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The Covid-19 Pandemic in New York’s Food Sector: How Small Businesses, Restaurants, and Outdoor Markets Adapted

La pandémie de Covid-19 dans le secteur alimentaire à New York : l’adaptation des petites entreprises (restaurants et marchés de plein air)
Sharon Zukin et Ivana Mellers
Traduction(s) :
La pandémie de Covid-19 dans le secteur alimentaire à New York : l’adaptation des petites entreprises (restaurants et marchés de plein air) [fr]


Pendant la pandémie du Covid-19, le secteur alimentaire à New York a été dévasté par la crise sanitaire, avec les confinements imposés par l’État, le chômage de masse et la rupture des chaînes d’approvisionnement. Quand les new yorkais étaient autorisés à retourner au travail, malgré les restrictions liées à la pandémie, les entreprises alimentaires se sont adaptées en proposant de nouveaux services, en vendant des produits alimentaires et des plats à emporter et en permettant aux gens de manger à l’extérieur plutôt qu’à l’intérieur. Les travailleurs de la restauration sont devenus entrepreneurs, ouvrant des entreprises éphémères ou vendant des produits alimentaires aux voisins ; de nombreux restaurants ont livré des repas aux hôpitaux et aux écoles. Le nombre de vendeurs ambulants a augmenté, la plupart sans permis, et les marchés de plein air ont réduit leurs activités. Contraint à s’adapter à la pandémie, le secteur alimentaire à New York a développé une temporalité et une spatialité nouvelles, valorisant des quartiers en dehors du centre et étendant le domaine public.

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Notes de la rédaction

Interview with Sharon Zukin and Ivana Mellers (New York, March 19, 2023), conducted by Vincent Chabault et Emmanuelle Lallement, reviewed by Sharon Zukin.

Texte intégral

E. Lallement and V. Chabault: Why did you study the urban food sector?

S. Zukin: A few years before the Covid-19 pandemic began, we (Sharon and Ivana) and Nga Than began looking at “food startup founders,” people who start small businesses to produce food products like bread, sauces, and yogurt, which they make, package, and sell themselves, usually by working with a few family members or employees. We discovered that it was one of the few manufacturing activities in New York that was experiencing growth. In our view, it was also a space of cultural cosmopolitanism in big cities with large migrant populations like New York, London, and Shanghai.

People usually describe the food sector as having low barriers to entry because small-scale production doesn’t cost much and does not require highly qualified or highly skilled workers. However, food business owners have to navigate a complex field of regulations and logistical constraints, even in normal, non-pandemic times. That is why, as a group parallel to tech startup founders, we felt they also deserved attention.

Three issues were behind our initial research. First, we were interested in food business owners as entrepreneurs. They are entrepreneurs, not only in the original sense as described by the economist, Joseph Schumpeter, that is, people who devise new products and new ways of selling those products. In addition, they are often immigrant entrepreneurs, that is, transnational migrants who bring the food practices of their countries of origin to members of their own community and to a broader public. During the 1980s and 1990s, after new immigration laws in the U.S. led to dramatic increases in the foreign-born population, especially from Latin America and Asia, there were numerous sociological studies on immigrant entrepreneurs, notably those who operated in ethnic enclaves. But, after the mid-1990s, studies became scarce, leaving a gap for new research to fill. What products were food startup founders introducing to the city? What were the features of their markets? Who were their clients?

Second, we wanted to know how new food business owners used digital technology. In contrast to owners of small retail businesses with an “ethnic” clientele, who rely on proximity and word of mouth to attract customers, food startup founders often use social media like Yelp and Instagram. This requires time, digital skills, and a marketing strategy, resources that are unusual for immigrant entrepreneurs.

Third, we wondered what the city government was doing to encourage these new businesses. Since they represent a source of employment for city residents with no university qualification, especially people with poor English-language skills, food startup founders appear to be good candidates for government-funded workforce training and business assistance programs. Or, alternatively, does the city government discourage food startup founders? Commercial rents are not regulated, the supply of industrial workspace is increasingly limited, and small business owners always complain about the city government’s bureaucracy.

Food startup founders also fitted our other research interests. Sharon recently worked with researchers in six cities in North America, Europe, and East Asia on a project about the globalization and gentrification of local shopping streets where food stores, restaurants, and cafés have a highly visible role (Zukin, Kasinitz and Chen, 2016). Ivana was studying activism among immigrant food workers in New York City. Ivana and Nga were researching the development of kitchen incubators, shared commercial kitchens where entrepreneurs rent space to prepare their products, which is cheaper than renting individually. These commercial kitchens may be social enterprises rather than for-profit businesses. Some are supported by the city government or nonprofit organizations that also offer mentorship to the founders.

EL/VC: How did the Covid-19 pandemic affect your work?

SZ: In March 2020, when the Covid pandemic began, we realized that it offered an excellent opportunity to study the resilience of food startup founders. Of course, initially it was hard to see the public health disaster as an opportunity. Because the pandemic hit New York sooner than most other cities in the U.S., it plunged us into a state of terrifying uncertainty. In the months before an effective vaccine was developed, the city experienced state-mandated lockdowns, empty streets, and widespread unemployment. In mid-March 2020, the governor of New York State shut down restaurants for indoor dining. Over a million New Yorkers filed claims for unemployment benefits from the state, people with second homes fled the city, everyone was scared.

  • 1 For a timeline of 2020 in the city’s restaurant industry, see Warerkar, 2020.

The food sector was hit hard by the pandemic, causing additional anxiety. Business closures further isolated the sector. Food stores, supermarkets and corner shops do not simply provide essentials, they are also important in terms of sociability. During the crisis, grocery store employees became “front-line workers,” with a relational function – a “public” function - that was suddenly recognized as important. Delivery people or deliveristas, as they are called because many of them have Latino origins, were a lifeline to those who were unable or unwilling to enter indoor commercial spaces, even wearing a mask. However, the pandemic disrupted food supply chains, and stores often lacked key items. Moreover, with the closure of thousands of restaurants, including fast food chains, cafés, and bars, more than 200,000 workers lost their livelihoods (Sutton, 2020). The city and state governments lurched between shutdowns and partial re-openings, which provoked disputes, not only over which activities would be affected, but over the division of authority between the mayor and the governor.1

Yet, even in the early stages of the pandemic, the food sector had no choice but to adapt. The government followed its lead because the sector was too crucial and too big to fail.

We wanted to learn about the specific adaptations to the crisis. So, Ivana and Nga reached out to the food startup founders, who they had interviewed before the pandemic (by email and phone). While Nga focused on small business owners, who had produced and distributed food products in brick-and-mortar shops or through delivery chains, Ivana concentrated on outdoor food markets where vendors cooked and sold prepared foods directly to customers. At this point, we were joined by Tommy Chung, who was writing his doctoral thesis on third-wave coffee shops, while working as a barista.

EL/VC: What adaptations did you see citywide?

SZ: Delivery companies from Amazon to DoorDash expanded their workforce considerably. Amazon shifted staff from other parts of their business to deliveries. Restaurants became takeout shops and grocery stores, selling whole meals, culinary ingredients, and bottles of wine to retail customers. One of the major forms of adaptation, and perhaps the most controversial was outdoor dining—for which the city government has still not established permanent rules.

Chefs and other restaurant workers, who had been laid off, prepared dishes, baked bread, and produced specialty foods in their kitchens at home and sold them to neighbors or through social media. Some restaurants became “popups”, that is, temporary installations, on their own premises or in closed restaurants. Many restaurant owners and their employees prepared meals for emergency services and hospital staff, and delivered meals to food pantries and schools for free distribution to people who had lost part of their income due to the crisis.

Street vendors adapted in different ways. Although they all left central business districts because customers were no longer going to work, many set up their carts on local shopping streets in residential neighborhoods, especially those with large Latino populations. According to the Street Vendor Project, a nonprofit organization that represents their interests, “the number of vendors in Corona Plaza, along Roosevelt Avenue at 103rd Street [in Queens], rose nearly fourfold, from 20-30 people to more than 100” (Salama 2022). Some vendors who sold fruit and churros (deep-fried pastry dough) on subway platforms without a license before the pandemic were more visible during the health crisis. In so doing, they tried to get closer to residents and to sell they products in the street, despite the risk of being booked or arrested by the police (Marcius, 2022).

EL/VC: Ivana, what adaptations did you see in the outdoor markets during the pandemic?

Ivana Mellers: New York has several outdoor “destination” food markets, in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, where vendors from around the world prepare and sell meals and snacks to eat on site. These markets operate on weekends from April to October. They have multiple functions. They are places of production, sale, and social interaction. Vendors work either full or part time at home to prepare ingredients, which they transport on market days, and cook and sell at their stands. Often they use the markets to start their business and test recipes and concepts until they are ready to expand into brick-and-mortar or online sales. Some may want publicity to promote an existing business venture. Locals and tourists visit these markets to socialize, try foods and experience cultures they haven’t found elsewhere.

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, the markets’ plans to open as usual in April for the summer season came to a halt. In that first year, the markets devised three main strategies to remain operational: selling takeway food limiting capacity to welcome customers at the market, and establishing alternative distribution networks (Mellers, 2022). The market organizers I spoke to did not want to compromise the spirit of the events. They carefully planned how to keep a sense of community, with safely as a priority. In 2021, when vaccines were available, and people were keen to resume a semblance of pre-pandemic life, the outdoor markets offered an attractive option, compared to the spring of 2020. Some markets continued to limit capacity with timed entry tickets, but most went back to operating as they had done before. For the 2022 season, the markets were no longer subject to the strict regulation imposed by the state in the early days of the pandemic. Crowds of New Yorkers and tourists were able to meet up with friends once more or come with their families to purchase foods, from pierogis to pakoras, offered by the city’s diverse population.

EL/VC: How did the Latino vendors adapt to new conditions? Did they return to “normal,” i.e. pre-pandemic, business practices? Did their businesses survive?

IM: My doctoral thesis is about how Latin-American small food business owners adapted to the pandemic. I am investigating how their social, economic, and cultural capital shapes their pandemic survival strategies. Traditionally, owning a small business is a way for immigrants to become integrated or to obtain middle class status, especially because they are excluded from the wider labor market (Sanders and Nee 1996; Waldinger, Aldrich and Ward, 1990). Nonetheless, it is a risky path (Alba and Foner, 2015; Light and Gold, 2000; Sanders and Nee, 1996).

However, there is now a new group of highly educated food startup founders, who see starting a food business as a “cool job”. They seek meaning in their work, by pursuing a craft (Neff, Wissinger and Zukin, 2005; Ocejo, 2017). These people often leave careers in highly paid jobs in marketing, finance, or law to start a food business, and the pandemic may have propelled more of them in this direction.

In the past year, I have spoken to 1 prospective owner and 20 business owners from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela. Some are immigrants and others are children of immigrants born in the United States. Some of their businesses have existed for as long as two decades, while others opened during the pandemic. Two closed in the first three months of 2022. For most people I spoke to, managing their business is a full-time job. Their products range from packaged goods made at a co-packing facility, to dishes sold at outdoor destination markets, and meals sold in small stores. Despite the challenges of the last few years, nearly everyone adapted to the lockdowns. They remained optimistic about the future.

However, everyone had to change their approach to running a business, and these adaptations became the new norm. They added more delivery services, set up online sales, used social media to attract clients, and donated food to the community. Some were able to access financial aid—particularly PPP (Paycheck Payment Protection) and other SBA (Small Business Association) loans—from the U.S. government. Some considered that the bureaucratic application process for a loan was not worth the time and energy. Others did not apply because they did not think they would qualify. Those who received aid used the money to pay employees and keep their businesses afloat. Business owners did not have to repay the government loans if they were used to pay staff or to cover the costs of approved business expenses like rent, utilities, and certain supplies. However, they had to provide proof of how they spent the funds (SBA, 2023). Many businesses survived economically by switching their focus to delivery and to-go sales. When they had products that could be shipped—like baked goods or spices—they boosted their online presence using their own websites, online platforms, or third-party websites like Amazon or Milk Street. Social networks were used to communicate directly with consumers, sharing recipes, videos, and up-to-date information about deliveries and Covid protocols. Outdoor destination markets organized deliveries from their vendors to frontline workers in hospitals, while other business owners delivered food directly to community members in need.

What I hear time and time again is that the pandemic conditions were tough, but running a small business is always challenging. Although inflation has raised production costs, many business owners are reluctant to increase their prices. Most refer to the pandemic as being in the past. They are thinking ahead to the future, about how to promote their business, and how to expand. A few business founders are even hoping to sell franchises to bring foods from their cultures to the mainstream across the U.S.

EL/VC: What is the current situation of the food sector in New York?

SZ: Today, three years after the pandemic began, food stores are operating normally, yet there are still problems with supply chains and rising prices for butter, eggs, and most other foods. The streets are still filled with delivery bikes, but many stores provide their own delivery services, and personal in-store shoppers hired by external services have been laid off. Supermarket managers are eagerly discussing the potential uses of artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT for managing both inventory and customer services. This may be a rational response to uncertainty and labor shortages, but it is not good for jobs.

EL/VC: How did the measures taken during the pandemic have evolved?

SZ: As many as 12,000 restaurants still have some sort of outdoor dining. However, the city is being sued by community groups, who are upset about the rats, garbage, and the noise generated, as well as by the lack of space on sidewalks and in the streets for pedestrians and emergency vehicles like fire engines and ambulances. Many people are also upset by the abandoned wooden dining sheds in the streets, which are now disused because the restaurants that built them have gone out of business. Nonetheless, supporters of outdoor dining praise the amount of space that has been taken away from cars and “taken back” by pedestrians and green transport like bicycles. They feel that developing the city government’s “open streets” program has expanded the public realm.

In the first year of the pandemic, some New Yorkers celebrated the “Europeanization” of the streets by outdoor dining, but the thrill has worn off. Instead, there seems to be real satisfaction with socializing over food and drink in public view—at least, that is the case for those who can afford it. A new use of time, featuring “all-day dining,” or eating meals at nontraditional hours, has become the norm. For all these reasons, public opinion is in favor of making outdoor dining permanent, if the city government can establish and enforce rules for public health and safety.

Debates and tensions over street vending regulations have intensified since the pandemic. In response to the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 and to an often brutal police response, Mayor de Blasio announced that the police department would no longer be responsible for enforcing street vending laws and regulations (Horn, 2020). Since then, however, vendors have been increasingly booked for violations by both the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection and the police (Fung, 2022). This year, in Flushing, Queens, tensions between street vendors and brick-and-mortar businesses increased when Main Street filled with vendors, many of whom had lost their jobs in the pandemic (Chu, 2023).

Yet, the city government is trying to raise the minimum wage for delivery workers. Although the city council moved in this direction in 2021, in the face of strong opposition by all the delivery companies, the Adams administration has not yet proposed a wage level and payment structure that would be acceptable to all sides. The mayor’s most recent proposal, in March 2023, even lowered the minimum hourly wage being discussed, by 20 percent (Irizarry Aponte, 2023).

Meanwhile, investment is growing in new forms of urban agriculture, including agtech and vertical farming. These startups receive investments from private-sector venture capital, as well as assistance from the New York City Economic Development Corporation, a public organism. Focused on improving local supply chains, they are located in both city-owned labs and suburban industrial districts.

EL/VC: Has the situation returned to normal? Or do pandemic-era changes have the potential to become permanent?

SZ: The situation of living with high risk has been normalized and internalized. Indeed, the state and the city have eliminated nearly all the public health restrictions enacted in 2020. Yet, the path to economic recovery is not completely clear. Although restaurants, cafés, and bars are crowded, and new restaurants are opening every day, many storefronts are still vacant. Concentrations of lifestyle amenities like art galleries, boutiques, and cafés have developed, especially in some Brooklyn neighborhoods, where they represent both the potential “15-minute city” and the basis for gentrification. While the city maintains a voracious appetite for new food products and trends, rents are rising, wages are failing to keep pace, and food insecurity is a genuine problem (Office of the New York State Comptroller, 2023).

EL/V : Has the pandemic changed the relation between the “innovation complex” in the tech industry and the food industry? Your latest book, published in 2020 and entitled The Innovation complex, examines the imprint of the "Tech economy" on the city of New York. The investigation seeks to answer the following question: how has this new economy, supported since 2008 by New York City after the financial crisis, unfolded in concrete terms? Has it been disrupted by the pandemic, in terms of locations, workspaces and lifestyles? Has the pandemic changed the relation between the “innovation complex” in the tech industry and the food industry ?

SZ: My book The Innovation Complex (Zukin, 2020) was published in March 2020, just days before people began to understand that we were fighting a pandemic. Tech companies were the first businesses to close their offices and shift to remote working. Of course, in many ways, they were the best prepared to do so. In my interviews, I discovered that even small startups often distributed work geographically; the founders and marketing team would live and work in New York, while they hired engineers in Latin America or Eastern Europe. But, as you can see in the book, the tech community depended on face-to-face meetings to communicate new ideas and build trust, both of which are important when hiring skilled workers and raising investment capital. Hackathons, incubators, accelerators, and co-working spaces generated both a discourse and a practice of in-person interaction. Even venture capitalists insisted that their mentorship worked best if the startups they invested in were nearby. This remained a key element in their discourse even when their investments were dispersed around the U.S. and overseas.

Despite the continued predominance of remote working, tech companies and the businesses that cater to them have gradually returned to meeting in person, phasing out virtual conferences and virtual events like pitch days. Although tech events were never very formal, they have become even less formal, regardless of whether they take place in venture capital firms’ offices, public parks, or cafés. No one knows if Google’s new offices in Hudson Square, Lower Manhattan, will actually be filled with thousands of engineers as planned before the pandemic. Other tech companies, from Meta (formerly Facebook) to Twitter, have downsized their office space because they have reduced their work force. Fewer people in smaller offices means there is less business in restaurants and cafés, especially in the central business districts of Midtown and Wall Street. Nevertheless, Silicon Valley venture capital firms continue to open branch offices in New York, workspaces for biotech and cybersecurity are growing, and the number of advertisements for tech jobs remains high.

In any case, the tech firms are still concentrated in just a few areas of the city—Silicon Alley in Midtown South and Lower Manhattan; the Brooklyn Tech Triangle in downtown Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and DUMBO; Sunset Park on the mid-Brooklyn waterfront. Manhattan still has more than 70% of the city’s tech jobs, although tech employment in Brooklyn, in second place with 12%, is growing a faster rate (HR&A, The New York City Tech Ecosystem, <​portfolio/​nyc-tech-study>, October 2022). Opening more restaurants and personal services that correspond to the tastes of highly educated, culturally-forward tech and creative workers creates a 15-minute city for them. It also provides a material base for gentrification.

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1 For a timeline of 2020 in the city’s restaurant industry, see Warerkar, 2020.

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Sharon Zukin et Ivana Mellers, « The Covid-19 Pandemic in New York’s Food Sector: How Small Businesses, Restaurants, and Outdoor Markets Adapted »Métropoles [En ligne], 33 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2023, consulté le 20 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Sharon Zukin

Professor Emerita of Sociology and of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Brooklyn College and Graduate Center of the City University of New York

Ivana Mellers

Ph.D. candidate in sociology, Brooklyn College and Graduate Center of the City University of New York

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