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NYC Restaurants Spill Out Onto The Asphalt To Stay In Business

While indoor dining out is still prohibited in New York City, even the outdoor seating at restaurants doesn't always feel safe for Whitney Kuo.

"Most places freak me out" because the tables aren't far enough apart, she says.

And her friend, Sofia Skarlatos, had an unpleasant experience recently, being seated off the curb.

"It was like kind of in a gutter, my table," Skarlatos says.

As New York City continues reopening, officials are allowing restaurants to expand outdoors. As long as they keep a path clear for pedestrians and follow other guidelines such as not blocking bus stop waiting areas and subway grates, they can apply to put seating on sidewalks and in curbside parking spots.

That has transformed the city's streets, many of which have come alive with little fenced-in dining areas with tables and umbrellas and decorated with flower boxes and hanging plants.

Despite Kuo and Skarlatos' unpleasant experiences, many of the new dining spaces are attractive. They ended up choosing to eat and drink at a restaurant in Brooklyn called Hunky Dory, which serves classic foods such as BLTs and fried chicken sandwiches and a range of cocktails. The big lot next door to the restaurant is spacious and fenced in.

"It's the only place where I've seen the tables, like actually almost 10 feet apart," Kuo says.

Before July, that lot was empty. Hunky Dory's owner, Claire Sprouse, struck up a deal with the owner to fix it up and use it for outdoor dining. She cleared out barbed wire and trash and put in tables and umbrellas.

She also converted her storefront window into a takeout window for customers to place and pick up orders.

It was a hefty investment for Sprouse, costing about $10,000 at a time when her business is scraping by from months of being closed to dining because of the pandemic.

Many streets in New York City's Chinatown have narrow sidewalks. The Chinatown Business Improvement District restricted traffic on this street and created outdoor dining space.
/ Camille Petersen/NPR
Camille Petersen/NPR
Many streets in New York City's Chinatown have narrow sidewalks. The Chinatown Business Improvement District restricted traffic on this street and created outdoor dining space.

"Which is why it's so scary thinking about how long we'll be able to use this," Sprouse says. Mayor Bill De Blasio has only relaxed restrictions on outdoor dining through Oct. 31.

So far, though, Sprouse says the risk is worth it. She's bringing in 60% of what her normal revenue was before the pandemic.

A few blocks away, a West African restaurant called Suya does not have outdoor dining. It's in a small storefront with limited sidewalk space. Still, co-owner Folusho Adeyemo says he benefits from the expansion of outdoor space at other restaurants because it means more people will come out, and some will end up buying food from him.

"They're going to walk around," he says. "They're going to trickle down like 'let's see what's up,' you know, so it's just like bigger outside scene."

For some New York neighborhoods, outdoor dining is a particular challenge. Chinatown, for instance, has narrow sidewalks and tightly packed storefronts. Wellington Chen leads the Chinatown Business Improvement District, which restricted traffic on a street with many restaurants and created outdoor dining space with colorful barricades, plants, flowers and artwork.

Chen says that since it opened last week, restaurants have seen an increase in business. He says one owner reported a 35% spike in revenue.

But making outdoor dining work in a big city like New York isn't easy, especially in the heat and humidity of summer, says Stephani Robson, who teaches restaurant design at Cornell University.

"It's crowded, noisy and in the summertime sometimes a little bit stinky," she says.

But if they want to stay in business, restaurants have to overcome all of that, Robson says, and show they are still open and ready to serve their customers.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camille Petersen