As outdoor dining ends, restaurants brace for an uncertain future | Local

Shaniqua Juliano

Summer is officially over, and with temperatures beginning to drop, restaurant owners are bracing for the unknown.

With indoor dining limited to just 50% of normal capacity because of the coronavirus pandemic, many restaurateurs have come to rely on seating their guests outdoors as a way of increasing the number of diners they can serve without butting up against state mandates.

Restaurant parking lots lined with tables spaced 6 feet apart have become a common site this summer. Some establishments even put up large tents to better protect diners from the elements in order to boost business.

Talk of the Town

At Talk of the Town, a pizzeria and restaurant in Glens Falls, owner Paul Bricoccoli said outdoor dining has prevented his staff from turning customers away this summer. State mandates require restaurants to operate at just 50% capacity. With colder weather setting in, Bricoccoli said he has concerns about the months ahead. 

At Talk of the Town, a restaurant and pizzeria in Glens Falls, owner Paul Bricoccoli did just that.

About 15 tables are spread out under a large, white tent in the establishment’s parking lot, though configuration changes depend on the size of each party. Restaurants are prohibited from serving parties of more than 10 due to state mandates.

Bricoccoli, who also owns the Bullpen Tavern downtown, set up the tent when Capital Region restaurants were given the green light to begin outdoor dining back in June.

He said early on the additional tables helped save his business.

“At one point, it was a lifesaver,” Bricoccoli said.

But with shorter days and colder nights moving in, restaurant owners like Bricoccoli are preparing for a winter of limited capacity, which will likely result in less revenue. Some establishments are even preparing to close if business drops off.

A push to increase indoor-dining capacity to 75% to help struggling restaurant owners make it through the winter months has been made in recent weeks, though it remains unclear if Gov. Andrew Cuomo has any plans to do so.

A spokesman for the governor said the state has taken steps to help struggling restaurants since the onset of the pandemic in March, but added the state is still trying to avoid a potential second wave.

“We understand the difficulties facing restaurants, which is why we’re protecting commercial establishments from eviction, allowing bars to sell cocktails via takeout and delivery, and cutting red tape so restaurants can easily expand outdoor dining,” Jason Conwall, the Cuomo spokesman, said in an email.

“We’ve achieved record-low infection rates thanks to a data-driven reopening strategy and will continue working with our partners in the restaurant industry moving forward — but remember: this pandemic isn’t over and everyone is trying to avoid a potential second wave that would force businesses to close down again.”

With seating inside his restaurant limited to just 20 tables, Bricoccoli said the extra space outside kept him from having to turn away customers, which resulted in additional revenue and more tips for his employees. Some guests, he added, preferred eating outside over concerns about the pandemic, while others simply wanted to enjoy the nice weather.

“Through the summer, if it was a nice night, we’d have 10 to 12 tables out there,” he said. “It was great.”

But Bricoccoli plans to take the tent down in the next week, citing the cooler temperatures. He considered purchasing outdoor heaters to extend the outdoor season, but decided not to because it would only be delaying the inevitable.

The tent will be replaced by a storage container that will house the excess tables and chairs.

“I got nowhere else to put them,” Bricoccoli said.

Talk of the Town

At Talk of the Town, a pizzeria and restaurant in Glens Falls, owner Paul Bricoccoli set up a large tent in the establishment’s parking lot to seat customers when outdoor dining began in July. The 15 tables under the tent have nearly doubled the restaurant’s occupancy, which has operated at a 50% capacity limit because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Restaurants hit hard

Outdoor dining has been a big boost for restaurants hit hard by the pandemic this summer, said Michael Bittel, the executive director of the Adirondack Regional Chamber of Commerce.

“The outdoor dining has been make or break for our total restaurant community in this area,” he said. “If it wasn’t for outdoor dining, so many of our restaurants would not be opened today.”

Bittel said the state must increase indoor-dining capacity to 75% if restaurants are going to survive. Anything less, he said, would be a catastrophe for local restaurants.

“To survive through the winter, this has to go to 75%,” he said.

Restaurants have been hit hard by the pandemic.

A sign in the window of New Way Lunch’s Glens Falls restaurant scared people into thinking it was closing for good. But the owners say they are simply in a “wait and see” mode during the pandemic.

Beginning in March, establishments throughout New York were reduced to just carryout and delivery orders for more than two months as the state sought to contain the virus’ spread. The revenue helped some, but many restaurant owners were forced to lay off staff or close their establishments — some permanently.

Many reported massive revenue losses due to the pandemic, which in some cases exceeded 50%.

Months later, many restaurants in the state are still facing dire circumstances, according to a new survey released this month by the state’s Restaurant Association.

Nearly two-thirds of restaurants in the state reported that they are likely to close by the end of the year, according to the survey of more than 1,000 restaurants statewide. The Restaurant Association has been lobbying the federal government to provide restaurants with financial assistance in order to help them weather the storm.

“It is painfully clear that without financial assistance, the restaurant industry in New York state could collapse,” Melissa Fleischut, the president and CEO of the state’s Restaurant Association, said in a statement.

Downtown dining

Dining patrons eat outside at Davidson Brothers Brewing Co. in downtown Glens Falls on Wednesday afternoon. “Our outdoor dining area has been very busy, but I think things are going to change significantly as it gets colder and we start to go indoors,” said Rick Davidson, who co-owns the brewery with his brother John.

Jackson Gerker

A loss of attractions

At Davidson Brothers Brewing Co., a popular spot located near Centennial Circle in downtown Glens Falls, business has been steady, but the restaurant is reeling from the loss of major downtown events, said Rick Davidson, who co-owns the brewery with his brother John.

Cool Insuring Arena, which typically hosts dozens of events throughout the year that bring thousands into the downtown area, has been closed since mid-March, and popular events like the Adirondack Film Festival were forced to cancel their in-person events because of the pandemic.

“All of those attractions that all shut down took a huge amount of volume out of downtown,” Davidson said.

The restaurant’s revenue, he said, is “roughly 50%” of what it was last year.

Outdoor dining, he said, was the difference between opening the restaurant and remaining closed. Many customers, Davidson added, are still wary about eating inside.

But with colder temperatures beginning to set in, Davidson said he is paying close attention to the restaurant’s finances. It’s likely outdoor dining will end sometime in the coming weeks, he said, and if the number of customers drops off, Davidson would consider closing on a temporary basis.

“If we have enough business, we’ll stay open. But if it gets to the point where it doesn’t make sense, then you’ll have to look at it and close,” he said.

Weather will likely factor into any decision about whether the business remains open.

“Our outdoor dining area has been very busy, but I think things are going to change significantly as it gets colder and we start to go indoors,” Davidson said.

Downtown dining

Dining patrons eat outside Mikado in downtown Glens Falls on Wednesday afternoon.

Jackson Gerker

Adapting to change

Meanwhile, at Morgan & Co. on Ridge Street, there are no plans to close, said Rebecca Newell Butters, who owns the establishment with her husband John.

Instead, the restaurant has been offering specials targeting new customers and has worked to expand it takeout and delivery service by partnering with Grubhub and other meal delivery programs.

“Our takeout is really strong,” Butters said.

Bittel, from the Adirondack Chamber of Commerce, said restaurants are continuing to expand carryout services, but noted for many, takeout and delivery make up only a fraction of the revenue compared to dine-in services.

“The takeout, certainly with every restaurant owner I’ve spoken with, is a big portion of the budgeting planning going forward,” he said.

Bricoccoli, meanwhile, said he’s noticed an uptick in his takeout service throughout the pandemic as well, but not nearly what he would have done under normal circumstances.

“Our takeout business did carry us, but it wasn’t anywhere near what we did,” he said.

Business, Bricoccoli noted, has been spread out throughout the week, which has helped drive revenue.

Still, profits are down from last year, and the upcoming cold and flu season has Bricoccoli fearing another shutdown. He’s hoping the community will rally around local restaurants to help them get through the winter months.

“The fear of the unknown is for sure out there,” he said.

“Our outdoor dining area has been very busy, but I think things are going to change significantly as it gets colder and we start to go indoors.” Rick Davidson, co-owner of Davidson Brothers Brewing Co.

Chad Arnold is a reporter for The Post-Star covering the city of Glens Falls and the town and village of Lake George. Follow him on Twitter @ChadGArnold.

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