By Megan Zerez
Restaurants city-wide are gearing up for the start of indoor dining, which can begin this Wednesday at 25% capacity. Many Upper West Side restaurant owners and managers said they’re also gearing up to let customers back inside, but they aren’t sure if it’ll help business much.
“It’s like a whole new kind of business,” said Fanis Tsiamtsiouis who owns two diners on the Upper West Side – City Diner on 90th and Broadway and Metro Diner on 100th and Broadway.
Some of the new requirements for this next phase of reopening include mandatory temperature checks for all customers, one-way walkways where possible, and mask usage until seated. In addition, at least one person per party must give their contact details to the restaurant for participation in contact tracing.
Tsiamtsiouis opened the diner for outdoor dining this summer. As the weather turns cooler, he’s said he’s been losing customers to rain. Indoor dining could help make up for those losses, but he’s not counting on it to bring business back to anything close to a pre-pandemic level.
“People are asking [about indoor dining.] Just because they’re asking doesn’t mean they’re coming though,” Tsiamtsiouis said.
As for outdoor dining, restaurant owners said they want to keep it going into the winter, but they are not sure if it’ll be feasible due to the cost of heating.
Tsiamtsiouis said that propane heaters could cost an extra $100 a day to run, and electric heaters were out of the question because they cannot be plugged into the restaurant’s existing outlets without a visit from an electrician.
“Do I want to do it? Yes. Do I think I’m going to be able to do it? I don’t think so,” Tsiamtsiouis said.
Sam Wong, who owns Jin Ramen, said that there’s so much up in the air, he’s still yet not sure if he’ll fully open indoor seating for his two restaurants.
Earlier this summer, clashing announcements from Mayor Bill DeBlasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo made for a rocky reopening process for many restaurant owners and patrons, Wong said. Issues with the federal Paycheck Protection Program didn’t help either, he added.
“If I didn’t get the PPP loan [when I did], I wouldn’t be talking to you right now,” Wong said.
Jin Ramen’s Upper West Side restaurant on 82nd and Amsterdam relied heavily upon the nearby AMC theater crowd, Wong said.
“[After] the late shows at 10:30, people would come over, have a bowl of ramen and a drink,” Wong said. “But that’s all gone now.”
The ramen bar’s other location near 125th and Broadway has seen more business since Columbia University reopened, but it’s still a challenge to break even.
At 25% capacity, Wong will only be able to seat 12 diners at a time. He and other restaurant owners said they don’t want to ask customers to leave immediately after their meal, but with such limited seating, they worry that people lingering to chat would severely limit the number of customers they’d be able to serve.
Steve Olsen, general manager at Sarabeth’s on 80th and Amsterdam, says his restaurant will only be able to allow 18 customers indoors at any given time, which could prove difficult during the popular brunch service.
“Right now we’re just getting the restaurant in order — making sure that the tables are spaced apart, but so it doesn’t look too empty,” Olsen said. “You’re just so used to having tables everywhere.”
Even with the reduced seating, restaurant owners and managers said that they expect a bit of a learning curve at first.
“We’re trying to put up barriers in a layout so people know where to go, that they can’t just stand around with their masks off,” Olsen said.
Tsiamtsiouis said at his diners, the plan is to open an employee-only walkway to allow guests as well, so that there’s a one-way flow of people in and out of the restaurant. He says he’s putting lots of arrow decals on the floor so that people know where to walk.
The new contact tracing requirements might also take some time to catch on amongst patrons, Tsiamtsiouis said.
“I don’t think anybody’s going to want to give me a photo ID to have a Cheeseburger Deluxe,” Tsiamtsiouis said.
If you plan to dine indoors this fall, be sure to review state and restaurant guidelines before you go. Wear a mask over your nose AND mouth unless you’re eating or drinking, remember to follow signs and directions and be sure to tip your servers.