It was 5:37 on a subfreezing weekday evening in the dining capital of America, and in a sleek new Manhattan restaurant named At Vermilion, the staff of 26 had but one option before the dinner rush: to wait.
“Every night, there are butterflies,” said Rohini Dey, 40, the majority owner of the two-month-old, $4.5 million restaurant at 480 Lexington Avenue, at East 46th Street.
“These are strange times,” she said, surveying her empty 200-seat restaurant, which offers a fusion of Indian and Latin cuisine.
In a season when diners have been ordering hamburger platters instead of T-bones, the stone-cold economy is a consuming preoccupation for most of the city’s 26,000 dining establishments. But especially for new restaurants, January is a roll of the dice.
“The restaurant business is tough to start with, and survival in New York is especially difficult, thanks to high operating costs,” said E. Charles Hunt, executive vice president of the New York City chapters of the New York State Restaurant Association. In the best of times, he said, 70 percent of new restaurants fail or change ownership during their first five years.
“But this is the toughest climate we’ve seen since I was a kid,” said Mr. Hunt, 72, who was born during the Depression.
This was no surprise to the workers at the 12,000-square-foot At Vermilion: three hostesses, three bartenders, five servers, four runners, chef, manager, assistant manager and eight cooks and kitchen workers.
“This is literally the calm before the storm,” said Maneet Chauhan, 32, the executive chef, who placed her own big bet by moving from Chicago to open the new kitchen.
She had arrived at 6 a.m. to make preparations, and now she was walking the spacious kitchen, with its two 4.5-foot-tall clay tandoor ovens, ensuring that sous-chefs were patrolling their stations and readying condiments for the line cooks. The restaurant’s menu depends on Indian spices like garam masala, and on cumin, coriander and cilantro, which are also used in Latin cultures.
By 10 p.m., when customers placed the final dinner orders, nearly 100 people had eaten in the restaurant and the lounge, and 70 earlier, at lunch. Ms. Dey said that “clearly we have to double volumes on a consistent basis,” adding that despite wildly varying patronage thus far, she thought it was eminently possible.
To survive, Ms. Dey said, the restaurant will need yearly revenues of $6 million to $10 million.
“Going to work in a new restaurant is never a safe thing,” said Eddie Witten, 30, a waiter who previously worked at Eleven Madison Park and who is hoping that success will bring larger tips. “But in this economy?”
He left his question hanging, but added, “I thought, ‘This space is so large, it wasn’t designed to fail.’ ” Indeed, it is 100 seats larger than Vermilion, the popular Chicago restaurant that Ms. Dey and Ms. Chauhan opened five years ago.
The new gamble “is a little on the nervy side, for all of us,” said Luis Peralta, a 38-year-old sous-chef from Barranquilla, Colombia, who previously worked at Django and Oceana. “But we’re all glad to have a job. And we all hope we can keep our jobs.”
It would be an exaggeration to say that all of the city’s new restaurants are fighting to survive the downturn’s undertow.
At the 60-seat Corton, for example, “We are as busy as we want to be,” said Drew Nieporent, who opened the high-end restaurant, at 239 West Broadway, in October while the economy was imploding, and won brilliant reviews. “We couldn’t do any more business now.”
No matter the state of the economy, he said, many new owners are locked into an opening date through lease agreements, marketing and other advance commitments. “If we’d had any inkling that there would have been a financial crisis, we w
ould have re-evaluated,” said Mr. Nieporent, who owns seven city restaurants, including Nobu and Tribeca Grill. “But we thought that things would be normal — until it was too late.”
Ms. Dey, too, had been intensively planning At Vermilion far in advance: by the end of 2007. She had visited 80 Manhattan spaces before choosing one last June. Her new restaurant opened in mid-November in the space of the former Django, a Mediterranean bistro once popular among the now-thinning ranks of financial-services workers.
“From Day 1, we knew that this was a bad time to open, because every investor told us that,” said Ms. Dey, 40, who has a Ph.D. in economics and worked for McKinsey & Company and at the World Bank in Washington. “I persisted. Why? Well, because fools rush in — that, and an entrepreneur’s optimism.”
It hardly helps that the restaurant has received mixed reviews. The New York Times criticized the blandness of some dishes and the stringiness of its signature skirt steak entree, while noting that a few of the menu items “manage to translate the place’s ambitions to the plate.” Crain’s New York Business, however, praised that same steak dish as “a standout,” but disparaged the lamb shank as “too timid in the flavor department.”