The Nourish Spot in Jamaica, Queens specializes in smoothies and salads. Owner Dawn Kelly thinks this healthy menu helped her survive the pandemic.
“We were thriving last year,” she said with pride. “And I think it’s because every known doctor and medical professional was telling people to eat fruits and vegetables, right?”
Her business was all takeout and delivery, because the place was always too small to seat more than a few people. But this year Kelly wanted to reach more customers by opening a little café outside the shop. The city’s Open Restaurants program made that easier during the pandemic by scrapping the complicated and expensive permit process. Kelly bought a few supplies but immediately had to abandon the plan.
“See the yellow and white umbrella in the stand?,” she asked, pointing to a big umbrella folded up inside her shop. “Actually, the day that I was going to put it out, I had to run two people from in front of my store smoking crack.”
The city says more than 11,000 restaurants have participated in its Open Restaurants program since the spring of 2020 by putting tables outside, either on sidewalks or roadways. It claimed this helped save 100,000 jobs by allowing restaurants to serve more customers when indoor dining was heavily restricted or banned.
But Kelly’s experience reflects how the explosion in outdoor dining is playing out very differently depending on where you dine out.
“When they were thinking about the idea, I don’t think anybody walked the streets of the outer boroughs,” she said, adding it was especially true in neighborhoods with mostly people of color.
The Nourish Spot is located on a stretch of Guy R. Brewer Boulevard with few other businesses. Kelly said homeless people and panhandlers come by often. She’s also right by a noisy city bus lane. She could try building a partially enclosed shed in the roadway for her diners but said that wouldn’t work either in this heavily residential neighborhood.
“Most people here have one or two cars,” she said. “I don’t want my neighbors to hate me because I’m taking precious parking spaces. I really mean that.”
A neighbor walking by named Natalie, who didn’t want to give her last name to protect her privacy, said she couldn’t imagine eating a meal outside on this boulevard unless the city cleaned up the streets. That would mean stopping people from hanging out on the corners and getting rid of garbage piles.
‘The neighborhood actually has to be cleaned up,” she stated.
Outdoor Dining By the Numbers
All of these obstacles help explain why Kelly’s community district in Jamaica has only 61 of the new outdoor cafés allowed under Open Restaurants. By contrast, five districts in Manhattan, two in Brooklyn and one in Astoria, Queens have more than 400 each. A few districts have more than 800.
The city’s Department of Transportation runs the Open Restaurants program. Eric Beaton, a deputy commissioner for transportation planning and management at DOT, said those disparities largely reflect which neighborhoods already had the most restaurants. But he stood by the program for making outdoor dining more accessible to all eateries.
“I think what we’re trying to address first is just how inequitable the previous situation was,” he said.
Before the pandemic, strict zoning rules dictated which neighborhoods were even allowed to have outdoor cafés. Beaton said the city had only about 1,200 in total, mostly in upscale neighborhoods.
“Not only were there neighborhoods where this was literally not allowed by zoning at all, but also it was a system that required a tremendous amount of red tape,” he explained. “People would have to hire a professional architect or engineer, and would have to certify plans, and it would cost tens of thousands of dollars and have to go through months’ long processes.”
The Open Restaurants program did away with those rules. Now, any restaurant can put up a shed or tables if they leave enough sidewalk space and don’t block fire hydrants or street signs.
The city has a lot of other rules for outdoor dining. Neighbors complain they’re rarely enforced. But Beaton said the DOT tries to correct problems before issuing fines and also helps restaurants address any issues.
“Whether that’s looking at policing, whether that’s looking at the regulations along the curb, our goal is to try to make this program work and make it work for any restaurant around the city,” he added.
But how well it’s working varies tremendously based on the neighborhood. Low income areas that don’t have a lot of sit-down restaurants, like Morrissania in the Bronx and Brownsville in Brooklyn, each have fewer than 10 outdoor cafés. Residents might want more.
Reverend Bruce Rivera, chair of Community Board 3 in the Bronx, which includes Morrisania, wasn’t surprised to learn his district had the fewest Open Restaurants in the city: just seven. “Our community is a food desert,” he said, adding that most options are takeout Chinese, fried chicken, or pizza — and there are very few sit-down eateries.
“The restaurants in our area are just getting by by the hair of the chinny chin chin,” he added. Even though the city has eliminated most of the expensive requirements for opening outdoor cafés, he explained, “They would need to provide an interest free loan or grant to restaurants so that they can build suitable dwellings outside of their restaurants.”
Too Many Sheds?
Meanwhile, it’s a whole other world in neighborhoods with greater disposable income and a lot of restaurants and visitors. The community district that includes Bushwick has 212 of the new cafés while the one for Jackson Heights has 273. The Upper West Side has 341, while across the park, the Upper East Side has 487.
In downtown Manhattan, outdoor dining sheds seem to have taken over the streets. David Crane, a member of Community Board 3, which represents the East Village and Lower East Side, spoke out during a raucus meeting last month against making the Open Restaurants program permanent.
“This whole program, and it starts with the zoning amendment, is going to turn this area into an open air alcohol zone,” he said, to a round of applause.
About 85 people attended that meeting, most of them fiercely opposed to making outdoor dining permanent. The community district has 815 of the new cafés, second only to Community District 2, where 916 have cropped up in the West Village and SoHo.
At last month’s meeting in the East Village, residents complained about noisy customers, garbage, and rats. Some said they couldn’t sleep at night. District Manager Susan Stetzer said making Open Restaurants permanent would amount to a drastic change, by removing all oversight from community boards.
“We are not just changing a process,” she explained. “We’re changing the zoning amendment that gives residential protections in a residential area.”
But Beaton, of the DOT, said allowing boards to vote up or down on a new outdoor café could lead to inequitable outcomes. “A community board can say, ‘I like this place, but not that place,’” he said.
Community boards throughout the city are now reviewing the proposal to make outdoor dining permanent, but they only have advisory powers. The City Council is expected to vote this fall, and the new program would launch in 2023 after accepting applications in the fall of 2022.
The DOT said the permanent version of Open Restaurants will include more rules and a new fund for enforcement. It also said it’s gotten a ton of feedback from New Yorkers who love how outdoor dining has brought more life to their neighborhoods.
Restaurant owners acknowledge the program can be a headache for some parts of the city. Ashwin Deshmukh, who owns the Bowery restaurant Short Stories, said he was concerned by some of the complaints he heard at the East Village community board meeting.
“I don’t think that we should recover at this cost of quality-of-life and everything else for our neighbors,” he said, noting additional enforcement should make a difference when the program goes permanent.
Like other restaurant owners around the city, Deshmukh said the ability to build an open air cafe saved his business during the pandemic. He said it also enabled him “to retain and tell people who worked with us that they would have a career, and were able to work during a very dangerous period.”
At A10 Kitchen on Avenue A, Tony Artan showed off the bright yellow seats in the wooden shed he built in the roadway. His wife owns the restaurant and he’s a builder, so he said he was able to construct the cheerful structure at a lower price than a contractor would charge.
“Those seats, they make us survive during the winter, because if I wouldn’t have those seats, I would just close it,” he said. “I would just declare bankruptcy and that’s it.”
A10 Kitchen was supposed to open in March of 2020; bad timing. Artan invested in the restaurant and said he lost half a million dollars. He has 34 seats outside and said he’ll need every one of them for the foreseeable future.
“You see inside is empty,” he said, explaining that his customers are reluctant to eat indoors. “If we wouldn’t have these we wouldn’t have business because still people are scared of COVID.”
The surge of the delta variant, and the city’s new vaccine mandate for dining indoors, give restaurants another reason to keep their outdoor cafés. And some that haven’t yet applied to open them may now reconsider.
Late last week, Dawn Kelly said she tried putting the yellow and white umbrella outside her restaurant in Jamaica. She said she was convinced to give it another shot after the Queens borough president said he’d look into getting more help for the mentally ill and homeless people in her neighborhood. But with only one bistro set, she said it looked lonely. She was heading out to buy another.