Al fresco dining may be the key to the Big Apple’s post-quarantine restaurant scene, industry insiders say.
Social-distancing rules mean that restaurants could be forced to reopen with 50 percent fewer customers because diners will need to be seated at least six feet apart. While that could present big problems for eateries accustomed to packing tables together, it’s an opportunity for facilities big on space.
That’s why Aristotle “Telly” Hatzigeorgiou, owner of Clinton Hall food courts and beer gardens scattered across Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan, plans to move forward with his new 6,000-square-foot location at Empire Outlets in Staten Island this summer — once the city gives him permission to finish construction.
“Outdoor space will be really important,” Hatzigeorgiou says. In Staten Island, 4,000 square feet is al fresco.
Clinton Hall is doubling down on safety for its other venues, too, including branded masks, disposable or digital menus, hand-sanitizing stations and pulse oximeters, he says.
Restaurateurs who don’t have access to outdoor seating like Hatzigeorgiou are crossing their fingers that Mayor Bill de Blasio will help them out by keeping more streets closed to cars and allowing them to place tables on the sidewalk — or even in the street.
“It is critically important that restaurants have outdoor space to offset reductions inside,” says Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, and a member of the state’s advisory committee on how to reopen the dining trade.
“Restaurants bringing their tables and chairs into the streets would also bring back some energy and vitality to New York City, and that will be important as we return to a new normal.”
Columbus Avenue on the Upper West Side is a prime example of a restaurant-friendly street that could benefit from more outdoor seating, says industry consultant Donny Evans.
“Restaurants need every bit of help they can get,” Evans says. “The weather will get nicer. People will naturally want to sit outside. And people feel that the virus does not do well outdoors.”
“They should do it. It is a no-brainer,” he adds.
De Blasio last week said the idea of expanding outdoor seating is “an interesting promising possibility,” but made no promises.
Of course, restaurants can’t reopen until Gov. Andrew Cuomo gives the OK — and that will only happen if and when the state meets certain requirements, like having the death rate drop for 14 days in a row.
There are other barriers to reopening, including the hiring of waitstaff — many of whom will make more money on expanded unemployment benefits than serving fewer customers and taking home less in tips.
Despite the obstacles, restaurateurs have been entertaining the possibility of a relaunch, and they envision masked hostesses who will take customer’s names — as well as their temperatures. “Air kisses will be replaced by infrared thermometers pressed to your cheek or forehead,” Evans says.
Even the music will be different, insiders say. “Expect faster tempos, which will speed up meals for quicker turnaround,” says Aussie restaurateur Barry Dry, of two Hole in the Wall restaurants.
Top chef Daniel Boulud sees menus being designed on paper as souvenirs for customers to take home — or digitally accessible on cell phones.
Chef Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park sees everything becoming disposable — from cutlery to chair covers — and waiters dropping food off at wait stations instead of at tables to human limit contact.
“People will be so happy to get back out,” Humm says. “So many people are cooking at home now — I think some of them will be done with cooking at home when this is over.”
Meanwhile, reopening is a double-edged sword. If not enough people come, restaurants that reopen may be forced to close; even if demand is brisk, the economics will be tough.
“Outside, you can pick up more tables but it won’t change the financials,” Evans says. “The only thing that will make a change is when people will feel safe going to a restaurant — hopefully by next winter. I think it will take that long for all this to play out.”
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