As the cooler weather sets in, restaurants will be forced to eliminate their outdoor dining options, which has been one of the key ways they have navigated the strict guidelines put forth by the state in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The addition of outdoor seating has allowed many restaurants to make up in some small way for the decrease in their indoor seating allowance due to the restrictions to keep parties six feet away from each other.
But as the end of the outdoor dining season approaches, Gov. Chris Sununu announced that restaurants would be allowed to move tables closer together if they install barriers between them.
“We’ve seen this model be enacted in other places around the New England region and across the country very successfully,” Sununu said during his announcement, which took effect Oct. 1.
The easing of the indoor dining restrictions comes at a time when owners were starting to worry about what the colder months would look like under the six-foot distancing guidelines. But it does come with another expense for restaurants, many of which are struggling to survive the loss of revenue.
Harris Welden, owner of Pearl Restaurant and Bantam Grill, both located in the Monadnock Community Plaza in Peterborough, said recently he plans to install barriers in both restaurants. Welden said he doesn’t want to just put up plexiglass between tables so had been searching the likes of Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace for things like old chalkboards or maps typically found in school classrooms or old doors. The plan is to have the barriers be both aesthetically pleasing and on wheels, so he can move them around quickly for different table sizes.
Pearl has a small dining room, and to accommodate parties of four to six, the restaurant will have to move tables around. That won’t be as easily done if the barriers are fixed.
Welden said so far the outdoor dining option has been popular and that the restaurant invested in heaters, but knows that his opportunity to seat people outside is growing shorter with each passing day.
“It depends on the weather. Right now it’s nice, but last week there was frost in the morning,” Welden said.
He said with the installation of barriers he will likely reach 80 percent capacity at Pearl and somewhere between 85 and 90 percent at Bantam. He’d like to be operating at 100 percent, but knows that just isn’t possible right now.
“You’ve got to be responsible,” Welden said. “Because everyone has a different comfort level.”
But it will come at a significant cost, and one that won’t do him much good when COVID-19 is a thing of the past.
“It’s going to be pretty substantial if we’re going to make it nice,” Welden said. “But then it’s a question of how much of an investment do you want to put into it? Because who knows how long this is going to go on for.”
It’s a balancing act, considering that business has been essentially cut in half for the year, and there’s no way of knowing if takeout will pick back up once the outdoor dining season is over.
And right, now the ability to look back at trends for the previous 10 years at Pearl and eight at Bantam is all but gone.
“Now, all that data is out the window,” Welden said. “We’re trying to figure it out, but everything seems a little bit harder.”
While Matt Cabana, owner of the Birchwood Inn, Restaurant and Tavern in Temple, appreciates the steps that are being taken to help restaurants like his navigate the ever changing coronavirus landscape, he isn’t sure putting up barriers will change people’s perception about indoor dining.
“You can have all those barriers, but it comes down to the comfort level of the consumers coming in,” Cabana said. “There are just certain people who won’t go into restaurants.”
Of course, Cabana wants to offer more inside dining, currently doing so at half capacity, because “restaurants need to be operating at 100 percent to be profitable,” but questions whether the customers will be there. And considering the cost it would incur, Cabana doesn’t feel as though it’s a worthwhile investment.
“I don’t know if barriers are going to make that much of a difference in our situation,” Cabana said.
He was one of the lucky restaurant owners who had the outdoor space to expand offerings into the fresh air, and it has gone so well he expects to keep it as part of the business model moving forward. Cabana was also fortunate that Ben Fisk of Ben’s Sugar Shack lent him a 20-foot-by-40-foot tent that will be warmed with heaters to compensate for the necessary opening for proper ventilation.
“That’s going to take us into November,” Cabana said.
When it is too cold to eat outdoors, Cabana expects the restaurant will keep the indoor dining configuration that allows for social distancing and hopes that takeout interest will pick back up like it did early on in the shutdown of restaurants. He also plans to offer prepared meals.
“You have to get creative,” he said. “You have to try and be innovative.”
Barry York, owner of Brady’s American Grill in Peterborough, said he’d thought about adding barriers after Sununu’s announcement, but wasn’t ready to commit to anything just yet.
“I’m wondering if it’s even worth it,” York said.
With a very large dining room, York said it would be a costly investment, both in materials and for someone to install the barriers between booths. York said currently Brady’s is seating parties at every other table, which still allows for a fair amount of people to be eating indoors with a capacity of 150. He also added an outdoor dining area in the plaza parking lot, which York said has gone quite well and will be open through the end of October. But come November, his thinking may change.
“When that ends Oct. 31, then I might be buying some plexiglass,” York said.
York said he is luckier than the other restaurants in town merely because of the size of his restaurant.
“I can live with (6 feet between tables) because I’m so big,” he said.
Ronnie Roberts said recently that he hadn’t made a decision about the possibility of installing barriers at his family’s restaurant, Parker’s Maple Barn, in Mason. The cost is definitely a factor.
“As far as I can tell, it’s not going to be an expense we can bear right now,” Roberts said.
When outdoor dining was allowed, Roberts said the restaurant added tables that could comfortably seat 34 people with the appropriate social distancing and it has gone so well that it is a model Parker’s Maple Barn plans to keep. Roberts said the restaurant invested in heaters for the outdoor space, which will allow it to extend the season this fall and open up the tables in early spring.
“Its definitely helped us,” Roberts said. “We’re looking at the long-term.”