Outdoor dining is helping restaurants stay alive. It also comes with a lot of challenges.

Kristin Schwab Aug 24, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace
New Yorkers dine outdoors in the East Village in July. Outdoor dining has become a lifeline for struggling restaurants, but it can cost them, too. Jeenah Moon/Getty Images

Outdoor dining is helping restaurants stay alive. It also comes with a lot of challenges.

Kristin Schwab Aug 24, 2020
New Yorkers dine outdoors in the East Village in July. Outdoor dining has become a lifeline for struggling restaurants, but it can cost them, too. Jeenah Moon/Getty Images

Walk down Franklin Avenue in Brooklyn, New York, at night and in some ways the new normal doesn’t look quite so bad. Franklin is like one big socially distanced, outdoor dining party, with tables spilling onto the sidewalk and into the street. The sounds and smells of different restaurants bleed together. There’s Mexican, Caribbean and Ethiopian. 

Chris Kalamchi and Lincoln Wheeler came to Ras Plant Based Ethiopian for dinner last week to celebrate with a friend who just got a pandemic puppy. After four months of not being able to eat out, Kalamchi said street dining feels good.

“It definitely felt a little bizarre the first time. But now it sorta just feels normal,” he said, as he and his friends waited for their order of tibs, avocado salad, sambusa and other vegan Ethiopian dishes. “Like walking around and seeing everyone outside eating feels like a very European vibe that I think is pretty refreshing for New York.”

Romeo Regalli spent $5,000 on his parallel parking spot patio. (Kristin Schwab/Marketplace)

Outdoor dining has been crucial in keeping some restaurants afloat this summer, because in some places it’s the only option aside from takeout. That’s been a big pivot for business owners, especially in big cities like New York, where rent is high and outdoor space is limited or non-existent. To help create outdoor space, New York City launched Open Restaurants, which lets restaurants expand onto sidewalks and into streets. Nearly 10,000 restaurants have applied for permits under the program, which expires at the end of October.

But for restaurant owners, dining outside can be a big expense. Romeo Regalli owns Ras Plant Based Ethiopian with his wife Milka. They ended up sinking $5,000 into their outdoor space. And it’s tiny: just six tables in a parallel parking spot on the street, with a few more on the sidewalk.

“The day that they announced that outdoor dining was allowed I went online and I applied,” he said. “You got approved right away and then I just ran to Home Depot.”

For Regalli, it would be the first of many trips. That one was for plants, to help diners forget they’re eating just inches away from honking cars and idling delivery trucks. Then there was the trip for cinder blocks to keep those cars and trucks where they belong. Then there was another trip for wood fencing. The city inspected Regalli’s parking-spot patio three times, and each time he had to shut it down and make adjustments.

“It feels like the rules are always changing. It’s just every day there’s something new,” said Regalli. “I’m tired of Home Depot. It’s just a lot.”

With takeout as the only other option, every square foot counts. And for many restaurant owners that’s a lot about luck. A narrow storefront means a narrow patio. Fire hydrants, bus stops and subway grates also eat into usable space.

Oxalis refashioned a vacant parking lot behind its building. (Kristin Schwab/Marketplace)

A few blocks from Regalli’s restaurant is Oxalis, a French-American restaurant with a Michelin star. Before the pandemic, Oxalis was known for its $70, six-course meal. But it doesn’t make sense now. “Six courses, servers at the table talking with the guests, clearing the plates that had been eaten on six times a guest seemed like a lot of contact,” said Steve Wong, director of operations.

Also, Oxalis’ patio, which is behind the restaurant in a formerly vacant lot, is pretty far from the kitchen, and there are steps and uneven pavement along the way. With a walk that long, food gets cold or doesn’t stay cold. To compensate, the raw yellow-fin tuna, for instance, now comes with the tomato dashi water —a concoction of tomatoes infused with kombu and bonito — on the side, in a bottle on ice.

“Guests pour the tomato water onto the fish and it keeps the dish cool while they eat it, ” Wong said.

Properly chilled tomato water isn’t his only challenge. The dining area, which was glammed up with some twinkly lights and white fencing, is still an outdoor space, in an often hot and humid city, where uninvited guests are a constant problem.

“You know everything from the heat to pests. You know mosquitoes around. Bug spray and fine dining do not go together,” he said.

Maybe not, but customers don’t seem to mind. And for now, Wong says, outdoor dining is helping the business break even.

Or at least it can help on a good day. Because even after you control the food and the space and the bugs, there’s one thing you can’t control. Rain.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Are states ready to roll out COVID-19 vaccines?

Claire Hannan, executive director of the nonprofit Association of Immunization Managers, which represents state health officials, said states have been making good progress in their preparations. And we could have several vaccines pretty soon. But states still need more funding, she said. Hannan doesn’t think a lack of additional funding would hold up distribution initially, but it could cause problems down the road. “It’s really worrisome that Congress may not pass funding or that there’s information circulating saying that states don’t need additional funding,” she said.

How is the service industry dealing with the return of coronavirus restrictions?

Without another round of something like the Paycheck Protection Program, which kept a lot of businesses afloat during the pandemic’s early stages, the outlook is bleak for places like restaurants. Some in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, only got one week of indoor dining back before cases rose and restrictions went back into effect. Restaurant owners are revamping their business models in an effort to survive while waiting to see if they’ll be able to get more aid.

How are hospitals handling the nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases?

As the pandemic surges and more medical professionals themselves are coming down with COVID, nearly 1 in 5 hospitals in the country report having a critical shortage of staff, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. One of the knock-on effects of staff shortages is that people who have other medical needs are being asked to wait.

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