Outdoor dining has become a part of New York City’s landscape. It’s beloved by many — including patrons who want to take extra Covid-19 precautions and those who want a taste of Europe’s famous outdoor cafe culture in the Big Apple. But not everyone is happy; some residents believe outdoor dining was an emergency measure that should not remain a permanent part of the city’s dining scene. Outdoor dining sheds have become a divisive issue.
In February, Epicenter-NYC spoke with restaurant owners and community members to hear their thoughts about outdoor dining. Reporter Andrea Pineda-Salgado recently reached back out for an update on how they’re feeling now.
What they’ve been up to
Alfredo Angueria is the owner of multiple restaurants in New York City, including Beatsro, Bronx Drafthouse and Bricks and Hops, all in the Bronx. He says while business has slowly been improving, business has not regained pre-pandemic numbers. The slow winter season is looming and many restaurant owners don’t have the revenue to survive.
“Restaurants generally use the [summer] period to get ‘fat’ before the winter. Things are getting better, but it’s not at the point where we can put away that revenue for the harsh winter,” he says. “The weather is starting to get a little cooler in the evenings, but there is still a need and demand for outdoor dining,” he says. “In places like Drafthouse [near Yankee Stadium], during a game, outdoor dining is on a first-come, first serve basis and every table is taken. In places like Beatsro, our numbers may not be so high that we necessitate outdoor dining during the week, but during our peak times, it allows us to serve an overflow.”
Susan Stetzer, district manager of community board 3, which covers the East Village, Lower East Side and Chinatown, spoke about the negative impact within her community. The community board had previously voted against the Open Restaurants Program.
“There’s a tremendous amount of noise complaints. That is our biggest issue — late-night noise,” she says. “The city regulations change back and forth and they’re not always well communicated.”
Deborah Kaplan, an Upper East Side resident, also shared concerns regarding outdoor dining. While she saw it as a necessary and temporary measure at the beginning of the pandemic, she is more than ready for it to be done.
“Now things are slightly better because there is indoor dining and there are fewer people outside, and less noise,” Kaplan says. “But overall, I would prefer if there was no outdoor dining because there are rats. The rat problem is really horrible. It’s gross, smells, and is still loud even though there are fewer people. How many times can you hear [patrons sing] the ‘Happy Birthday’ song? It’s bothersome.”
Both sides want more guidance
While the issue of outdoor dining seems to be divisive, both sides of the debate want the same thing: more guidance. For restaurants, regulations on outdoor dining seem to be all over the place.
The Open Restaurants program was on track to becoming permanent and the Department of Transportation (DOT) — the city agency in charge of Open Restaurants — stated that the program would be in full effect by 2023. However, it’s been slowed by a lawsuit filed by those who strongly oppose the program..
“Prior to the lawsuit, our understanding was that [outdoor] tables would have to be removable, you had to bring it in and out every evening…all [other structures] were going to come down by October/November. Now it’s like, ‘There is this lawsuit and everything is frozen’ Do we take [our outdoor dining structure] down? Do we not? Why would you, if you put all this money into them?” Angueria says. “You are in a Catch-22.”
Residents who oppose outdoor dining also want the city to provide more guidance and enforcement on outdoor dining violations. Stetzer often receives complaints about noise, people hanging out in sheds after hours and rodents. However, it’s challenging to address these issues when the rules of outdoor dining are unclear and the city is slow to respond.
“We need enforcement. People expect that when regulations are put out, they will be followed. Education has not been sufficient for businesses and the city needs to do better to work with the businesses and to enforce guidelines,” Stetzer says. “I cannot do my job when people come to me with a problem. I need to be able to work with a [city] agency and be successful.”
Community has mobilized
To combat the lack of guidance, restaurants and community members have taken it upon themselves to search for some order. Residents in Stetzer’s community board have been making lists of non-compliant outdoor dining sheds (those that might be abandoned or not used for dining). One shed, she noticed, has been used as a coat check. The board has sent a list of these to the DOT in hopes that they will remove them.
“It’s a very very complicated issue. Some non-compliant sheds have received five to six cease and desist letters, but there hasn’t been enforcement,” Stetzer says. “The people would be a lot happier right now even with our changes in regulations if guidelines were enforced.”
Angueria, on the other hand, has been trying to deal with the rat problem on his block. He recently hired a company to put wire mesh and gravel on top of the tree beds on the block of his restaurant to keep rodents away.
“We just take matters into our own hands, we listen to the complaints, we do our best to rectify them and immediately work on it,” he says. “We are community partners. If we are a nuisance to the community and the community doesn’t want us there, we can’t survive.”
Everyone wants a seat at the table
Restaurant owners and residents both want a seat at the table among all the confusion.
“Community boards should have a seat at the table, not to make the rules but to say, ‘These are the issues. Can we talk about a way to meet our needs? Can we find common ground?’ That’s the biggest thing that’s missing,” says Stetzer. “The city has created pushback. It should not be confrontational. It should not be divisive. It should be people sitting down and talking about needs and common ground.”
Angueria wants the same thing. While he believes the city is doing its best, he wishes restaurant owners were part of the conversation.
“[I wish we] had a little more clarity in the discussion so that we as business owners don’t continue to invest or sit tight. [So that we] understand what is coming and engage in the conversation,” he says. “The thing I want from the city is the one thing the city can’t give, which is speed. At the end of the day, it is a bureaucracy, it has a lot of layers, but I want speed.”
What you can do:
Outdoor guidelines may seem unclear and sometimes frustrating for many, but there are ways New Yorkers can get involved to have a say on the guidelines for a permanent outdoor dining program.
Report complaints and non-compliant sheds to 311. Say “Open Restaurants” or “Outdoor Dining” and share the location. You can also submit photos to 311 via text, email or the 311 website.
Share your thoughts via the DOT’s Open Restaurant survey. You can choose which issues concern you the most and share feedback on what the city could do to improve the Open Restaurants program.
Do you own or live by an outdoor dining location? What is your experience like? We hope to hear from you to understand the problems and solutions that surround outdoor dining. Let us know here.