What Phase 2 Looks Like for NYC’s Restaurants
The city’s Open Restaurants plan is a gray area for local business owners.
If you were getting fed up with cooking at home or really missing a watered-down margarita from your favorite dive bar, fear not, New York City entered the second step of the city’s reopening plan on Monday. After more than three months of Coronavirus-induced lockdown, Phase 2 allows for a number of nonessential businesses to open, including hair salons, barber shops, office spaces, retail stores and, perhaps the most anticipated — outdoor service at restaurants and bars.
The reintroduction of outdoor dining brings a partial sigh of relief to New York restaurants, which took one of the hardest hits of any industry during the pandemic, losing at least $2 billion in sales across the state. From March to April alone, more than 80% of NYC’s restaurant industry had either been furloughed or laid off. But muddled government guidelines on new outdoor regulations means that for many businesses, reopening is not as easy as just unlocking the doors.
NYC’s Open Restaurants application and the regulations behind it have been somewhat murky for business owners. Under the Open Restaurants plan, businesses who qualify to open under Phase 2 can submit an application to request “permission to place outdoor seating in front of their establishment on the sidewalk and/or roadway.” The application is not needed to place extra outdoor seating on privately owned property.
Some restaurant owners were unsure if they needed to send an application to place new outdoor seating on sidewalks. Others had already been offering outdoor space for their customers, and the application will just affirm actions that had already been taken over the last few weeks.
“The state has been kind of shy in terms of sharing exactly what the guidelines are,” said Moshe Schulman, Managing Partner at beloved East Village spots Ruffian and Kindred. “I think most restaurants have kind of taken into their own hands to put tables or seats out in a responsible way.”
NYC’s Open Streets plan allows businesses on streets already closed to traffic to establish dining spaces in roadways and on sidewalks, so long as they adhere to social distancing rules and do not block fire hydrants. However, businesses located on streets that are open to traffic do not qualify.
The hospitality team behind Ruffian and Kindred has petitioned their local community board to close down Sixth and Seventh Street to give businesses on those streets a chance at expanded open-air dining space.
“If we can get that closed to traffic, we would then be able to put tables out on the street,” Schulman said. “And that would help us leverage our exposure and hopefully get more people who are walking by to feel comfortable to come in and grab a glass of wine.”
It’s clear that family-owned restaurants and small businesses are eager to get back to a more conventional business model. During the height of the pandemic, some establishments operated with re-imagined purposes while others closed their kitchens to the public and made meals for essential healthcare workers. Even more restaurants pivoted strictly to takeout and delivery.
Cafe on Ralph owner, Donna Drakes, said that transitioning her restaurant to an online grocery store “was like opening a new business all over again.” Drakes’ pivot to an online, delivery-based grocery store helped the cafe continue to support their regular inventory vendors while still generating income. She plans to continue the online grocery shop to help more people in the community, namely those that are relying on food stamps and government assistance, even though outdoor dining is opening up.
“I know a lot of people that aren’t working and may be on food stamps,” she said. “I have applied to be a vendor to be able to provide to those people.”
Drakes is now putting her energy into creating an uplifting outdoor space for diners in Bed-Stuy. “Now that we’re about to reopen in Phase 2,” she said, “I ordered a whole bunch of umbrellas and chairs to allow people to still have that ambiance that they would have had if we were to be able to sit inside.”.
Drakes is not alone in her quest to draw customers to a newly furnished al fresco dining space. Ty Brown, owner of Crown Heights’ The Bergen, is reimagining the fast casual restaurant as an outdoor cultural hub for Phase 2. He plans on introducing an outdoor stage with live music and themed nights, all while maintaining social distancing.
The Bergen has been something of an oddity during the pandemic, reaching record revenue since it opened in January. Brown attributes the boom in business to good karma from his efforts to feed local children who were out of school for free. “The results of taking care of the community meant that the community became brand ambassadors for The Bergen,” he said, citing the word-of-mouth marketing that occurred after the free meal program was launched.
The Bergen transitioned to takeout and delivery in March while teaming up with Brooklyn United to provide over 5,000 free meals to date, according to Brown. The program, which relied on community donations, will end on June 30, while The Bergen prepares to expand their curbside dining into a community space with live entertainment on Fridays and Saturdays.
Brown said that restaurants have a responsibility to take care of the community in the same way customers take care of local businesses by supporting them. Brown is hopeful that Phase 2 will contribute to communities getting back to their normal state of affairs.
“We’re all just trying to return to a sense of normalcy,” he said. “And I believe restaurants provide a sense of normalcy.”