Restaurant owners face added costs adjusting to evolving outdoor dining guidelines

Outdoor dining at Clover Club on Smith Street.
Photo courtesy of Julie Reiner

As city eateries scramble to reopen for outdoor dining following months of state-mandated closures, some restaurant owners claim city transportation honchos are adjusting outdoor dining guidelines on the fly — while threatening heavy fines for noncompliance.

“This is a terrible ordeal coming out of three months of not making any money,” said Mario DiBiase, owner of Park Slope’s SottoVoce. “We finally get the opportunity to open up and service our customers in outdoor dining, and now they are coming harassing and threatening fines. They are not acting as a partner.”

DiBiase said an inspector from the city’s Department of Transportation stopped by his Seventh Avenue restaurant in late June and told him that the restaurant’s outdoor seating did not meet regulations — and SottoVoce would face up to $1,000 in fines if he didn’t remedy the situation.

“They change the rules in the middle of the game, we had already put everything up according to their guidelines,” DiBiase said. “And then they turned around and inspected at the 11th hour and said, ‘This is out of compliance, you have 24 hours to fix this.’”

After shelling out thousands of dollars to ensure he was meeting the guidelines, DiBiase said the agency’s inspector still would not say what was wrong with his set up.

“All they said is that it is not compliant. No direction whatsoever,” he told Brooklyn Paper. “All their emails are telling me, ‘You have to fix what is wrong,’ and they are not telling me what is wrong.” 

Two restaurant owners who operate Clover Club and Leyenda on Carroll Gardens’ Smith Street said they constructed their outdoor seating areas based on the city’ guidelines, but were forced to reconstruct the areas when the guidelines changed days later.

“They put that guideline out on Monday, we got our contractor on it immediately, built the structures for both of our places,” co-owner Julie Reiner told Brooklyn Paper. “But three days later, they came back and they changed the rules. It is infuriating.” 

Reiner’s business partner, Ivy Mix, called into WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show on June 26 to voice her concerns about the back-and-forth, and said she was subsequently hit with a violation following a change in guidelines on sidewalk seating and parking barriers.

“Naive little me thinking my call to Brian Lehrer and NYC Mayor did some good for NYC restaurants,” Mix tweeted. “Well, NYC DOT changed the rules for sidewalk seating and parking barriers and already stopped by to give me a violation.”

Reiner told Brooklyn Paper rebuilding the barrier to meet the new depth requirement of 18 inches cost the owners another $1,000 on top of what they had already spent to allow for al fresco dining — currently the only form of business for city restaurants, even as other businesses start to reap the benefits of Phase Three.

“We basically spent an extra $1,000 at both places to edit what we had already built,” Reiner said.

Both Gov. Andrew Cuomo and de Blasio announced on July 1 that New York City restaurants would have to stick with outdoor dining for the time being. In response, hospitality groups said government needed to do more to keep restaurants like DiBiase’s and Reiner’s from going belly-up.

“The longer neighborhood restaurants and bars are forced to be close, the harder it will be for them to ever successfully open,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance. “This makes it even more urgent to forgive rent, expand outdoor dining, and enact other responsive policies to save our city’s beloved small businesses and jobs.” 

When reached for comment, DOT deferred to the mayor’s office, where a spokesman pointed to a hotline for small businesses who may have questions about the guidelines.

“Over 7,600 businesses have signed up for our Open Restaurants program in under three weeks. There’s no higher priority than keeping diners safe – and that means educating restaurants on the front end through in-person engagement, proactive phone calls, and calls through [Small Business Services’] small business hotline,” said Mitch Schwartz. “We’re conducting inspections and partnering with industry and community groups to ensure compliance with guidelines. Everyone wants to keep New Yorkers safe as they enjoy a meal outside – and we’ll work closely with restaurants to help rebuild our economy and fight back the COVID-19 crisis.”

Update: This story has been updated to include comment from the mayor’s office.