Eating outside was certainly a step up from months of only takeout and delivery. But then again, such an arrangement was expected to be just temporary as part of the second phase of New York’s coronavirus pandemic reopening.
But with the third phase starting on schedule Monday, there was one element Gov. Andrew Cuomo decided to take away at the last moment — letting diners enjoy their meals inside restaurants. So that means anyone who wants to eat out, will have to literally eat outside.
Restaurants, however, have adapted, taking not only to sidewalks, but even to streets. And some even have gone to some lengths to protect patrons from not only the coronavirus, but also sun and rain.
And it’s hard to miss, like at Tibbett Diner in Kingsbridge. After a two-week shutdown at the peak of the pandemic, the popular Tibbett Avenue eatery offered deliveries and takeout during much of the stay-at-home orders. But the moment it could serve food on-site again, the diner erected large industrial tents in a lot next to the restaurant, making some wonder if a field hospital was being set up instead.
Customers have figured out that it’s indeed there for a great Tibbett Diner burger or omelette. Still, business at the restaurant is not like it used to be, owner Nick Diakakis said.
“It is nowhere near pre-pandemic levels of business,” he said. “But our community is really passionate about helping all of the small businesses.”
Outdoor dining at Tibbett consists of three tents in the parking lot, each with two tables on opposite ends of the tent. Each table is six feet apart for social distancing purposes. Customers wear masks until they are seated, and then only when their server visits the table.
“There is more than enough space for people to sit down and have comfort and privacy,” Diakakis said.
But there are other changes as well. Dishes and utensils are now single use, and paper menus are a relic of a pre-pandemic age. Instead, each tent has a billboard with the menu on it. Hand sanitizer is available for customers, and the bathrooms are cleaned multiple times a day.
With a hope that customers at some point can return to the restaurant itself, Diakakis has ordered high-efficiency particulate air filters — which Cuomo has promoted as a filter strong enough to curb the spread of SARS-CoV-2 indoors — and currently uses air purifiers. When the time comes to let diners back inside, Diakakis says he’ll use a Plexiglas-like material to separate tables.
“Each step forward we go is costing us more as a business,” Diakakis said. “We are trying to do the best that we can, but at the same time, it is taking a step backwards.”
Weather can take a toll on the dining experience, like it did this past Monday with thunderstorms that rolled through the city. Although the tents are completely covered, rainy weather has not encouraged customers to come out, Diakakis said. When it is too hot or humid, people just don’t want to sit in the heat.
“You have to have that Goldilocks zone of temperature where it’s not too humid and not too muggy,” Diakakis said. “Then people will show up.”
Bronx Burger House also has found weather to be a barrier when it comes to outdoor dining. Laura Pinedo, who manages the establishment on the corner of Mosholu Avenue and Broadway, said that even with umbrellas for rainy weather, most customers prefer the takeout option if the weather is not good. And since it’s summer, mosquitos have also been a nuisance for anyone still choosing to sit outside.
Pinedo’s outdoor setup includes six tables spaced six feet apart, as well as string lights hung to add a little ambience. The new menus are laminated and sanitized after each use so that the restaurant is following safety precautions, but also being environmentally smart.
Hand sanitizer is readily available for customers to use. Workers always wear masks, but customers don’t have to wear them while seated.
Outdoor dining is a step in the right direction, Pinedo said, but still doesn’t compare to business prior to the pandemic.
And for good reason.
“Our whole atmosphere is inside,” Pinedo said. “It is better than nothing, but it is still a very tough time for small businesses.”
Throughout the pandemic, Bronx Burger House offered delivery and takeout. They started using the third-party delivery app GrubHub — which takes a large commission — but Pinedo feels it still helps.
“Having Grubhub creates a new customer base that we’d never had before,” she said. “There are new customers who are now coming for outdoor dining who had their food through GrubHub.”
Even during hard times, Bronx Burger House worked to help the community during the pandemic, bringing a hundred meals to nurses, firefighters and police officers. While the intention was to give back to those on the front lines, Pinedo also believes it helped bring in some new customers as well.
In turn, the community has worked to help Bronx Burger House during a tough time for restaurants, Pinedo said. Customers have come in to buy food or gift certificates just to keep the doors open.
“The amount of support that we have received from the community is unbelievable,” Pinedo said. “The community loves the restaurant, the food, and the staff, and so they want to keep it going.”