This summer, as COVID-19 regulations enforced limits on indoor seating, major cities took a cue from Europe and opened their sidewalks and streets to outdoor dining. Several cities like New York even shut down some streets completely to make room for restaurants to serve their customers while safely distanced outside.
But the warm weather solution for the still-struggling restaurant industry couldn’t last forever.
As autumn and winter approach, restaurants are working fast to think of ways to keep their diners outside, from building elaborate structures like pergolas and igloos, to buying heat lamps and loading their menus up with hot and hearty meals.
Many fear even weather-proofing in advance won’t solve the ongoing financial struggles caused by the pandemic.
“It feels like we were lulled into a false of security of balmy summer nights and European-style dining in the city,” Colorado restaurateur Bobby Stuckey said. “But at the end of the day, this won’t be an option four weeks from now.”
Stuckey owns four restaurants in Colorado: fine-dining Italian restaurants Tavernetta in Denver and Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, Neapolitan pizzeria Pizzeria Locale in Boulder, and vinyl music-themed wine bar Sunday Vinyl in Denver. Although Colorado restaurants were able to reopen indoor dining at 50% capacity in May, Stuckey waited until mid-June. They also added outdoor seating at each of their restaurants when summer hit.
As Colorado quickly heads into its cooler months, Stuckey said that tents won’t solve their problems because having an enclosed, heated tent would be just as unsafe for guests as dining indoors.
“We thought we would put a bunch of heaters outside and see if that gets us a couple of more weeks out of the outdoor dining season,” Stuckey said. “But when it’s 20 degrees out and snowing, no one is going to want to eat outside […] If another guest tells me, ‘I would sit out there in my ski jacket if you add a heater,’ but what if it’s snowing? And you can’t [safely] have an enclosed tent and a heater; it’s one or the other.”
Stuckey added that, “if we make no mistakes and are laser focused,” he thinks his restaurants have a 50/50 chance of surviving the winter.
The clock is ticking
And he is not the only business owner thinking this way. Mark Fox — founder and owner of Fox Hospitality Group, which includes cocktail bar White Oak Tavern, American restaurant and cocktail bar The Ragtrader (with cocktail and piano bar Bo Peep in the basement) and corner bar/taqueria Street Taco in New York City — has been relying on New York City Mayor de Blasio’s outdoor dining plan for restaurants this summer.
Even with street dining, Fox is pulling in only around 19%-21% of his 2019 revenues because his restaurants can seat only a fraction of guests outdoors, compared with the large amount of indoor seating. The group’s dining rooms have remained empty since March.
“The whole idea of us getting the PPP loan was that we would resume indoor dining on July 7 and build on cash reserves until then, but now the money is gone and the weather is going to change,” Fox said. “Our sales are still down 81% even though our tables are full every night, so it’s not like we’re not selling.”
At press time, Fox’s PPP funding was set to run out in mid-September. Despite the financial anxieties over the past few months, all three Fox Lifestyle Hospitality Group venues have been coming up with creative event ideas for outdoor dining customers, from bringing Bo Peep’s live music upstairs (“We call it Bo Peep on the Street,” he said), to doing pop-up events for Street Taco and White Oak Tavern, like a barbecue night sponsored by Jim Beam.
“I am seeing this as an opportunity to step outside of our normal business operations and do fun things that people will remember,” Fox said.
As his business enters the fall months, Fox said they will put in a lot of effort to creating a comfortable outdoor dining space: providing blankets, table heaters and tents with flaps (so they’re not fully enclosed). They will also pay homage to the changing seasons by decorating the outdoor tents with pumpkins and other fall accents to entice customers to brave the chilly weather for a handcrafted cocktail and some bar bites.
But the clock is ticking as New York City’s outdoor dining permits expire on Oct. 31. Despite the recent win for New York City restaurants — that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo will reopen indoor dining at 25% capacity on Sept. 30 — Fox and other restaurant owners are planning to march on City Hall on Sept. 14 to demand a relief bill including funding to help restaurants survive until Nov. 1, when the decision to bump capacity up to 50% will be made.
“We’re grateful they’ve heard us and will be opening up indoor dining, but it’s too little, too late,” he said. “We run single digit profits when we're at 100% occupancy; 25% occupancy is just not enough. It is not enough to keep restaurants afloat without further funding, particularly as outdoor dining numbers may decrease as the weather changes). […] There is no way I can come close to breaking even in October, and if we don’t get funding, that's going to mean layoffs and closures."
Although government funding and local restrictions on indoor dining capacity are out of operators’ hands, they can control their operational strategies.
Joe Ragonese, director of operations at New York City’s Kyma Restaurants — which owns Greek restaurants, Kyma Flatiron and Elea in Manhattan, and a second Kyma in Roslyn, New York — is focusing entirely on enhanced customer experience as the weather cools down.
Kyma Restaurants had to shut down all of their restaurants completely and lay off 320 employees in March. They made the decision to wait to reopen their restaurants until August, and now offer both takeout/delivery for the first time, as well as outdoor dining options.
Kyma Flatiron is in the middle of a commercial neighborhood, so Ragonese was worried about the lack of foot traffic from a sparse commuter crowd. But so far, he said, the restaurants reopening have “had a great response,” and they are already thinking ahead to the colder months.
“We got a little dumb luck because we have construction scaffolding in front of our restaurant which blocks the wind and we also built a 50-foot pergola in front of Kyma that’s enclosed on top and in the back for some weather-proofing,” he said, adding that they will also be putting in electric heaters to make guests feel even more comfortable.
At the end of September, Ragonese said that their executive chef George Pagonis will be creating a menu with heartier options and will “Greekify” warm comfort foods like chicken soup and mashed potatoes. He said that as their outdoor dining garden changes to a “wintery type of feel” with fall décor like foliage and florals, they will also add hot cocktails to the menu to make guests feel as comfortable as possible.
The recent decision to reopen indoor dining in New York City will also help, Ragonese said.
“We’re prepared and excited to welcome back indoor diners and will eagerly be awaiting news about additional capacity,” he said. “Our restaurant is over two floors so as additional capacity opens up, we’ll potentially be able to leverage both and get back to pre-COVID levels.”
Igloos and fireplaces
Enhanced customer experience is at the heart of Illinois-based, hotel dining-focused First Hospitality’s strategy as well.
The eight-unit restaurant group — with locations in Illinois, Ohio, and Kentucky, including 8Up Elevated Drinkery and Kitchen in Louisville and Brim House contemporary American restaurant in Toledo — has been trying out outdoor dining and limited indoor dining since May (when Ohio and Kentucky began reopening dining rooms with restrictions) and June (when Illinois began reopening dining rooms with restrictions).
They plan to use their spacious outdoor terrace space at 8Up, for example, to create a winter wonderland experience for all types of weather using plastic domes or igloos to separate guests. 8Up has a leg up with planning because they introduced the themed igloos in winter 2019 as part of their plan to make their rooftop bar viable all year long. This year, however, the igloos will be a vital part of the company’s social distancing plan.
“We’re thinking fireplaces, igloo rentals for private parties, electric heaters and adding greenery and wind blockers,” Danny Py, vice president of food and beverage at First Hospitality said. “We’ll be able to accommodate all dining needs.”
He added that they too will be adding hearty soups and stews to their menus — “slow cooker-type dishes” that are sustainable and warming.
“We’ll absolutely have to be more fiscally responsible in the months ahead,” Py said.
Contact Joanna Fantozzi at [email protected]