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With Tables Spaced Apart and Lots of Hand Sanitizer, Philly Restaurants Try to Make Outdoor Dining Work

“It’s about surviving, not thriving,” says restaurateur Michael Schulson

people eating at sidewalk tables with blue umbrellas
On 13th Street in Center City, tables line the sidewalk in front of Sampan and Double Knot.
Schulson Collective

After three months of no onsite eating, Philadelphia restaurants are figuring out the new world of outdoor dining during a pandemic and all the rules — and risks — that come with it. Restaurants who’ve been serving in outdoor dining areas since it was first allowed June 12 are working against steep learning curves, with policy and procedure adjustments and copious amounts of hand sanitizer in an attempt to reopen without increasing the spread of COVID-19.

“Business is going really well when it’s in the ’70s, partly cloudy, not too hot and not raining,” says chef and restaurateur Michael Schulson, who owns several popular Philly spots. He’s making a joke, but the reality that steamy weather and sudden thunderstorms can mean all of a restaurant’s seats are empty is something new for most Philly venues. Also new: Ensuring 6 feet of space between tables or installing Plexiglass barriers, leaving seats empty to cap the number of customers, setting up online ordering systems, requiring customers wear masks, and and reducing staff interactions.

When West Philly brunch spot Renata’s Kitchen relocated back in February to the revamped 40th Street trolley portal, co-owner Katie Steenstra didn’t realize just how valuable the restaurant’s expansive outdoor seating area would be. Armed with a full liquor license, a new addition that came about just two weeks before dining rooms were ordered to close, Renata’s now has socially distanced seating for 53 on its shady patio and serves morning to night, Wednesday to Sunday.

“We had to open,” Steenstra says. “It was kind of a necessity thing.” She says so far customers are following the rules, wearing masks when away from their tables and even when servers approach, which is not required, and business has been good, considering the situation.

The crew at Renata’s is trying to create “a genuine restaurant experience,” she says, explaining that she’s not giving diners time limits or minimum amounts they have to spend. (Some restaurants require reservations for set time slots.) “We’re encouraging people to enjoy themselves.” Steenstra says. “And it hasn’t been hard to get people to order a second cocktail.”

Steenstra herself has been out to eat since outdoor dining was introduced: She took her husband, Renata’s chef and co-owner Yasser Aiq, to a birthday dinner at Sampan, the Asian fusion destination in Center City that Schulson opened in 2009.

Outside seating at Sampan, at 124 S. 13th Street, and neighbor Double Knot, also part of the Schulson Collective, stretches down the block, which works out because other businesses along 13th Street are still closed, Schulson says. At Via Locusta just off Rittenhouse Square, tables are set up outside the Warwick Hotel next door and in some parking spots along Locust Street. In Old City, the open-air Independence Beer Garden now has a QR code system for ordering, minimizing interactions with servers. Still, “[i]t’s about surviving, not thriving,” Schulson says.

Although his restaurant group was able to bring back more than 40 percent of its employees, hiring front-of-house staff for the newly reopened restaurants has been a problem. “A lot of people don’t want to come back,” Schulson says, estimating that people who were on his staff and making less than $65,000 a year are making about the same through unemployment compensation, which currently includes an extra $600 a week through the federal CARES Act. That might be a reason for some front-of-house restaurant workers to forgo a return to less predictable, tip-based income, he says. (Money is not the only factor: Health concerns are likely keeping some workers home across the country.)

beer garden with trees, lights, people sitting in wood chairs
Independence Beer Garden
Neal Santos

At The Love near Rittenhouse Square and Talula’s Garden on Washington Square, both from Aimee Olexy and Stephen Starr, one key piece to making outdoor dining work over the last couple weeks has been rearranging staff work schedules. “We created early morning shifts that provide the best social distancing,” Olexy says. “We’ve adjusted menu items and equipment to prevent staff cross-over.”

Olexy says when the restaurants were closed, she “removed everything and looked at the space with a fresh design perspective,” and used umbrellas, awnings, and Plexiglass to create comfortable outdoor areas.

Even as they figure out outdoor dining, some restaurants are already gearing up for indoor dining, which could start in July. For others, indoor dining doesn’t sound all that appealing. Sofia Deleon of El Merkury at 21st and Chestnut says she isn’t sure she wants to let customers sit inside at her small, counter-service Central American eatery, even when that’s an option.

El Merkury has been open for takeout since the pandemic hit, and the staff has been cooking for healthcare workers and Philadelphians in need through World Central Kitchen and feed the frontlines organizations. Now, Deleon is setting up a dozen sidewalk tables in front of the restaurant and a shuttered coffee shop next door, also owned by her landlord. Twelve tables is as many as the restaurant had inside, but Deleon also wants to find a way to skip the indoor counter-ordering part. She’s working with Toast, a restaurant software developer, to create an app that lets diners order her pupusas and churros through their phones, rather than by interacting with a server.

No matter what, she’s at least staying open for takeout. “We have not closed and we didn’t lay anyone off,” Deleon says.

Renata's Kitchen

3940 Baltimore Avenue, , PA 19104 (267) 275-8254 Visit Website

Via Locusta

1723 Locust Street, , PA 19103 (215) 642-0020 Visit Website

Talula's Garden

210 West Washington Square, , PA 19106 (215) 592-7787 Visit Website

Double Knot

120 South 13th Street, , PA 19107 (215) 631-3868 Visit Website

El Merkury

2104 Chestnut Street, , PA 19103 (267) 457-5952 Visit Website

Sampan

124 South 13th Street, , PA 19107 (215) 732-3501 Visit Website

The Love.

130 South 18th Street, , PA 19103 (215) 433-1555 Visit Website

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