Restaurant operators are, by nature, among the scrappiest entrepreneurs on the planet. While navigating an ever-changing, near-daily cycle of guidance (or, at times, lack thereof) over the last 15 months, restaurateurs have been in overdrive, optimizing their take-out and delivery strategies. And, as diners grew weary of surfing their sofas, their appetite for COVID-safe outdoor dining increased. Hospitality pros quickly rose to the challenge — even if they had never offered al fresco service.
Il Gattopardo, New York, New York
Although restaurateurs are used to wearing many hats, construction workers and engineering experts aren’t typically among them. However, as soon as their local guidelines allowed, virtually any restaurant with even a sliver of potential outdoor space began offering outdoor seating, sometimes in rudimentary makeshift structures. As time wore on, the structures became more elaborate and elegant. And both operators and patrons want to extend the magic.
“Outdoor dining was critically important throughout the pandemic and it has become an essential part of business operations and the New York City streetscape. It’s loved by people, and it may help transform the city streetscape as the Open Restaurants dining program is going to become permanent,” says Andrew Rigie, Executive Director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance. A membership-based, non-profit association that is advocating for, representing, and supporting the restaurant and nightlife industry in the five boroughs of New York City, the organization has been fighting to help operators survive and thrive before, during, and after the pandemic.
Founding Farmers, Washington, D.C.
Dan Simons, co-owner of the Farmers Restaurant Group, whose properties include the very successful Founding Farmers restaurants in Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, quickly expanded — and added — outdoor accommodations. “We added al fresco options where we didn’t have any at first, just putting out tables and chairs at our Pennsylvania Avenue location. And then we spent $90,000 to build what we call dining stalls. We also used igloos all winter, and that might come back next winter as it’s a fun, cool experience,” he says.
Similarly, at Piccolo Restaurant, in Huntington, New York, owner Dean Philippis hadn’t ever offered al fresco dining, but “the minute we were allowed to go outdoors,” he and his team quickly converted the space behind the restaurant into an outdoor oasis under a tent, with propane heaters, a sound system, lights, and other accouterments. His loyal regulars, who make up an impressive swath of his patrons, showed up in droves. “That got us through the winter,” Philippis says. And the demand remains, even as restrictions lift. “On a nice spring night? Are you kidding me? Diners love it!”
Gianfranco Sorrentino was able to open his restaurants at limited indoor capacity, Il Gattopardo and The Leopard at des Artistes, both in midtown Manhattan, in mid-August, and several weeks later he began creating a bespoke outdoor dining experience at each spot. “We got the help of an architect who had worked on big trade shows in Vegas and New York to do a big installation of patio seating areas for us, and my wife, who is an interior diner, helped as well,” he says.
Diners flocked to both locations — even in the frigid winter months. “We were open in the cold and that was a learning curve. Serving outdoors in June, July, August is different than January, February, and March,” he notes. Sorrentino and his staff adjusted the menu during the winter to make sure hot food would be served hot, heaters were installed, and the wait staff was outfitted with warm vests, gloves, and scarves. He also staggered the staff so that they would only work outdoors two hours at a time. Now, the warm weather brings other challenges. “We put in fans, although I’m sure some customers wish we had air conditioning. But we still want people to feel like they are eating outdoors!”
The Leopard, New York, New York
Restaurant patrons should expect outdoor dining operations to get even better. “What you see happening on the streets and sidewalk now was built out of a crisis. The vast majority of restaurants had little to no money to erect these outdoor set-ups,” notes Rigie. Now, “They’re becoming an extension of a restaurant’s brand and operators have gotten very creative. They’re beautifying the streets with flowers and plants, paintings, and lighting,” he says. Once the Open Restaurants program becomes permanent, he believes that “restaurateurs will be even more confident in investing money long term to ensure their outdoor dining set up is beautiful and sustainable.”
Owners are excited at the prospect of outdoor dining becoming a permanent part of their service. “Being able to increase your seating options increases your revenue,” says Philippis. And that is clearly welcome after what arguably has been the most challenging time to be in the hospitality business. “I’ll do it as long as the powers that be let me,” he says. Sorrentino concurs. “We would love to keep outdoor dining all year long. When you look around at all the restaurants doing it, you feel like you’re in Madrid, Paris, or Roma! Outdoor dining is becoming a landmark in New York and is creating a new landscape for the city,” he states.
Whether or not Simons can continue to offer year-round outdoor dining at all his establishments remains to be seen. “We have no idea if the city or the landlord will allow us to keep certain things going, but I love the expanded street, the expanded sidewalks. I think it adds to the vibrancy of the cities and communities and creates more earning opportunities and more dining opportunities.” And, he adds, “ I think people love dining outside, and people love it when it feels like you’re creating a unique experience for them. And our outdoor stalls really give them that.”
All imagery courtesy of the featured restaurants.
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