landlords have to give us a break, because it goes from top to bottom. The banks have to release them. The government has to give money to banks, the banks have to give money to the landlords, the landlords have to give the restaurants a break. If you don’t, we’re not going to survive. Because you’re going to be closed for seven months, and then how are you going to pay $50,000 or $100,000 rent? I have four places, including two places in the city. There’s no chance I’m going to be able to pay the rent. The landlord is in the same situation. We’re all in the same shoes. We’re all trying to survive. So I think it has to come from the top. Just kind of clean up this year and move on fresh to 2021.