Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
To survive coronavirus summer, restaurants are rushing to claim space for outdoor seating. But can sidewalk tables and parking-lot patios provide enough revenue?
Even before its opening, Hold Out Brewing lived up to its name.
The Austin brewpub is the latest project of Matthew Bolick and Matt and Grady Wright, who own a handful of popular bars and cafes in the Texas capital. Their portfolio includes a coffeeshop-slash-drafthouse called Wright Bros. Brew & Brew and the all-day casual-fare Better Half Coffee and Cocktails, whose cauliflower tots helped it earn the restaurant-of-the-year nod from Eater Austin in 2019. Next door to Better Half, in an unmissable quonset dome, is where the owners parked Hold Out Brewing.
The Austin team first announced the brewery back in 2017, but delays with the city dragged out the opening for 17 months. (Disclosure: I’ve been friends with co-owners Matt and Grady Wright for several years.) Then the pandemic arrived, forcing the owners to confront a bunch of dilemmas all at once. Can a brewpub open during a pandemic? How would they reopen any of their spots?
As of May 7, Hold Out Brewing is open-ish for business. The brewery is slinging burgers, dogs, and curly fries — even deep-fried chocolate pecan pie. A craft six-pack of Thumb Puncher Pale Ale will set you back $15. It’s still takeout-only, though. Unlike many Texas restaurants, which were allowed to reopen with limited capacity on May 1, the brewery is holding out on opening up its patio, much less any interior dine-in spaces. Not quite yet. That’s still a dilemma for this and other Austin eateries.
“We’ve been able to do this current to-go business model really well. We know it, we can keep staff safe, we can keep our guests safe,” says Brent Sapstead, head brewer at Hold Out. “We decided to go with what we know. As we look to expand and look at more and more of that, I think we’ll be having this conversation weekly.”
As restaurants and shops in Texas and other states start to reopen, owners are adjusting to a new normal that is anything but. One key to economic recovery this summer — if both owners and customers can muster the confidence — may be the outside party. Heading outdoors is an old prescription for pandemic relief: In 1918, San Francisco mandated that church services be held outdoors and that streetcar windows remain open in good weather; many cities held court hearings en plein air. Today, it’s eateries that are leading the march outside, since these are among the first storefront establishments to reopen widely around the United States. This summer may shape up to be the season of al fresco everything.
In Tampa’s popular Ybor City district, for example, restaurants have overtaken several streets that have been closed to traffic in order to build outdoor dining rooms. A famously free-ranging flock of Ybor chickens, which typically shuns busy Seventh Avenue, has rediscovered the main drag. (Nature is healing.) Berkeley in the Bay Area is looking to authorize big outdoor dining spots; Indianapolis, Philadelphia, and Las Vegas are following suit. Earlier this month, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo announced an “Al Fresco San Jose” initiative that would allow restaurants to claim sidewalk, alley, and street space, while Cincinnati is waiving permitting fees and encouraging food vendors to colonize the sidewalk. In New Hampshire, only outdoor dining spaces will be allowed to reopen for the time being.
Other U.S. cities are signaling their eagerness to get in on the al fresco action. Eateries in Baltimore’s Little Italy are clamoring for street closures so they can reclaim the streets for red-sauce dining. And in restaurant-dense Manhattan, the demand to eat outside has been long and loud: Many believe that the sidewalk tables — and the street closures that would make room for them — represent the best hope of survival for New York’s imperiled restaurant scene.
In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott has allowed restaurants to open with limited capacity, a cap that will be raised to 50% as of May 22. Bars across Texas may reopen on Friday, too, at 25% capacity. Patios and courtyards enjoy a special exemption: So long as outdoor tables are spaced six feet apart, restaurants are allowed to seat more people outside. The state’s priority on outdoor spaces may line up with popular sentiment. Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor (!) for Texas Monthly, told readers and restaurants in a tweet that he won’t be gracing any indoor dining rooms for the foreseeable future.
“If you’re going to be eating out, it’s better to do it outside than inside,” says Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who has been critical of the governor’s rush to reopen. “If you’re going to be eating out, it’s better to do it six feet away [from other tables]. It’s better to do it in a restaurant with 10 people than a restaurant with 100 people.”
There may be science to back up the caution that business owners, staffers, and customers feel about crowding back inside their favorite haunts. One much-discussed study by scientists in China named indoor spread as the prime culprit in coronavirus transmission. Across 320 cities in China, 80% of outbreaks with three or more cases this winter happened in homes, while 34% involved transportation; only one outbreak could be blamed on an outdoor event (a conversation). In another study, 10 people from three different families all came down with coronavirus after eating at the same air-conditioned restaurant in Guangzhou. Other research points to the same conclusion: The risk of transmission is highest in enclosed environments. (The prospects for basement dive bars aren’t great.)
New York City looks to be at least a month away from reopening any indoor dining spaces. Right now, the city is gearing up for a campaign to push diners outdoors: New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and NYC Hospitality Alliance executive director Andrew Rigie took to the op-ed page to spell out a plan for restaurant owners, business districts, and neighborhood groups to help the city identify places to test al fresco dining expansions. David Rockwell, an architect whose firm specializes in hospitality design, has even sketched out some potential templates for restaurants on the Rockwell Group’s website.
Outdoor seating may be tactically vital for preserving commercial corridors in New York, since many restaurants can’t survive for long on the reedy margins to be had from hosting only a few scattered four-tops. And takeout orders represent only a fraction of the industry’s usual take: Restaurant revenues in New York are down 89% from where they stood in April 2019. “It is critically important that restaurants have outdoor space to offset reductions inside,” Rigie told the New York Daily News.
Simply reopening dining rooms isn’t necessarily an option, even if local regulations permit it. The new pandemic status quo demands adequate social distancing, which can also mean a mostly empty restaurant. (Virginia’s Michelin-starred Inn at Little Washington plans to lean all the way in to the creepy pandemic vibes by filling out its dining room with “mannequins wearing vintage, 1940s-style outfits” sitting at the unused tables.) Places that have pivoted to takeout — Austin’s Better Half is one of them — have now partitioned their indoor space to better allow workers to spread out, for food-prep and safety reasons. Opening up a dining room to a fraction of the usual customers still requires a full-time share of planning, resources, staff and uncertainty.
“Most of the clientele is used to how curbside [pickup] works,” Sapstead says. “They are used to understanding what strips of tape on the ground mean and what they signify. They were ready to go and followed the rules.”
There’s something else at play, though, in the decision by restaurants to reopen (or not), to turn parking lots into courtyards (or not), or to invite customers back onto patios (or not). It has to do with margins but also scale. Independent restaurateurs have a sense of what their customers want and what their like-minded peers are doing, Matt Wright says; for now, they’re taking a wait-and-see approach. At the other end of the spectrum, fast-food chains are also expressing caution about reopening dining rooms. An almost 60-page McDonald’s corporate guide to disinfecting and social distancing for franchisees is a sign for how difficult reopening might be.
Still, the pressure to reopen quickly is intense. According to a survey of San Francisco restaurants that decided to operate through the pandemic, 60% are losing money on takeout and delivery. Eateries that rely on volume need dining space to reopen safely and profitably.
Is al-fresco-everything the answer? It has its downsides. Especially in the Southern states that are rushing headlong to reopen, summer brings miserable heat and humidity. Diners who are forced to choose between increased air-conditioned virus exposure indoors or sweating outside may stay home or stick to takeout. Pandemic skeptics don’t recognize any such tradeoff, of course. Customers in Georgia who see coronavirus exposure as a matter of personal choice are likely going to go with AC every time.
In Austin, meanwhile, Hold Out Brewing is preparing for the season with a raft of lower-alcohol hoppy beers, ideal for glugging on a Texas summer scorcher. Just not on the patio — for now.
“When we opened Better Half, we threw open the doors and essentially had a party,” Sapstead says. “By contrast, opening a to-go-only business for opening day, it was very exciting and we were super stoked, but it was so weird. We have all this room that we’d love to share with folks. Having to be masked and distanced from all these people we know and love — it’s strange.”