Efficacy of Outdoor Dining Structures in Astoria

By Dimitris A. Puesan

Introduction

It is without a doubt that Covid-19 has took a large toll the restaurant industry worldwide. After the outbreak, millions of jobs have been lost, and nearly 100,000 restaurants have closed permanently or indefinitely. Although, establishments of all sizes, places, and niches have managed to remain afloat thanks to swift reactions and a willingness to adapt. As more restaurants reopen, it’s obvious that some of these adjustments are here to stay. 

The aim of this research is to show which types of adjustments on outdoor dining have worked best for restaurants and customers. For months, restaurant groups, local governments, and chef-owners have been scrambling to find ways to get through the winter. Heated igloos and tents are being purchased as well as air filtration systems to keep the virus from spreading indoors. Apart from the usual safety covid measures such as wearing masks and mandating a six-foot distance between seats, restaurants have quickly started building makeshift outdoor seating areas for customers. How effective have these outdoor structures been? Which outdoor structure has worked better compared to others?

Outdoor dining is an inexpensive solution to combat today’s covid safety precautions without going over budget. As long as the proper safety measures are being taken, outdoor dining can be very beneficial to restaurants struggling to make ends meet. There are even outdoor dining programs will be expanded, according to city officials, to encourage restaurants to take over adjacent public spaces that aren’t being used. By the end of this project, I hope to have properly recorded data on which outdoor structure has worked best for restaurants and customers. 

Study Methodology

Due to the qualitative research study approach of the project, I have chosen to survey participants (restaurant owners & managers). The objective of the survey approach was to develop an in-depth analysis on which types of outdoor dining structures worked best for restaurants in my neighborhood. The survey consists of 8 Questions, 6 Multiple Choice, 1 Short-Essay Question, and 1 Scale Question. All survey questions help me dive deeper into what outdoor dining structures are made of, money spent on structures/modifications, as well as customer comfortability, etc. This research has been carried out in my local neighborhood of Astoria Queens, which is known for its diverse dining & innovative cooking. According to Niche.com, Astoria, Queens currently has a population of 88,620 people, with a median household income of $73,000. According to a survey conducted, 56 percent of people say they dine at a restaurant, get takeout or have a meal delivered 2 to 3 times a week in the neighborhood of Astoria.

Restaurants surveyed include: El Mariachi Astoria, Bahari Estiatorio, Ruta Oaxaca Mexican Grill, Basurero Restaurant, New York City Bagel Coffee House, Pollos A La Brasa Mario, Blend on The Water Astoria.

Step by Step Analysis

Firstly, I started off by contacting 20 local restaurants in my neighborhood of Astoria, in which only 7 of those restaurants got back to me and agreed to participate in my short 8-Question survey. Below are the results of the questions asked to the participating restaurants.

Q1 – What kind of outdoor dining structure do you currently have? ie; Wooden, Steel, Plexigrass, etc. (Feel free to select more than one option)

QUESTION 2: The coronavirus pandemic has without a doubt taken a toll financially on many businesses, especially the restaurant industry. To cope with these challenging times, most restaurant owners were forced to build these outdoor dining structures in order to stay afloat financially. It is important to know and understand how much money on average restaurant owners have spent on building these structures. According to the survey results, the average amount spent on outdoor dining structures was between $1,000-$5,000. Although higher end restaurants with the capital to build more sophisticated structures have spent well over $10,000+.  

Q2 – How much money on average did you spend on building your outdoor dining structure?

QUESTION 3: Question 3 focuses on the changes made to outdoor settings post-pandemic, while of course, still keeping Covid-19 safety precautions in mind. According to survey results, the most common changes to outdoor structures were lighting & heating, all done differently. After observing these restaurants, I noticed that during the wintertime, infrared heating was being used to keep customers warm and cozy while dining. Since the weather is currently getting better in NYC, heating has been replaced with new outdoor décor such as plants. Bahari Estiatorio restaurant stated that they even expanded their outdoor dining structure to attract and fit more customers. 

Q4 – How much money on average did you spend making modifications to your outdoor dining structure?

QUESTION 4: Adjustments throughout the reopening phase of NYC have had to be made by all sorts of businesses, especially restaurants. Similar to Question 3, the graph shows us in detail how much money on average restaurants spent on making modifications to their outdoor dining structures. Lower-end restaurants looking to save money (El Mariachi, Ruta Oaxaca, Pollo Mario) spent on average $0-$500. I noticed that the following 3 restaurants looking to save cash were all of Spanish cuisine. The remainder of restaurants, especially the higher-end ones (Basurero, Blend) have spent between $3000-$5,000+ according to the survey. These modifications were all done with covid safety precautions in mind, as restaurant owners have mentioned. 

QUESTION 5: Q.5 asks if there have been any complaints abouts safety from customers. All restaurant owners answered No to this question. I suppose this is due to the fact that a lot of people have been suffering from cabin fever and are aching to finally be able to go back outside, sit down and eat a meal outdoors. 

QUESTION 6: Q6 covers to what extent do customers feel safe eating outdoors. Participants were provided with a scale that they were able to slide from 1-10 (10 being very comfortable). All restaurants except for Ruta Oaxaca which answered 9 on the scale, answered 10 – very comfortable. This gave us an average rating of 9.86 on the comfortability chart. 

Q7 – Is your outdoor dining structure DIY (Do It Yourself) or was a construction company hired? If built by a company, which company did you hire?

QUESTION 7: Instead of hiring a professional construction company to build an outdoor structure, many restaurants opted with the DIY (Do it yourself) route. I asked participants if they built their outdoor settings DIY or hired professionals. Pollo Mario, NYC Bagel & Ruta Oaxaca all constructed their outdoor dining structures DIY. While higher-end restaurants such as Basurero and Blend on the water hired companies such as Rockwell Construction Group, and DB Partners to construct their outdoor dining settings. You can noticeability tell the difference between quality in structures. Professional results look nicer and more symmetrical, while DIY settings lack that.

QUESTION 8: The last question of the survey asks, “Have your outdoor dining structure expenses come out of pocket, or through a loan?”. Surprisingly, 6 out of 7 Restaurants have had to cover outdoor structure expenses out of pocket, Pollo Mario being the only restaurant in the list that had to take a loan. One thing is for certain, no restaurant owner has regretted paying for their outdoor setup. In fact, smaller restaurants such as Ruta Oaxaca and El Mariachi have mentioned to me personally that outdoor dining has saved them from permanently shutting their small businesses down. 

Analysis

Using qualitative data analysis, I was able to come up with the answer to which outdoor dining structure has worked best for restaurant, and the answer is pretty surprising. As long as customers can feel safe, enjoy a breath of fresh air, and eat great food, ANY outdoor dining structure can be considered the best. People have been dying to be able to resume to what we once considered ‘normal living’ and dining outdoors was a large part of that. After surveying restaurant owners and having small conversations with customers, I firmly believe that outdoor dining was a bright light amidst covid’s darkness and that it is also here to stay. Walking down my neighborhood of Astoria and seeing restaurants full of happy people sitting outdoors, enjoying food, having conversations, just makes me think back to when everything in NYC was normal. City dwellers like myself and many others will adapt and benefit as a result. Permanent outdoor dining would potentially be a new revenue stream for restaurant owners that, if made permanent in 2021, might help offset some of the losses they suffered in 2020 due to covid. 

Looking at the information gathered from a more statistical standpoint, all restaurants surveyed have structures built out of two common materials, wood & steel. Wooden planks are inexpensive but durable material in which walls and ceilings can be made from. Partnered with tensile strength of steel beams, this helps structures withstand a variety of natural events such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and wind loading. Professionally built structures have a much higher chance of withstanding NYC weather conditions compared to DIY structures. As weather conditions improved, restaurants focused on making modifications to their outdoor structures. Most of these modifications include, replacing heating with additional lighting, structure expansions, replacing roofing, fresh paint, as well as refurnishing to improve & match the aesthetic of the restaurant, all while following covid safety precautions. Limit seating capacity as well as social distancing between guests are the basic precautions restaurants surveyed are following. Additional precautions I’ve seen these restaurants take include encouraging reservations to better monitor customer traffic, asking customers to provide a phone number to allow contact tracing, and offering alternatives to paper/physical menus. Restaurants in Astoria and across the borough have shifted focus towards outdoor dining to prevent the economic and quality-of-life collapse that may result of the pandemic. 

Report Back

I had the opportunity to showcase my work to a staff member from HANAC Inc. locally in Astoria. HANAC Inc. is a New York City based multi-faceted social services organization that was founded in 1972 to serve the needs of vulnerable populations throughout New York City. HANAC is now a citywide social service agency that serves 30,000 New York City residents each year and receives support from the city, state, and federal governments. HANAC also has a portfolio of 650 senior affordable housing units spread across Queens, New York. I had the pleasure to speak to Mrs. Efthimiades face to face who is one of the building’s coordinators. I showcased my research project as well as my findings to her, and she provided me with extremely helpful feedback. Mrs. Efthimiades was born in Greece but grew up in Astoria from a young age before it was the well-known city it is today. She was surprised with the amount of information I was able to gather from such a short list of restaurant participants and mentioned how outdoor dining is what saved Astoria’s restaurant industry. We continued on having a conversation about how tough it was for restaurants in our city during covid, as well as the adjustments they had to make. I even had the chance to mention my Alpha 3D Virtual Tours business idea and she absolutely LOVED it, she called it “brilliant”. Mrs. Efthimiades mentioned to me how she has many friends who own restaurants all around NYC and how my business can benefit them tremendously. She later ended up matching me with her friends as well as put in a good word for me and my business and I currently have 2 upcoming appointments next week for restaurant Virtual Tours just because of her. Before heading out, I made it known to her that I was very grateful for the opportunity to present my research and for her connections within the restaurant industry. It’s crazy to think how something as simple as a research report back can help me connect with amazing people such as Mrs. Efthimiades, who at the end, helped me attract 2 new clients for my small Virtual Tour business. 

Discussion

My main aim in this study was to address the almost total lack of research and evidence on which outdoor dining structures have worked best for restaurants in Astoria. I have done so by directly observing and surveying a small group of restaurants with fully constructed outdoor dining settings (both low and higher-end), all while paying special attention to the precautions taken to reduce the spread of Covid-19. My study, being of an exploratory and scholarly nature, raises a number of opportunities for future research. More professionally done research will in fact be necessary to refine and further elaborate my findings throughout this project. 

In my opinion, this research project has helped me connect to and better understand the well-known dining setting in my neighborhood of Astoria. I was able to connect with many great restaurant owners who provided me with honest, and helpful survey results that have helped me further my research. I feel that my research contributions will have a strong conceptual influence as well as a developmental impact on future restaurant owners looking to build outdoor dining structures. Developing a good understanding of outdoor dining practice can in fact encourage people in my community to bring their own knowledge and expertise to my research.