Brooklyn restaurateurs are breathing a sigh of relief as they prepare to reopen their eateries for indoor dining after a tumultuous year of shutdowns and financial hardships.
“We are very excited about it, I mean everybody is,” said Randi Lee, owner of Leland Eating and Drinking House. “We are excited for life to be back to normal. We are excited to one day not have to wear a mask and be able to see people’s faces. We are excited to mingle, this last year has been very difficult on all of us.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that city restaurants can begin hosting patrons indoors at 25 percent of their normal capacity beginning on Friday, after a nearly two-month ban — a move that comes two days earlier than expected, as Cuomo had originally announced a Valentine’s Day return to inside seating.
Lifting the ban is a lifeline for many restaurant owners, after the winter months has scared away many people from outdoor dining, according to the food maestros, who said indoor seating can bring in more cash flow by offering more seating and less susceptibility to weather conditions.
“It is a great opportunity for us right now,” said Malissa Browne, owner of Negril BK. “Especially with the weather we have been having as of late.”
Negril BK on Park Slope’s Fifth Avenue will see its seating capacity expand five-fold with the transition to indoor dining — offering 30 tables in its 5,000 square foot space, compared to just six tables across a few parking spaces outside.
“We are quite fortunate to have a larger space than some restaurants in the area,” Browne said.
Meanwhile, the expansion facilitates an additional 22 seats at Prospect Heights’ Leland Eating and Drinking House, but Lee suspects indoor business to be light until more city dwellers are vaccinated.
“We could have 100 percent capacity in here, but if people don’t feel comfortable,” Lee said, “if they haven’t gone out and gotten their shots, been vaccinated, they are probably not going to come inside.”
Lee is focusing his reopening strategy on ensuring his staff is vaccinated, and will support them in any way he can to make sure they receive that life-saving jab — which restaurant workers became eligible for earlier this month.
“We are championing for all of our staff to be vaccinated,” Lee said. “We will drive them out there, we will set up appointments for them, we want to make sure everyone is safe.”
The increased capacity will also allow many restaurateurs to offer more shifts and rehire staff that may have been laid off or furloughed during the statewide shutdowns.
“I am happy we are able to give our staff more shifts,” Browne said. “It was very limited. We had to furlough some people, we had to reduce scheduling…and now we are able to get back on board and get people working again.”
The previous two-month indoor dining stint last year left many restaurant owners mostly prepared for the transition to indoor dining, but they welcomed the two-week notice from the governor to get their space in tip-top shape by stocking up on sanitizer and other supplies in high demand.
“All the restaurants are doing the same thing,” Browne said. “We have to make sure we are stocking up on things everyone is trying to get their hands on for the weekend.”
But despite the indoor dining ban being lifted, some eateries like Sheepshead Bay’s Roll N Roaster are electing to hold off on opening their dining rooms to diners — choosing to wait until infection rates further decline to offer indoor seating.
“I don’t want to jump into it right away,” said Eric Rodriguez, owner of Roll N Roaster. “I just want to wait a little longer until the numbers go down a little bit. My main thing is keeping everyone safe.”
Roll N Roaster is ready to serve indoor diners whenever he gives the go-ahead, Rodriguez said, but he’s happy with just offering take-out for now and doesn’t have any plans to offer inside seating as of yet.
“It can be one week, it could be one month or two months,” Rodriguez said. “I am playing it by ear.”
Both Browne and Lee support some elected officials’ push for a later curfew, arguing that New Yorkers typically don’t eat early dinners and the move would allow them to seat more diners safely at different times.
“We are in a city that never sleeps, and now you are putting us to sleep,” Lee said.
But as diners prepare to be served indoors, Lee pleas with all patrons to keep supporting their local businesses and in extension the greater local economy.
“You are not only employing the server, the chef, the cook, you are actually employing everyone in New York who relies on us. Like the fishmonger, the butcher,” Lee said. “So go out and support your local restaurants.”