Small businesses surrounding Yankee Stadium gear up after long off-season

With the Yankees in spring training in Florida, Bronx businesses surrounding Yankee Stadium are eagerly anticipating the start of the 2021 season and the return of fans.  Without them, many were down to their last at-bat.

 

Surrounding ballpark businesses have not had regular game-day traffic since October 2019. The Yankees played home games in the Bronx for the 2020 season, but Major League Baseball did not allow any team to have fans in the stadium during the season, which was delayed four months due to the pandemic.

 

Stan’s Sports Bar is among those hardest hit by the lack of fans.  During normal circumstances, Stan’s is only open when major events are occurring at Yankee Stadium, including Yankee games, soccer matches, and concerts. Michael Rendino, the bar’s co-owner, has made changes to his business in anticipation of the return of fans.

 

The bar was open sporadically during last year’s brief baseball season, but federal aid is what kept the business afloat. Stan’s was able to utilize a Paycheck Protection Program loan, which helped the bar take care of its 13 employees and pay the rent through July.

 

Before the pandemic, the bar only served drinks and small snacks. It has now partnered with a local caterer and hired multiple cooks to provide better food options. “We have to take full advantage of having even a few fans. We need to make more revenue per table than we would normally,” said Rendino.

 

The new COVID standard for professional baseball will allow outdoor stadiums to welcome back 10% of their capacity. As a result, Yankee Stadium will be able to host up to 5,400 fans starting on Opening Day, April 1. The expectation is that as the vaccination rollout continues, and positive cases continue to decline, those capacity limits will rise. The team will host 81 games this season.

 

Bronx business owners know 10% is not enough.  “It is not enough for the whole season, but if it is a starting point and we progress to more fans if things get better, that’s all we can ask for,” said Rendino. There is a general consensus among many that as positive cases decline and more New Yorkers get vaccinated, the capacity limits will increase.

 

On game day, the streets near the stadium are littered with food trucks for fans looking for quick snacks. Rasuel Jackson and his sister operate one of them, positioned in between a parking garage and Yankee Stadium’s center field entrance.

 

“The foot traffic on game day is the only reason I park here, explained Jackson. “Last year was such a wash for us.”

 

Jackson’s cart had to change up its menu from traditional ballpark food to more lunch and dinner options.  That move has increased costs associated with different food provisions and additional prep time for each item sold. Jackson also had to invest in a scanner for card payments, which he previously did not need, with so many fans willing to pay cash.

 

While Jackson and his sister have made the necessary adjustments to make it through the rough times, they are eager for fans to be back. “It has been our way of life for so long, we really missed the atmosphere and the people,” said Jackson, who has brought his truck to the stadium area since 2005.

 

Jackson plans to position his cart close to the 161st Street-Yankee Stadium subway station. In 2019, the last baseball season with fans, it was the busiest station in the Bronx.

 

The return of fans is not a quick fix, though. Community leaders are hopeful that the Yankee organization will work to help surrounding small businesses. “Our small businesses have shown an enormous amount of resilience,” said Dr. Cary Goodman, the head of the 161st Business Improvement District, which represents businesses in the Yankee Stadium neighborhood. Goodman noted that while the Yankees were able to conduct the business of having a season last year, the local community was not. “These are season businesses that have not had a season.  They need help,” he said.

 

The organization did announce an initiative in December to partner with small businesses to help them through what has been an almost 18-month off-season. According to Goodman, that initiative consisted of the team distributing $5,000 to 10 neighboring businesses. The BID leader believes that $50,000 is hardly enough.

 

“If they were paying their fair share of taxes, they would be paying $95 million a year,” said Goodman. In a deal designed to keep the Yankees from leaving the city and borough over a decade ago, the team now pays only $1 a year in rent to the city, which owns the stadium.

 

While financial support is great, some business owners like Rendino are hoping the Yankees will lobby for the city to make exceptions on game days to some current dining regulations.  Stan’s Sports Bar has dealt with capacity rules and has worked around them with the construction of outdoor seating, but he is hoping the city extends alcohol sales past the current 10 p.m. curfew.

 

Rendino estimates that at least a third of his business pre-pandemic came from fans coming to the bar after the game. With over 70% of Yankee home games at night, the current rules put his post-game revenue in jeopardy.

 

Mohammad Graffe works at Pinstripe Collectables, a sports merchandise store that specializes in Yankees apparel. He estimates that game day sales account for over half of the store’s revenue. The return of fans would be especially important for their staff.

 

“Our game day staff is more than double what we have on a day in the offseason,” said Graffe. But the stadium’s reopening to fans still falls short of a victory, he said, noting: “We need to get to at least 50% if we are going to survive.”

 

The store typically starts to see sales pick up when the Yankees are in Tampa, Florida, for annual spring training. The team’s pre-season Florida games are able to welcome fans with a capacity limit of 25%. “I understand the precautions here, but it’s frustrating that Florida can have our team while we are still struggling,” said Graffe.

 

Businesses in general are hoping to see the Yankees more involved in the community as fans return. “I was less than thrilled with the lack of outreach in the immediate aftermath of the shutdowns, I get they have their own business to run but an initial level of outreach would have been nice,” said Rendino, who did add that he has heard the team has offered their legal team to help local businesses fight issues regarding rent.

 

Still, Bronx small businesses have learned these past 12 months they must rely on themselves to make it through these times.

 

“I think a lot of people in the community have become more savvy, and will be better from what we learned from this past year,” said Jackson. “It will be great to be back to a little bit of normal.”

 

His cart will be ready for fans on Opening Day.

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