Restaurants without outdoor seating quickly improvise
Two weeks ago, when Lynn and Tom “Zack” Tsagarakis, the owners of Zack’s Bar and Grille in Stonington, heard Gov. Ned Lamont had decided to allow restaurants to partially reopen with outdoor dining starting Wednesday, they sprang into action, converting their personal patio next to the restaurant to serve customers.
The couple, who live upstairs from the restaurant, had closed their popular eatery March 13 and reluctantly laid off their veteran staff of eight. Over the past two weeks they have prepared the patio for dining, installing new fencing, gates and lighting, developing seating charts to ensure social distancing, printing paper menus and finding enough hand sanitizer, gloves and masks. They’ve also brought back staff after obtaining a Paycheck Protection Program loan.
The state is allowing outside dining as of Wednesday, as Lamont phases in the reopening of some nonessential businesses that were shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic. But what do restaurants do if they don't have seating outdoors? From Mystic to New London to Norwich, it means placing tables on side streets, parking lots, sidewalks, courtyards and in on-street parking spaces.
That means working with health and municipal officials to get quick approvals. In Stonington Borough, for example, the Board of Warden and Burgesses is scheduled to vote Monday on applications from two restaurants, Water Street Cafe and Noah's, to place tables on sidewalks next to their restaurants. A plan to possibly use a portion of Water Street itself for dining could be considered in the near future, according to Warden Jeff Callahan.
Restaurant owners also have anxiously awaited Lamont's COVID-19 executive orders to get more guidance on issues such as liquor permits, local zoning approvals and seating capacity. Still, they worry about factors such as bad weather, if customers will feel comfortable sitting 6 feet apart and if they can make ends meet with just 50% of their indoor capacity.
Zack’s has seating for 64 inside so there will be 32 seats outside.
“It’s really a crap shoot right now. I hope to God it works out,” said Zack, who has opened five restaurants in his career and is nearing retirement.
Lynn, though, is excited about Wednesday. “Its kind of like you’re opening a new restaurant,” she said. “And I just want to see our customers. We miss everyone.”
The couple originally had planned to put tables in their parking lot that borders the Amtrak rail line but then came up with the idea to use their sideyard patio, which people can partially see as they walk over the viaduct into the borough.
“So now we have courtyard dining,” Lynn said.
They’ve also got some help with the reopening. Jon Kodama, who owns Breakwater in the borough and is a longtime friend, is letting them use some of the tables from his outdoor deck. A neighbor has offered to handle flowers and planting to spruce up the patio and a local quilter has offered to turn some of the blue and white pinstripe shirts the staff members wear into matching masks.
The restaurant will be taking reservations so waiting customers do not congregate, and servers will use two separate gates to prevent any crossover. It will offer its regular menu.
“The question is ‘How safe do people feel and how safe can we make them feel?’” Zack said, “The question with our older customers is ‘Do they feel at risk and will they come out?’”
Lynn, meanwhile, is concerned that on days with questionable weather, they will have to decide early whether to open, since staff members arrive in the morning to prep food. And if the restaurant closes but the weather turns out to be good, that's a lost day of revenue.
They agree that without the Paycheck Protection Program, it would not have made financial sense to operate with 50% capacity.
Still, there’s uncertainty.
“The concern I have is if we get a second wave (of the virus), there will be some real issues,” Zack said.
Mike Buscetto, the owner of Filomena's restaurant in Waterford, which has outdoor seating, said there's going to be "some career changes" for some restaurant owners.
"There are just some spaces that cannot meet the guidelines set by the government," he said. "There's going to be some tough choices made by people who are entrepreneurs — some will continue on and others will say, 'I've got to do something else to feed my family,' and I feel for them."
Billy Wilson’s and La Stella’s Pizzeria - Norwich
On Thursday, Norwich Public Works Director Patrick McLaughlin carried a tape measure, yellow chalk, a can of white spray paint and a clipboard with diagrams to two downtown streets as he laid out plans for on-street dining outside Billy Wilson’s Ageing Still on lower Broadway and La Stella’s Pizzeria at the corner of Market and Main streets.
With no outdoor dining space of their own and the sidewalks too narrow to ensure proper social distancing, the two restaurants had asked the city to help set up outdoor dining.
“Listen, we’re going to go with it,” La Stella’s owner Justin Burrows said. “It could be something that catches on.”
In Norwich, other restaurants are setting up dining in their own parking lots or part of a municipal lot, such as These Guys Brewing, which has received city permission in the past to hold outdoor events there.
Outside Billy Wilson’s, the city will close off the left travel lane and several parking spots from Union Square to the entrance of the Wauregan Apartments parking garage to accommodate several picnic tables, concrete barriers to protect diners and a few orange barrels with flashing lights to alert drivers to the new arrangement.
McLaughlin added the warning barrels as more than one car whizzed past him on what is supposed to be a 25-mph stretch of city street.
The on-street dining plan on the narrow, one-way portion of Main Street on the north side of La Stella’s building was a bit more complicated. On-street parking will be closed on both sides of the street to allow for a 15-foot-wide travel lane, dining tables, barriers, and a lighted warning barrel. Picnic tables, barriers and barrels will be provided by the city and tents loaned by the Global City Norwich program and the Greater Norwich Area Chamber of Commerce.
Burrows said he was unsure about trying outdoor dining at first, as he said LaStella’s has been doing “a killing takeout business” of late.
Last Friday, takeout customers lined up inside and outside the restaurant as crews scrambled to fill orders as quickly as possible.
He is still working out the details of the outdoor dining, such as what hours to be open.
“I still want to do it for lunch, even though the courthouse is not open,” he said, referring to Norwich Superior Court a block away.
Mr. G's, Green Room, Dev's on State - New London
In New London, the city already has a permitting process in place for sidewalk and on-street dining, and is looking to fast-track any other needed approvals.
Mr. G's Restaurant & Lounge in Hodges Square, which has been offering delivery, curbside pickup and takeout, came up with an idea of transforming its parking lot into a drive-in movie theater.
Restaurant general manager Peter Farnan said his plan is to build a temporary stage on one side of the parking lot for entertainers and movies. The lot could fit seven or eight picnic tables and a dozen vehicles. That plan is under consideration by the city.
"I get the vibe they want to work with us and want us to succeed," Farnan said. "This would be temporary but it would give people something to do."
Felix Reyes, director of the city's Office of Development and Planning, said the city was finalizing approvals on various applications while a plan on the use of public spaces and the closing of side streets would head to Mayor Michael Passero for approval on Monday.
He said it was unclear how many restaurants would invest the money in this initial phase of reopening, since indoor dining is expected to be allowed within a month and some have adapted to curbside pickup.
Jonai Phillips, co-owner of the Green Room on Bank Street, said the restaurant has survived with takeout and curbside pickup and is formulating a plan to situate four or five tables on the sidewalk.
Asked whether she thought people were ready to start eating with others in public, her answer was "definitely."
"People are sick of being stuck at home," she said.
Dev's Bistro on State Street may be ahead of the curve on the on-street dining concept, being the first restaurant in the city last year to take advantage of new regulations allowing businesses to use abutting on-street parking spaces for dining or other activities. The restaurant's Facebook page recently announced it was developing a weekly pop-up restaurant concept for an "Al Fresco" dining experience and plans to open Thursday.
But not everyone is opening outdoors.
Jack Chaplin, owner of Daddy Jack’s on Bank Street, said he would continue his limited takeout operation but has no plans for outdoor dining come Wednesday.
He said the overhead costs of starting back up and the uncertainty of revenues have him continuing, and perhaps expanding, his takeout menu instead.
“It’s almost like trying to do a catering job every night,” he said of trying to set up outside without any significant outdoor space. The restaurant has a small streetside porch.
His initial idea was to close down a city street to set up tables or combine service with other restaurants under a tent.
“To me it’s almost like an all or nothing. To try to do it all is too much of a circus,” Chaplin said.
The Mariner - Mystic
Shaun Golan, co-owner of The Mariner, said his seafood restaurant at 21 West Main St. is working on a plan to add seven tables that seat four people each in a parking area. He has a permit for three small tables on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant.
He said he is staying on top of all the safety requirements, including having hand sanitizer dispensers, mask wearing, spacing out tables and wiping down tables after each use, and constantly wiping down surfaces throughout the day. There is a checklist of tasks for the employee that opens the restaurant, such as setting up sanitizer and gloves at every station.
Golan said offering outdoor dining is a necessity, as he and his business partner, Jakub Andros, like so many restaurant owners, have been struggling the last couple of months. In March, they had just opened a new restaurant, Via Emilia, across the street from The Mariner, but were forced to shut it down four days later due to the COVID-19 emergency.
Golan said they want to offer an opportunity for people to get back to work and to enjoy themselves.
“We’ve got a lot of employees that are itching to get back to work,” Golan said. “My business partner and I, we’re restaurant people. We want to serve people, we want to cook for people, we want to take care of people, so that had a lot to do with it, as well.”
The Shack - Waterford, East Lyme and Groton
Co-Owner Jim Morgan said outdoor-only seating restriction puts those restaurants that don't have outdoor seating, such as his, at a disadvantage.
While he is considering outdoor dining, he said the chain of three restaurants do not own the plazas where they are located, so the property owner, as well as other tenants, have to approve the idea. He said he also needs local zoning and health district approvals.
"To just all of a sudden decide you want to do outdoor dining, there has to be some plan, some approvals, a lot of things go into it," Morgan said. "We are exploring the option of outdoor seating, if we can get approval from all the parties involved, but it's only temporary because our restaurants are not set up to have permanent outdoor seating areas."
Day Staff Writers Greg Smith, Claire Bessette, Kimberly Drelich and Sten Spinella contributed to this report.