Photo courtesy of Escape Brooklyn
As the mercury drops, restaurants are employing new ideas, relying on take out, and even opting to close to survive COVID’s winter woes.
When Hudson Valley restaurants began reopening in June, outdoor dining quickly became de rigueur. Owners spiffed up their patios for socially distanced seating; towns issued permits allowing tables to spill into the streets; and restaurants invested in heaters and tents to extend al fresco dining into the fall. But one question loomed large: What would happen in winter? Who would want to dine outdoors when the temperature drops below freezing, and would outdoor-only customers want to dine-in with another surge expected?
Addressing those questions was already in the works at Smoky Rock BBQ in Rhinebeck by early summer. The restaurant installed six PVC-bubble pods in June. “My husband, Dimitri, thought of the idea,” says co-owner Nike Psichas. “He was concerned about fall and winter and the uncertainty facing the food industry.”
Each 12-by-12-foot bubble has controlled air flow, its own lamp, and a small space heater. But you’ll still need a good winter coat: To comply with health guidelines the bubbles have openings on two sides. “They heat up quite a bit on a sunny day, even when it’s cold,” promises Psichas, adding that the bubbles have a magical, igloo-esque quality when it snows. “Overwhelmingly, people are excited to see something new. Diners tell us that they could not wait to eat in the bubbles. Other customers express that they will dine with us all winter because they do not feel comfortable inside and love this option.”
Butterfield restaurant at Hasbrouck House in Stone Ridge is also leaning into outdoor winter dining. A Cauldron Bar program launched in December, with five swinging cowboy cauldrons surrounded by Adirondack chairs and a cozy menu of hot toddies, fondues, warm Bavarian-style pretzels, and more, served fireside.
“Owner Akiva Reich was inspired by a trip to the Swiss Alps last winter, enjoying fondue, cocktails, and après-ski snacks surrounded by toasty fires and gorgeous snowy landscapes,” says marketing director Ashley Ruprecht. “He wanted to create the same ambience with a Hudson Valley twist. We encourage guests to bundle up, bring a blanket or parka, and embrace the winter weather.”
With less demand for outdoor seating, increased take out is another avenue restaurants are exploring. While they’re open for indoor dining, Cosimo’s four locations and Newburgh’s Hudson Taco are hoping they can continue to capitalize on the surge of to-go orders they’ve seen since the pandemic began. “It altered the way we do business,” says owner Nick Cetera. “We had to redesign our interiors to accommodate the volume of take out.”
At Cosimo’s in Newburgh, Cetera is adding a take-out room as part of a planned refresh. The space will include tablets to receive online orders and a staging area for food before it’s picked up or delivered. It’s a long-term investment. “I do believe we’ll continue to do a large amount of take out [after the pandemic],” Cetera says.
Lil’ Deb’s Oasis in Hudson is also focusing on take out this winter. The restaurant has been closed since spring, but transitioned to the Fuego 69 pop-up at Rivertown Lodge in the summer and fall. “Indoor dining at 50 percent capacity is totally untenable financially for small restaurants like ours,” says Chef-owner Carla Perez-Gallardo. “When we tried to pivot to to-go, we had an even smaller audience. The overhead of being open four to five days per week, plus staffing and food costs, was unsustainable. Not to mention that, with COVID cases rising, our staff and leadership began wondering about the safety and ethics of remaining open.
Instead, Perez-Gallardo launched Lil’ Deb’s in Ur Lil’ Home, where customers can pre-order favorite dishes for Friday pickups. “It allows us to prep for an exact number of orders without the risk of losing product,” she explains. “We can effectively manage food costs, accept payment ahead of time, and control labor costs. It’s also a fun way to stay connected with our audience who is having to cook more than ever.”
For other restaurants, the best financial decision has been to close completely for the winter. “We could have kept slogging it out, but my objective is to make sure the restaurant is still around in 2021,” says Chef Michael Kelly who announced the seasonal closure of Liberty Street Bistro in November. “Short term losses will be tough to swallow, but it beats the uncertainty of staying open without the guarantee of patronage.
The Newburgh restaurant does not have a set reopening date. “Obviously, we are encouraged by the emergency authorization of vaccines, but I believe we are several months away from that having a tide-changing effect on public sentiment,” says Kelly.
Peekskill restaurateur Louis Lanza is taking similar steps, closing Fin & Brew, River Outpost, Taco Dive Bar, Bajarito, and Eagle Saloon through winter. (Hudson Room will remain open for dine-in.) “We’re in a fortunate position to be able to close. Most restaurants need to stay open to stay viable,” he explains. “Not only is it better from a financial perspective, being closed gives us peace of mind that we’re not contributing to the spread or putting our employees and patrons at risk.”
While the restaurants are closed, Lanza is planning for the future. “The party we throw in 2021 when all the pandemic restrictions are lifted is going to be epic,” he promises. “Until then, we are focusing on keeping everyone healthy so we can all enjoy that day together.”