Harlem Restaurateur Welcomes the Return of Indoor Seating, but isn’t sure if it will be enough

Chef Ejhadji Cisse stands in front of his restaurant, Ponty Bistro.

Located in Harlem, Ponty Bistro is the second restaurant that Chef Ejhadji Cisse opened after he moved to America from Dakar, Senegal, 24 years ago. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the upscale French African eatery has stayed afloat through takeout and, more recently, outdoor seating. Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently announced indoor dining can return to New York City.

What do you think of Cuomo’s announcement about allowing indoor dining at 25% capacity on Sept. 30th?

Opening is good news because we need to go back to normal, but I think personally, 25% is not going to cut it. A place like this, when we’re busy, we need three waiters on the floor, we need two bartenders and two runners. At 25%, all these people will lose their jobs. And we don’t know how long it’s going to last. But it’s better than nothing, because otherwise we’ll have to go back to take-out and delivery, and that doesn’t pay the bills. It’s New York City. It’s going to get cold.

So will you start allowing indoor dining? Is 25% worth it? 

I mean, it’s not worth it, but it’s something. We’re going to have it no matter what. I’m going to have maybe 10 people. But you still have to pay your full rent. You still have to pay your full Con Ed, no matter what. Busy or not busy, the Con Ed is running, the price doesn’t drop. Full cost.

What’s your biggest concern right now?

The biggest concern is losing whatever I’ve built for years. I came here almost 24 years ago with nothing, and I built my way up from dishwasher to cook to chef. And now, in my restaurants, I have over 40 people working for me, and I may lose this overnight, like this (snaps fingers) and that concerns me. That keeps me awake at night. Sometimes I don’t sleep, I say “Wow, what if I’ve worked for the last 20 years, and I lose it all in one day?” I mean we try. We work very hard to keep it, but we just don’t know. 

What I see lately is people leaving town. I see the trucks all over in Harlem, and it wasn’t like this. Of course, we have some good customers who are supporting. Some people don’t want to see you go. Some people, they love this. They love to have me here. They support, a lot. But it’s not enough. It’s not enough. 

Today it’s beautiful. It’ll be a very beautiful Friday night. We may be very busy. But yesterday it was raining all day. I didn’t even do $1,000. With the Con Ed on all day, with the waiters on the floor. That’s a problem right there. Even on my first day opening the place, I did more than $1,000.

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Rose Gilbert is a student at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, covering topics including Harlem and small businesses in New York City.
Before enrolling at Columbia, she was a senior news reporter at the Daily Princetonian, writing about migration policy, graduate student affairs and protests at Princeton University. Twitter: @rosegilbert99, Instagram: @roseamgilbert.

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