The pandemic has swept the workers out of Center City office buildings, upending the weekday downtown lunch trade, from street carts to high-end restaurants, particularly those west of City Hall.

Three large lunch options — Coventry Deli at 2000 Market St., Le Bus Bakery at 129 S. 18th St., and the Marathon Grill location at 1818 Market St. — have closed after a quarter century each. Coventry owner David Rovner, who shut down in September, said he was targeting a return in January 2021 after his business had plunged by 80%, while Marathon’s Cary Borish said this location’s lease was up for renewal. Le Bus owner David Braverman said in late August that his losses were too hard to absorb. Devon & Blakely, a Washington, D.C.-based chain, has closed its location at 1801 Market St., at least temporarily.

Even before the pandemic’s effects were felt in March, eateries throughout Center City were feeling the impact of the incursion of Wawa, flooding break rooms with $5 Shortis.

Delivery services, which can make stars out of eateries in lower-rent, out-of-the-way locations, also have been a factor, offering more options.

Rents for restaurants in higher-traffic areas remain high, said Harris Eckstut, a restaurant consultant, though some landlords recently have been willing to negotiate more reasonably priced one-year deals, figuring that the market may correct itself sooner than later.

Less food traffic

The Center City District, which uses six pole-mounted counters to gauge pedestrian traffic mainly between 12th and 18th Streets, said lunchtime volume had begun to recover in the last two months but was still nowhere near pre-pandemic levels.

For the week ending Sept. 26, foot traffic was less than half of last year’s volume, an average of 23,729 pedestrians a day, compared with 49,420 in 2019. The traffic along west Market Street and around JFK Boulevard was at 22% of 2019 levels, the district said.

Wokworks has stationed carts and trucks outside apartment complexes and breweries to capture business.
BRENNAN FOXMAN
Wokworks has stationed carts and trucks outside apartment complexes and breweries to capture business.

Those missing 25,000 people help explain the restaurant industry’s suffering, as it extends not only to bottom lines but also to the number of cooks and counter people.

Stephen Starr, whose 15 Center City restaurants are now open mainly over the dinner hours, said business was off 40% to 60%, a figure that squares with other restaurateurs' estimates. The downtown restaurants that he does open for lunch — Parc, El Vez, Pizzeria Stella, and Talula’s Daily — are doing a fraction of their previous business.

Brennan Foxman said overall sales at Wokworks, his Asian-inspired noodle carts and food trucks, were off by about half compared with pre-COVID-19 levels. He has shut down most of his Center City carts. But he’s been hustling to see the future. He opened a commissary for a ghost kitchen intended for deliveries only. And if customers are not headed to their Center City offices, he’s been sending food carts to large apartment buildings to feed residents.

Fewer competitors

Some restaurants like Baology and El Merkury have gone to all takeout and delivery, shuttering dining rooms. Mike Mangold, a partner in the fast-casual Real Food Eatery, said his store on 16th Street near Walnut had lost 90% of its dining room business, while takeout and delivery sales remain the same — a drop of 50% to 60%, all told. Real Food’s location at 1700 Market St., which closed last spring when the high-rises began to empty, could reopen in January, if not sooner, if office workers return, he said.

Sofia Deleon – owner and chef – cooks pupusas in kitchen of her restaurant El Merkury.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Sofia Deleon – owner and chef – cooks pupusas in kitchen of her restaurant El Merkury.

Chef Yehuda Sichel opened Huda, a sandwich shop, at 18th and Ranstead Streets, last month. Planning had begun before pandemic delays set in, but Sichel said the idle time enabled him to develop better recipes for bread, which he hopes will set him apart. So far, business has been good. “Yes, we don’t have the commercial district," he said. Told about the foot-traffic stats, he said, "Given that number, I’m doing well.” His shop is across the alley from Midtown III Diner, which closed over the summer.

Rob Wasserman said lunch business at his Rouge on Rittenhouse Square was doing well — all of it in outside seating along the square. He attributed the stroke of good fortune to generally nice weather and, perhaps, he added philosophically, “maybe because of a drop in competition.”