To Offer Outdoor Dining or Not Offer Outdoor Dining, That is the Question

Rhode Island restaurant owners mull over outdoor dining regulations in the pandemic during Phase One of reopening Rhode Island.
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The covered dining area at Providence’s Plant City is ready for reservations. Photo from Plant City’s Facebook page.

Limited outdoor dining at restaurants in Rhode Island is allowed starting today, but not everyone is setting up the patios and umbrellas. There’s a lineup of rules that restaurants need to consider in order to offer outside seating during the COVID-19 pandemic. Those rules include requiring employees and guests to wear masks (when guests are not eating), spacing tables eight feet apart, allowing no more than twenty tables outdoors and enforcing reservations only and parties with fewer than five people, plus no valet parking is allowed. On top of stringent sanitization measures, they also have to keep track of every person who dines in order to provide contract tracing, should someone get sick with COVID-19.

The regulations are thoughtfully meant to keep both staff and guests safe, but some restaurant owners feel as though it’s too much to take on with no guarantee of return on investment. Not every restaurant has a patio or outdoor dining space that is weather-proof, but luckily many restaurants are already set up for outdoor dining and are ready to go for this week. The Boat House boasts a sprawling waterfront property with sufficient social distancing, the Rooftop at the Providence G and Sarto have a wide open space and Matunuck Oyster Bar has ample covered deck seating, but places like Bacco on Federal Hill and Plant City in Providence either built a patio or augmented an existing patio with a tent to accommodate more guests outdoors. 

Kim Anderson, owner of Plant City, had a twenty-by-thirty-two-foot commercial grade tent constructed over a four-space parking lot and moved in several tables spaced eight feet apart along with new planters to separate dining spaces. The restaurant now has nineteen outdoor tables, including the upper patio and rented space. She says she was happy to be consulted weeks ago for input on Governor Gina Raimondo’s plan for reopening restaurants in Rhode Island. “We are ready to go and are beyond full compliance with the rules,” Anderson says. “The safety of our team and guests is paramount.” Plant City is opening for outdoor reservations at noon today. “I understand that some are ready for this and are very excited, and some may not be, and that’s okay,” Anderson says. “We are here to serve those who wish to join us, civically distanced and wearing a mask, while keeping our team employed in the safest possible environment.” In addition to outdoor dining, Plant City is also still offering delivery, curbside pickup and the patio takeout window.

For Christopher Tarro, owner of three locations of Siena Italian restaurant in Providence, East Greenwich and Smithfield, outdoor dining wasn’t worth the extra effort or risk. “I just think that it adds a lot more stress to an already difficult environment for restaurants,” he says. “Once we become completely weather dependent, we prepare all the food and bring in staff, and then say it’s not nice out,” he says. “At this point, you can’t bring people inside your restaurant even to hang out and wait for a passing thunder shower. Unless you get a tent, which adds a significant cost.” 

For him, the takeout side of the business is doing well, so he sees no need to turn to outdoor dining until patrons are allowed inside his buildings. “I don’t think that, until we can get inside our restaurants doing what we do best, that moving away from takeout makes considerable sense for Siena,” Tarro says. “There will be industry members that do it and I hope they do well. Nobody should be jealous of anyone else. We all need to hit the lottery when this is over.”

Chomp Kitchen and Drinks in Warren is currently mulling over a plan for outdoor dining, but since the restaurant has never taken reservations, owner Sam Glynn has to look into the technology to streamline the process. He is also hoping to open Chomp’s second location, in Fox Point in Providence, at some point in early June for takeout only. In the meantime, he and his staff orchestrated an innovative carhop in the parking lot of the Warren location, where cars can pull up to numbered parking spots and staff brings the takeout to the cars. “We will still continue to provide carhop service through all phases of the reopening plan,” Glynn says, adding that the dining room has a small footprint, and when restaurants reopen for indoor dining, he realizes six-foot social distancing guidelines will hinder their ability to maximize the space. “I actually don’t see the new carhop part of our business ever going away in a post COVID-19 world,” Glynn says.

He adds that the takeout side of the business is going well for the restaurant, and thankfully they already had online ordering in place before the statewide restaurant shutdown even went into effect. They created the carhop system the day after the ban on dining in. “We developed a system for pickup in the parking lot overnight by adding spot numbers, a text messaging system and no contact food delivery to your car,” Glynn says. “The team that we have been able to retain has been incredible at adapting on a daily basis to the new challenges that we must face.” 

Chomp

The carhop at Chomp Kitchen and Drinks in Warren. Video still from Chomp’s carhop video posted on Facebook.

Glynn is giving it a few days or a week before they make a move on outdoor dining to gauge guests’ reaction to it first. “I think that there will be a lot of challenges for restaurants to balance the public safety as well as the operational integrity of the restaurant,” he says. “I have confidence we will figure it out.”

Down in Newport, where patio season is synonymous with summer, the situation is difficult for those who do not already have easy access to an outdoor area. Fluke Newport’s location is in a building where water views can be seen through the upstairs windows from a distance, but it does not have its own deck or patio. Geremie Callaghan, co-owner of Fluke with her husband, Jeff, says it’s a long distance from the Fluke kitchen to any potential outdoor space available on Bowen’s Wharf. “Social distancing rules make getting in and out of our space tricky for curbside pickup and table service simultaneously,” she says. “We will revisit this if necessary.”

Callaghan says takeout is going reasonably well, but as more restaurants open back up in Newport, Fluke is seeing decreases in sales each week that goes by. It’s a fraction of their usual business, but they are thankful for those who are ordering their local, upscale seafood dishes to go along with takeout beverages.

Tarro worries for those who don’t already have patio access, who might go over and above to provide it. “My big concern is it might put some people who are really in need to lean over their skis to do this and spend money to do it, and it might end up putting them in a worse position from where they are today,” he says.

There’s no shame in sticking to the takeout game if that’s what restaurants are most comfortable doing until Rhode Island reaches phase two of re-opening, which will allow indoor dining. Dale Venturini, President and CEO of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association hopes that patrons will be considerate of restaurants during this ever-evolving time. “We can ask people to be patient, to be kind and understand that some restaurants have never done this before,” she says. “They have done a little takeout here and there but not to this level. It’s like a new world. Patience is good, and constructive criticism is okay, but don’t beat them up on social media.”

Dining out won’t look and feel the same as it did before the pandemic. “There are no answers because there’s no playbook. We can’t say this is what we did the last time we had a crisis like this,” Venturini says. “We’re making the playbook; we’re creating it as we go. We’re going to make some mistakes, we’re going to come up with some unbelievable options that we’ll be able to use in the future no matter what, whatever that new normal is. There are other things we’re going to find out just didn’t work.” 

Tarro says takeout support for Siena and a lot of other restaurants doing takeout has been incredible. “We are servicing a need, and people need to get out of the house for food, they need some sense of community,” he says. “With takeout, you bring it home, you put it on your own plates, you make it more of a special thing instead of with old-school Chinese takeout which you’d normally eat out of little containers.”

Tarro says if you already have trust in a restaurant’s brand, you can be sure that food is being prepared safely. “The beauty of a restaurant is we clean every night. Before this pandemic, we already had to worry about foodborne illness, we had to worry about raw chicken and salmonella,” he says.” We’re used to dealing with stuff, where if you don’t wash your hands, it could get someone else sick.”

He says now is the time for restaurants to be innovative and come up with a creative plan that works for survival. While he advises against third-party delivery companies, he thinks restaurants would be wise to hire their own delivery employees.

“While it’s going to be tough for the next three to six months, this isn’t like Blockbuster going up against Netflix; restaurants aren’t going away,” Tarro says. “We just might have to be different to grow our business, and we can look to other industries for examples of how to morph and do it, and that’s the way it’s going to be.”

 

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