Today’s dining scene bears little resemblance to what it was two months ago.
Parking lot beer gardens, cocktails to go, drive-through groceries, masked servers and take-and-bake fine dining have become the norm as restaurant owners look for ways to keep money coming in during COVID-19 restrictions.
Starting May 4, restaurants were allowed to emerge from the takeout-only order, with new rules allowing seating at 25% capacity inside and 6 feet between parties inside and out.
As restaurants look for creative new ways to do business, city governments are doing their best to accommodate.
For example, Wednesday, the Cocoa City Council approved a resolution allowing for restaurants to expand outdoor seating options, said Samantha Senger, assistant to the city manager and public relations specialist.
Cocoa put out temporary seating in the Myrt Tharpe Square Gazebo in Cocoa Village on Friday to expand outdoor dining options for diners at Village restaurants.
“By working together, we will ensure to our community that business is safe to resume, following the COVID-19 pandemic. We want customers to feel safe and enjoy our Cocoa businesses once again to ensure a thriving economic future for the City of Cocoa,” said Cocoa Mayor Jake Williams Jr.
The city of Melbourne enacted an emergency order on May 1 allowing restaurants to apply for a temporary outdoor seating permit at no cost.
Don DiFrisco is owner and founder of Hell ‘n Blazes Brewing Co. in downtown Melbourne. The brewery, which employs about 40 workers, has offered carryout and curbside food during the pandemic.
DiFrisco called City Hall and said he was told he was the city’s first restaurateur to inquire about the outdoor dining program.
He owns the small parking lot immediately west of Hell ‘n Blazes Brewing Co. His plan: Place aluminum barricades around three parking spaces near the Chumley’s Depot wall; set up five tables with four to six chairs per table; install shade tents; and string up lights.
“To add an outdoor seating area, I think it would just be a nice middle ground for people to start coming back to restaurants and drinking establishments who might be a little nervous about going inside,” DiFrisco said.
“Some people would like to just sit outside and feel more comfortable with the fresh air blowing through. And that’s what we’d like to provide them for the next couple of months,” he said.
It took several days for DiFrisco’s permit to be approved, but he was able to set up a temporary beer garden next to Hell ‘n Blazes on Wednesday.
On April 28, the Titusville City Council approved emergency measures allowing outdoor seating for restaurants in grassy areas and parking lots.
Marcia Gaedcke, president of the Titusville Chamber of Commerce, said she’s seen several restaurants in the city adding outdoor seating. She said the owner of Pizza@ Titus Landing said as soon as Phase 1 of reopening Florida began, “it was a like a light switch flipped, and they were busy again.”
Palm Bay’s code of ordinances does not include formal outdoor dining regulations. To support local restaurants, the City Hall growth management department will review and expedite outdoor dining requests free of charge on a case-by-case basis, said Keely Leggett, city spokeswoman.
Restaurants must submit an informal outdoor seating plan. Among the guidelines:
- Dining tables cannot block entrances, exits, fire lanes, hydrants, sprinkler connection points, drive aisles, back-up areas, or pedestrian-handicapped access areas.
- Parking spaces may be used for dining tables, but physical barriers such as bollards or planter boxes must protect customers from vehicle traffic.
- Outdoor seating plans must meet fire department standards, including points of egress, access to fire extinguishers, and tent and awning ratings.
Palm Bay restaurants with a liquor license must obtain approval from the state to serve alcohol in an outdoor area, Leggett said.
In Rockledge, city manager Brenda Fettrow said officials have stopped by restaurants to help determine how many tables can be set up outside without blocking entryways and allowing for proper social distancing.
Tomas Trska, who owns Kelsey’s and Preacher Bar in Cape Canaveral, also applied for a permit to set up seating in the parking lot. As of Thursday, he was waiting for a final OK from the city.
Despite the delay, Trska is glad the city is making these temporary allowances for businesses.
“We need to survive somehow,” he said.
The two restaurants have limped along for seven weeks on takeout with only 10 of the usual 50 employees working. Trska would like to add outdoor seating so he can bring more people back to work.
“We’re trying to figure out every single day, how to go through this,” he said. “With almost zero business, it’s not enough to cover anything. We’re just hanging in there, barely.”
Even with relaxed city and state regulations, reopening still doesn’t make sense for everyone. Attorney Tami Bell owns Tailgaters Tavern in Suntree.
“Full capacity is only 85, so at 25%, that’s not worth the overhead,” she said. “It would not be fruitful for it to do that.”
Her family also owns Wid’s Place in Melbourne, which has reopened. The inside area is bigger and outside seating recently was added..
As a restaurant owner, Bell said the idea of seating customers in the parking lot is intriguing.
“It gives you space to have more customers,” she said.
As an attorney, she advises restaurant owners to be cautious when setting up new outdoor areas.
Even with local and state governments relaxing regulations in the short term, not following the rules could have consequences in the long term.
“I love these ideas,” she said, “but you have to pay attention to what it means to your future for licensing.”
Marbet Lewis, an attorney with Spiritus Law in Coral Gables, works exclusively with the hospitality industry.
It remains to be seen, she said, whether certain allowances such as to-go cocktails and expanded outdoor seating will remain as emergency orders are lifted.
These temporary changes were intended to help keep restaurants operating, Lewis said, but to keep them in place would require changing laws.
Like Bell, she cautioned restaurant owners to check with their landlords and local governments before setting up chairs and tables in the parking lot.
Business owners needing state permits shouldn’t hesitate to apply.
“We spoke with the state last week,” she said. “They have the capacity to process applications.”
Where before the state Department of Business & Professional Regulation was busy processing new business applications, those have dried up, leaving time to handle requests from existing businesses.
Officials are being lenient with business owners, Lewis said.
“During this time, there has been a lot of flexibility with enforcement,” she said. “What we really have seen has been a willingness to cooperate and see businesses survive.”
But owners still need to follow the appropriate processes.
Like Bell, Jacqueline Sampson has determined it’s not prudent to reopen her Cocoa Beach restaurant, Pompano Grill, at this time.
Her intimate dining room only seats 40 people, and with social distancing, she would be limited to four tables.
“It would be financial suicide to reopen,” she said, even at 50% occupancy. “We run at such tight margins, we need to have a full dining room every night.”
Pompano Grill has been closed since March 14, and Sampson originally opted not to offer takeout, “because the food’s just not going to be good when you get it home.”
As the calendar pages flipped into May, Sampson and her daughter and general manager Erika Wollard decided to reinvent their business model, starting with Mother’s Day.
They created a Half-Baked menu of oven-ready meals they and executive chef Dave Chevrefils prepare at the restaurant.
The Mother’s Day meals proved popular.
“Yesterday, we made 28 quiches and 32 cakes on Tuesday,” Sampson said. “We have more to go today.”
Now Sampson, Wollard and Chevrefils have developed a Half-Baked menu for pickup or delivery on May 15. The menu includes crab cakes and wild mushroom and goat cheese arancini, family meals like cannelloni and lasagna, and single entrees such as seared sesame tuna salad and Cheshire pork chop. There are also soups and sides, plus Sampson’s decadent desserts, which come in single servings or whole cakes and pies.
Meals come with cooking or reheating instructions.
“We’re experimenting on our vegan and plant-based menu,” Sampson said.
The plan is to make menus available for two weeks, then change.
“We’ve come up with 200 menu items of that will travel well,” she said, “or that we partially cook and you finish cooking it when you get home.”
Before coronavirus, Sampson had leased the space next door to her restaurant with plans to add a wine bar, a private dining room and music.
Now she’s considering going in a different direction, with retail wine sales and a pastry case.
She, like many others in her profession, is trying to figure out how to remain relevant on a dining landscape that is drastically different from what it was two months ago. She plans to eventually reopen Pompano Grill, but right now, it’s hard to know what that will look like.
“I don’t know if the restaurant is going to go back to what it was,” she said. “I don’t know if people will be leery of being in a small space.”
For now, she’s having fun getting back to her roots, offering private chef services and creating family meals to go.
“I think everyone’s going to have to reinvent themselves a little bit to survive,” she said.
It’s good to see people making their way back into local restaurants, Bell said, though the process of reopening seems slow and arduous.
“It needs to happen to build our confidence back up,” she said. “Unless people feel confident in going out, they’ll never go out, and unless we start somewhere, we’ll never reopen.”