For these restaurants in rail stations, commuters and customers are scarce

Jeanne Muchnick
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

Matt Kay, owner of Hudson Social in Dobbs Ferry, distinctly remembers the day when the world shut down and his business died. Kay's restaurant, located in the village's busy Metro-North train station, was usually bustling with commuters who stopped in during the morning rush for coffee and pastries.

On March 17, that all ended. 

"The parking lot had two cars; me and the chef," he said. "It looked like Armageddon."

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Matt Kay, owner at Hudson Social at the Dobbs Ferry train station, says his morning commuter business remains down 70%. Luckily, dinner is going well. Photographed Oct. 18, 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic upended the entire restaurant industry, but customers slowly trickled back once outdoor dining – and then indoor service – resumed. Train station restaurants, often out-of-the-way dining spots which rely heavily on commuters, have not been as fortunate as people continue to work remotely from home.

Metro-North ridership still remains 54% below pre-pandemic levels, although, according to railroad President Catherine Rinaldi, weekday ridership has been ticking upward since Labor Day. And, she said, that's an improvement over recent months when ridership was down as much as 65%. 

Those small increments are something that keep train station restaurant owners on track, although business at each remains hard to gauge.

What had seemed like a great idea to Kay back in August 2019 – to take over a train station restaurant with an almost guaranteed business (morning rush coffee, Happy Hour drinks) – quickly became a liability. Although he'd always been open for dinner – and offered outdoor seating – Hudson Social is isolated from downtown.

The Bakehouse at the Tarrytown Metro North train station. Photographed Oct. 14, 2021.

The same was true for Liv Hansen, who opened the Bakehouse in the Tarrytown station on March 2, 2020, just days before the shutdown.

There are more than 15 cafés and restaurants located in train stations in Westchester and Rockland, the majority of which are leased from the Metropolitan Transit Authority, (MTA) among them Locali in Mount Kisco, Flatbread & Toppings in Spring Valley, and others which are privately owned, like Pub Street in Pleasantville. 

Amid the pandemic, the MTA is actively looking at new spots to fill, such as the recently vacated Starbucks in the Hartsdale train station. There's also an active request for proposal (RFP) for a café at the Pearl River station.

For the majority of these operators, business has been inconsistent and no one thinks it will go back to what it once was any time soon.

Anthony Barona, owner of Bagel & Deli Express at the Hawthorne Metro North train station, photographed Oct. 21, 2021. Barona, who opened his shop in September, is  making sure his prices are competitive as he struggles to turn a profit in his new business.

"People are working home more or only going to the office sporadically and even then, they may be driving more than they did in the past," said Anthony Barona, who opened Hawthorne Bagels Deli Express on Sept. 27 in the former Off the Rails Cafe space at the Hawthorne train station.

Still, the MTA  – and restaurant owners – remain hopeful.

According to David Florio, director of MTA real estate transactions and operations, the restaurant/café business continues to be viable not only because of the MTA's ridership, but because most of these places, like Locali, are located in a business district. And they have large parking lots which on weekends, tend to be free. 

“This program has been successful throughout the Metro-North region bringing quality retail to our stations, and we hope to build off that,” noted Acting MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber in a May press release about the Pearl River RFP. “Customer experience is a major element of Metro-North's mission statement."

The company believes so ardently in its cafés and restaurants that the MTA's Rinaldi honored the Bakehouse in Tarrytown with a "Comeback Hero" award in May for staying open during the pandemic and serving the community.

Labor Day increase

Craig Bernardi, co-owner of Bobo's Cafe in Chappaqua, expected riders to come back full force after Labor Day, but so far, he hasn't seen the hoped-for uptick. "It's definitely not as busy as I thought," he said. "Though I've seen some familiar faces I hadn't seen in a long time."

Charu Hugel Rana, owner of BXVL Coffeehouse in Bronxville at her train station cafe. Photographed Nov. 1, 2021.

Charu Hugel Rana, who opened BXVL Coffeehouse in Bronxville in August 2020, has seen a 20% to 30% increase in revenue as commuters have slowly returned. She noticed a slight uptick in the 7 to 9:30 a.m. morning rush in July, and by Labor Day,  business had improved enough to warrant hiring more baristas. 

The Bakehouse's Hansen has also seen more early morning customers since Labor Day and also increased her staff from two to three. Fall day-trippers to the area have also helped business on weekends. 

Hansen also owns a busy Ardsley bakery and said the revenue from that location helped pay her bills when business in Tarrytown declined. "It's a fine balance," she said. "But there are glimmers of hope."

Looking for solutions

When Anthony Barona bought Off the Rails, he was confident the location would mean steady business. "There's been a café there for 14 years and it always did well, often with lines out the door," he said. "It's been a staple in town."

D'Angelo Galarza helps customer Anthony DeFrancesco of Pleasantville at Bagel & Deli Express at the Hawthorne Metro North train station Oct. 21, 2021. Shop owner Anthony Barona, who opened the restaurant in September, is making sure his prices are competitive as he struggles to turn a profit in his new business.

But that was before COVID. Even with a nice-sized patio for outdoor dining and a long list of menu items – everything from bagels to burgers, sandwiches, salads, smoothies, acai bowls and milkshakes and 100% Costa Rican coffee – his Hawthorne Bagels & Deli is struggling.

"I think people initially may have been put off by my prices," he said. "They don't understand that's the cost of business these days."

Now, he's compromising as a way to bring in the traffic lost to the railroad commuter exodus: A 10% discount that formerly applied solely for first responders has recently been extended to everyone. And he just started a Monday to Friday $4.99 bacon, egg and cheese bagel and coffee promotion from 6:30 to 9:30 a.m.

Mornings are still off 70% for Kay of Hudson Social, and he's debating getting a kiosk to put out coffee and pastries, but isn't sure he wants to invest the money. "I'm not sure it will make a difference," he said.

More than that, Kay said, what used to be a social time, with commuters hanging out in the restaurant before their train and chatting, has now turned into socially distant waiting on the platform – without getting coffee. "Some people are still nervous to come inside and socialize," he said. "Others just bring their own mug of coffee and run to the platform."

Mogan Anthony, corporate chef for the Village Social group, at Locali, located in the Mount Kisco train station on March 8, 2019.

On the plus side, his dinner business – his outdoor space has a fire pit and bevy of heat lamps – has returned to close to pandemic numbers. The story is similar for Pub Street and Locali, according to Mogan Anthony, executive chef for the Village Social group which owns both, as well as Village Social in Rye and Mount Kisco. 

Happy Hour at Pub Street in Pleasantville, which includes oysters, shishito peppers, and guacamole and chips, keeps the train station restaurant busy.

Pub Street, located in a privately owned station in Pleasantville, never relied solely on commuters. With the Jacob Burns Film Center in the village, it was more of a destination dining spot.

Anthony said the restaurant lost about 70% of its revenue early on in the pandemic, but outdoor dining (which opened in June 2020) and an attractive Happy Hour, has kept it increasingly busy.

"People want to go out, have a drink and relax," said Anthony. "In fact we're finding that we're busier than ever. It's almost like people are making up for last year."

Charu Hugel Rana, owner of BXVL Coffeehouse in Bronxville, with a freshly brewed latte. Photographed Nov. 1, 2021.

Hugel Rana of BXVL Coffeehouse will soon open a speakeasy/cocktail bar in a room adjacent to the café during the evening. 

"Our business model is designed to serve the morning commuter rush, but it transforms into a local hangout spot quite famous among students, business professionals, working parents and the retired community," she said. 

What works for one place doesn't always work for another. Anthony said Locali does a nice lunch and dinner business, but its Happy Hour, never a big draw even before COVID, has not caught on.  

The exterior of Locali Pizza Bar and Kitchen in the Mount Kisco railroad station, photographed March 8, 2019.

Staying on track

Despite the challenges, most owners agree the positives of their locations outweigh the negatives.

For Anthony, it offers easy access to staff who may travel to and from work by train. It's also free advertising, with commuters walking by your spot every day – at least when they are catching the train.

"Being in a train station is like being in a landmark," he said. "It's easy for people to recognize."

Still, there's a hurdle to overcome between commuters seeing you and passing you by, something Barona, as the new kid in town, is struggling with.

"Right now we’re trying to get out our identity," he said. "We're ready. All we need is customers."

Jeanne Muchnick covers food and dining. Click here for her most recent articles and follow her latest dining adventures on Instagram @lohud_food or via the lohudfood newsletter

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