NYC operators say flu’s effect minimal

NEW YORK Operators of Mexican and barbecue restaurants in this city say they have so far evaded consumer backlash stemming from the swine flu outbreak that has riveted attention on Mexico for nearly a week.

Even as the outbreak of the type A influenza virus now known as H1N1 continues to grow, the public seems to understand that the illness is not spread through eating pork and that there is no need to shun all things Mexican, operators said, noting that so far the event’s impact to business has been negligible.

“[April 26] was really slow,” said Zarela Martinez, owner-operator of Zarela’s, an upscale Mexican restaurant in midtown Manhattan. “We did, like, 60 covers, when normally we do around 130. But it also was a gorgeous day and very hot, so that could have contributed as well.”

Martinez said that by April 30, sales at her restaurant had returned to normal levels. She noted, however, that the uptick occurred following a radio broadcast she did with show host Brian Lehrer on WNYC.

“Interestingly enough, it has totally bounced back,” she said. “But I don’t know if that’s because of the way Brian handled it, [assuring everyone] there is no cause of panic. That helped in part.”

Victor Medina, general manager of Toloache, a fine-dining Mexican restaurant in midtown Manhattan, said business has been growing every day and that no one has expressed fear about catching the flu.

“No one has made any comments,” Medina said. “I was expecting a question or something, but so far no one has asked anything.”

 

In addition, he said, none of his customers have shied away from pork dishes.

“We’re doing well with steak, chicken and pork,” he said. “I think most people know it’s not related to the meat. Also, we only use American meats; there’s nothing from Mexico, and [our guests] know this.”

Martinez noted she had seen no decline in pork orders and that a recent pork special at her restaurant had sold out.

Business had also held steady at Union Square Hospitality Group, the operator of El Verano tacqueria at Citi Field, home stadium for the New York Mets, and the Blue Smoke barbecue concept.

“We have not seen any negative effect at all,” said USHG spokeswoman Michelle Lehmann. “At Blue Smoke, we’re selling lots of pulled pork, ribs, etc., and at El Verano, the carnitas taco is selling very well.”

Some operators distanced themselves from the unfolding event. Representatives for B.R. Guest Restaurants, owner-operator of such upscale-casual concepts as Dos Caminos Mexican restaurant and Wildwood Barbeque, declined to comment on whether the flu was having any affect on business, and calls to officials of Real Mex Restaurants, a company in Cyprus, Calif., with nearly 200 restaurants operating under such brands as Chevy’s Fresh Mex, El Torito and Acapulco, were not returned.

Arepresentative for the New York-based, upscale casual Rosa Mexicano chain said managers had not noticed any difference in business following news of the outbreak.

 

Aspokeswoman for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said the agency has been proactive in letting the public know it is safe to eat pork products and that the outbreak should not dissuade people from dining out in restaurants. Still, she added, it’s important for restaurant employees to make sure they are even more careful about hygienic practices at their respective establishments.

“Swine flu is here and it is spreading like seasonal influenza,” spokeswoman Jessica Scaperotti said. “It is important to wash your hands, and if you sneeze or cough to cover your mouth. If you are feeling sick, stay home.”

On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta had confirmed 280 cases in 36 states, and the World Health Organization said that the worldwide tally of confirmed cases had reached 1,085 in 21 countries.

Martinez said her biggest concern is whether tourism to New York will be hurt as a result of the scare. That, she said, would negatively affect her sales.

“Where it could be a problem is that Europe is telling people not to come to the city, not to travel to New York,” she said. “That could really hurt a lot of us who are firmly established — we’re listed in the travel guides and books as places to go to — and we depend on that tourism in the summer.”

Contact Elissa Elan at [email protected] [3].