Why NYC Restaurants Keep Investing in Outdoor Setups Despite the Return of Indoor Dining
Owners continue to pour thousands in streetside outdoor dining structures while the program’s future remains in fluxby Erika Adams May 18, 2021, 4:07pm EDT
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LastLast summer, Midtown brasserie Quality Bistro cobbled together a row of sun-shaded tables and chairs on the sidewalk along West 55th Street, called it an outdoor patio, and launched open-air dining for the first time. Come winter, sturdy, white tents were erected over the tables and chairs, chandeliers were hung, a checkerboard floor was laid over the sidewalk, some potted plants were added in the corners, and the outdoor patio transformed into a heated outdoor winter garden.
Now, in a third level-up that is “really bonkers,” as co-founder Michael Stillman puts it, the company installed a row of 14 private cabins covered in greenery in front of the restaurant, to add onto the tents, wooden benches and shaded tables for two lining the curb.
Stillman estimates that altogether, his restaurant group Quality Branded — which includes six other spots including casual steakhouse Quality Eats and Michelin-starred Italian restaurant Don Angie — has spent $300,000 to $400,000 on outdoor dining facilities at Quality Bistro. Altogether, the group has spent between $750,000 to $1 million on outdoor dining across the company.
New York City’s outdoor dining program has been a — yes — bonkers ride over the past twelve months. What started as a haphazard collection of tables and chairs set up in blocked-off parking spaces has evolved into a seemingly non-negotiable extension of running a restaurant in NYC. There are local construction companies dedicated to building outdoor dining shelters. New restaurants are baking outdoor dining setups into their startup costs. For those who can afford it, the constant upgrading of outdoor dining — still only a temporary allowance in the city — hasn’t showed any signs of slowing down as indoor capacity restrictions have loosened.
“It’s like the face of the restaurant now,” says Lisa Limb, co-owner of the West Village sushi spot Nami Nori.
Like Quality Bistro, Nami Nori started out with a couple of tables and chairs and increasingly built out its outdoor dining setup as the program stuck around. Last fall, the owners commissioned design firm Re-Ply to build a roadside structure using repurposed plywood sourced from businesses that boarded up their storefronts during citywide protests last summer. Limb couldn’t recall exactly how much Nami Nori paid for the installation but said that the structures generally cost tens of thousands of dollars, and Re-Ply “was one of the more affordable options” the restaurant looked into.
Restaurateurs say that most nights, they aren’t raking in a ton of extra revenue from outdoor dining but customers have come to expect the additional dining options. The sheds have become a billboard for the restaurants, as if to say, “We’re open, come dine with us.”
Quality Branded’s Stillman recognizes that spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on what started as an emergency program to keep restaurants afloat mid-pandemic has been “a huge investment,” but, in his view, a necessary one. The towering cabins covered in greenery that diners can spot from a block away are a significant marketing tool not just for Quality Bistro, but also as a sign of life in Midtown, and New York City’s recovery efforts overall.
“I think the more that restaurateurs and other people get really creative and spend money into this — you’re marketing New York City to a degree and I think that’s really important,” Stillman says. “That’s a big part of how we view like the outdoors for the summer.”
Tobias Holler, the co-owner of Black Forest in Brooklyn — a German bar and restaurant with two locations in Fort Greene and Boerum Hill — says that it cost between $40,000 to $50,000 altogether on Black Forest’s various outdoor dining structures.
Over the winter, the restaurants were outfitted with covered sheds at both locations, heated backyard outdoor dining at Boreum Hill, and enclosed greenhouses that the team bought off Amazon and set up as dining cabins at Fort Greene’s Fowler Square. As the weather warmed, the cabins at Fowler Square were replaced by picnic tables and sun-shading umbrellas. Cooling fans replaced the backyard heaters at the Boreum Hill spot, with more fans to come at the Fort Greene location.
“When [indoor capacity] was at 25 percent, nobody wanted to sit inside, even though it was freezing cold,” Holler says. “And then even when it went to 50 percent, it was still cold, and people still didn’t want to sit inside.” Interest in indoor dining has ramped up in the past several weeks, Holler says, but he expects outdoor dining to remain a popular option throughout the summer.
Others are just now jumping into the outdoor dining fray. In the East Village, neighborhood bar Lucky reopened after a winter hiatus and added an eye-catching, bright red outdoor dining structure with a cupola in mid-April, after going nearly a year without one at all. Similarly, Carlos Inácio, the owner of Brazilian restaurant Rice x Beans in Woodside, spent $20,000 on a roadside outdoor structure that was constructed in February.
Lucky owner Abby Ehmann says that while the bar has a backyard that it used last summer while indoor dining was banned, it seemed like people didn’t know that Lucky was open because the bar had no roadside structure.
“I felt like people were passing me by, if they didn’t know I had a backyard, because I didn’t have the structure out front,” Ehmann says. “And I didn’t look like I was in the game.”
A heated outdoor dining structure was out of the question due to buildout and electricity costs, and she thought that people wouldn’t be interested in drinking outside in the dead of winter. But when Mayor Bill de Blasio started saying that outdoor dining would become a permanent fixture in the city, she decided to invest $10,000 in a streetside setup this spring. It fits one table with eight to 10 seats, and she doesn’t expect to recoup the investment anytime soon, but it was still worth it as a marketing tool for Lucky.
It was only later that Ehmann found out that the current Open Restaurants legislation, enacted by the City Council last year, is set to expire in September. And while de Blasio has repeatedly underscored his support for the program — and the current legislation states that a permanent form of roadside outdoor dining must follow after the September expiration date — restaurateurs are still bracing for a range of potential changes to the program.
Many are skeptical that the program will remain as easy to access as it has been throughout the pandemic, with the Department of Transportation handing out no-fee permits left and right through a quick self-certification process. It’s a far cry from what the process used to be for certifying a restaurant for outdoor sidewalk dining before the pandemic. Ehmann recalled how, early last year, she was considering signing a lease on a corner spot on the Lower East Side. It cost $27,000 a year for a sidewalk dining permit at that location, she says.
Still, the program’s unclear future hasn’t stopped new restaurants from fully investing in outdoor dining setups as they open. In Prospect Lefferts Gardens, André Mack spent between $11,000 to $15,000 to construct a roadside seating structure for breakfast taco spot Mockingbird, which opened in mid-May. At Mack’s other PLG spot Ham Bar, the restaurant couldn’t build out outdoor dining because it was in front of a bus stop, and there wasn’t enough space in the dining room to comfortably allow indoor dining. The tiny spot has remained temporarily closed for over a year.
Even if outdoor dining is only allowed in its current form for the next few months, it’s a worthy investment — for those who can afford it. “What do you do? You just do it,” Mack says. “It’s $15,000 or my business folds. For a lot of people, that is an easy decision to make.”