Unseasonably mild weather recently has allowed local restaurants to take further advantage of outdoor seating, but with winter weather looming, Rockville Centre restaurant owners are bracing for the challenge of losing what has become an important segment of their business during the pandemic.
George Korten, owner of George Martin the Original, a village fixture with an extensive menu, said he can seat up to 35 diners outdoors. Indoor capacity was limited to 50 percent by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in June, and Korten said he was concerned about losing the outdoor revenue.
“Those tables outside are like having another room,” he said. “We’re hopeful some of that business will transition inside. We have a very safe environment indoors and are doing all the right things.”
Korten said that under social distancing guidelines, patrons are not permitted to wait around the bar area and enjoy a drink while waiting for a table. In addition, he said, those who sit at the bar must order dinner to go with their drinks.
Other local restaurants have also tried to make the best of the outdoor seating. Charles Christensen, general manager of Wild Ginger, on Sunrise Highway, said that the restaurant has been successful with outdoor dining, thanks to the addition of a tent, and it is toying with the idea of adding heaters as temperatures drop.
“The demand is there, but it’s the practicality of it,” Christensen said. “Will people want to sit outside when it’s colder? Will people feel comfortable eating indoors? Right now, we don’t really know what will happen.”
With indoor dining capacity limited to 50 percent, he said that the biggest challenge Wild Ginger faces is “managing that capacity” by not only spreading tables out, but also carefully timing the seating schedule so the restaurant stays at capacity for longer stretches, rather than the traditional lunch and dinner rushes, which would be too crowded.
Christensen said he anticipated doing more takeout and delivery as the weather gets colder. “I don’t think anyone really knows what to expect,” he said. “Right now we can leave the French doors open to provide fresh air to diners, which they seem to appreciate. It’s a very up-and-down time.”
Takeout and delivery has always been strong, he said, and has “increased exponentially” during the pandemic. “It’s always been a place we can fall back on,” Christensen said, “and takes the pressure off the dining room.”
Despite the shift in the seating schedule, he said, so far the business from the dining room has actually been “comparable to years past” just in a different structure. And, like other restaurants, Wild Ginger is using paper tablecloths and napkins, as well as disposable menus.
“We want to make sure the customers feel secure and comfortable, and we concentrated on that from the beginning,” Christensen said. “The community has been amazing. Between all of our different profit centers, we’ll be OK-ish.”
For other eateries, the outlook is bleaker. Some have not had the space to serve customers outdoors, and have had to rely mainly on takeout and delivery service since March. Ram Bisht, owner of Color of Spices, on Sunrise Highway, said he tried outdoor dining, but found that food got cold too fast.
“It’s not very practical for us,” Bisht said. “Plus, to keep that many tables, we don’t have the basement or place to store them later on.”
His dining room has been open, he said, but he has not had many customers. “It seems people are not ready,” Bisht said. “I’m doing some takeout and delivery through online companies, but we don’t have that much revenue now.”
The restaurant, he said, is not generating enough money to pay employees on time or to give them enough hours. And using the apps cuts into the bottom line. “We have to pay companies 30 percent on apps” like GrubHub and UberEats, he added. “We’re not making anything out of it.”
Color of Spices now offers beer and wine for both diners and takeout orders, which it has never done before. That helps a little, Bisht said, and he hopes it will encourage more business.
“It’s a little tough to survive,” he said. “We’re making it somehow, but it’s not the same.”
Briana Bonfiglio contributed to this story.