Wilton Restaurants Weigh Pros and Cons of Reopening with “Outdoor Only” Mandate

Last weekend, the State of Connecticut released phase one reopening guidelines for restaurants, limiting the ability to reopen to those will offer outdoor-only seating. The date for reopening–currently set for Wednesday, May 20–was accompanied by fast state and local action to allow select restaurants to expand their outdoor dining areas. However, though the news is welcome to some Wilton restaurant owners, others say space restrictions, dining experience and expenses make them hold off on reopening.

According to the official document, the guidelines were designed to allow businesses to reopen with “the most important consideration” being the health and safety of the customers and employees, hence the outdoor only mandate. The guidelines and restrictions to restaurants in phase one include:

  • Outdoor only seating with no bar or indoor seating areas allowed.
  • Limiting capacity to 50% full at most and advising employees on how to identify the limit
  • Separating customers and tables by at least six feet.
  • Properly training employees on new rigorous protocols on how to clean and disinfect areas safely.
  • Providing employees with personal protective equipment and mandating their usage; specifically, require masks covering nose and mouth for all employees (unless it would jeopardize an individuals health) and gloves for table servers as well.
  • Limiting the amount of equipment employees share to the fullest extent, and having specific work zones to minimize their overlap wherever possible; rearranging workstations such as in the kitchen so workers face in opposite directions and are at least six feet apart.
  • No buffets; no reusable menus; use packaged or rolled up silverware; use single-use packets and containers when possible; and touchless appliances when possible.
  • Hand sanitizer available at entrances, as well as increased signage indicating proper distancing and social distancing guidelines.
  • Customers must bring and wear face coverings or masks that cover their nose and mouth, only to be removed when eating or if it would jeopardize an individual’s health.
Ups and Downs of Adapting

Before the pandemic, outdoor seating could be granted by the town through special permits to restaurants in Wilton Center or after review by the P&Z commission, an extended process. However, Michael Wrinn, Wilton’s Director of Planning & Land Use Management/Town Planner, said that Gov. Lamont‘s Executive Order 7MM regarding Outdoor Activities modified both the state and local law, allowing any restaurant to apply for outdoor seating.

Wrinn said a new application is currently in the works (which should be available by Monday at the latest) to expedite the process. It is up to each restaurant to decide whether or not they want to apply for or implement outdoor seating, but Wrinn hopes to make applying and approval a quick process.

But regulations are not the only barrier to reopening.

For Orem’s Diner, owner Demetri Papanikolaou said that creating even temporary outdoor seating could cost the diner a substantial amount. “Is it worth spending $10,000 you know, that in four months, [could] be unnecessary?” he said.

“We need to get tables, we would need to put out a tent, we need to run power out there. The [state] has set out a guideline that we have to follow in terms of what needs to be done,” Papanikolauo said. “It’s just difficult to comply with everything in a manner that would make it really feasible [and] cost-effective.”

Furthermore, Tim LaBant, owner of both The Schoolhouse at Cannondale and Parlor Wilton, said that the type of restaurant plays a substantial role in whether it will be able to adapt to the new changes and have success with outdoor seating, using the Schoolhouse, which has been closed since March, as an example.

“The fine-dining scene is pretty much over now and that’s been our concept there [at the Schoolhouse] for the last 13 years,” LaBant said. “It’s difficult to have a place that has never really done take-out and is very labor-intensive and it was something more for special occasions or things like that. By not having the ability to see people inside…that’s a bit more of a challenge to try to get going again.”

LaBant added that fulfilling the requirements in the guidelines are particularly challenging because restaurants tend to be set up with a small kitchen to maximize profit. The new mandate requires employees in the kitchen to be six feet apart and facing the opposite direction whenever possible.

“In any restaurant that I’ve ever worked at in my entire life there are very specific requirements to trying to make a profit and one of those is you don’t want a massive kitchen and a small dining room,” he said. Additionally, cutting the occupancy in half is also a challenge, as it would take twice as long to turn a profit.

There are more unknowns. Papanikolauo said it’s uncertain how long outdoor-only seating will be necessary, or if he can guarantee his employees’ safety even when following all the above guidelines.

The 99-year-old diner has already had to furlough all but nine of its 40 employees, many of whom have been working at the diner for decades. Though he said Orem’s is “optimistic” about the future because of its long history of overcoming challenges–including a fire, recessions, and World War II–business now is “much less” than it is in normal times. While Papanikolauo is still debating whether or not to add outdoor seating, the diner will continue to offer pickup and limited delivery through phone orders.

Success Stories, Despite Challenges

Though LaBant said reimagining the vision for the Schoolhouse will take time, Parlor, on the other hand, has proven to be very adaptable. The pizzeria was able to re-open for delivery and curbside pickup successfully after a five-week hiatus, moving at an even faster pace selling pizza because they were no longer limited by the restaurant’s small number of tables. LaBant has even had “sellout nights” during the quarantine, maxing out on the pizza dough prepared for the night.

Similarly, thanks to the success of Little Pub Wilton‘s delivery and curbside pickup, the restaurant’s manager Jeremiah Kline said his team is not deterred about the future despite the fact that they do not currently have outdoor seating.

“We have a solid product. We have wonderful customers–there’s none better than them. And it’s just making it all work,” Kline said. Revenue has stayed consistent for Little Pub, thanks to a combination of partnering with Doordash, working with Grub Hub, and the community’s adoption of curbside pick-up.

Marly’s Bar and Bistro, unlike many other Wilton eateries, is already equipped with plentiful outdoor seating and the owners are currently looking into ways to expand it even more. General manager Louis Macol said he has been working quickly to make reopening possible and is confident that outdoor dining is a good first step.

“It’s a good way to start slow and kind of get our feet wet, because it’s a new world in the restaurant business,” he said.

Marly’s has taken numerous precautions for both take-out and reopening, including ordering “thousands” of pens so none have to be reused between customers; appointing an employee whose sole job is to sanitize seats, tables, doorknobs, bathrooms and all surfaces between customers; and going through the state guidelines “line by line” with the entire staff.

“We’ve been here 11 years and the owners are Wilton residents, born and raised, and their kids go to the high school here, and so again we take it very seriously,” Macol said. “People should feel confident coming here.”

Julia LaBant, Tim’s wife and co-owner of the restaurants, said that although things may look different for her restaurants and for the community, people should not be afraid to embrace it.

“I don’t think that anything’s going to come back in the same exact way and sometimes change is a good thing,” she said. “I think it’s an opportunity [for] all of us that are small business owners to embrace some change and make it work for us and be creative…It’s really been a time of people coming together and sharing ideas.”

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