While some Boston restaurant have seen an uptick in business in recent months, they’re now facing the uncertain future of new outdoor dining space created in the city in response to the pandemic as they still struggle to recoup lost business.
“We’re definitely seeing an uptick [in busines],” said Babak Bina who along with his sister, Azita Bina-Seibel, owns and operates Bin 26 on Charles Street, as well as jm Curley and its steakhouse, Bogie’s Place, in Downtown Crossing. “It was a great summer with outdoor seating, and we’re grappling with the idea that the Governor is affecting covid restrictions, which will affect easy outdoor permitting.”
The city’s outdoor dining season ends Nov. 1, and Gov. Charlie Baker will at that time lift the special accommodations extended to some restaurants during the pandemic.
Obtaining a permit for outdoor dining through the city’s Public Improvements Commission in pre-pandemic times was a burdensome process for applicants, said Bina, who added that “the list of things you have to accomplish is arduous and exhausting just to read.”
Moreover, Bina added, “It was an incredibly arduous process with no guarantees you’ll get [a permit].The checklist alone is four-pages long under normal circumstances.”
Some restaurants that now have outdoor dining, including Bin 26, also never would have been allowed to offer it in the first place during pre-pandemic times.
“The neighborhood, in the old days, wouldn’t okay [our current outdoor dining provisions at Bin 26], so there was no point in going through that kind of process,” said Bina, “and there’s no guarantee we’re going to get to keep what we have now.”
Bina gives the city a lot of credit for making it work in the interim.
“The city, specifically the Licensing Board, did an incredible job while having to be totally remote in helping us restaurants get through the temporary process as quickly as possible,” he said. “I believe that the old, pre-covid process of [the city’s Public Improvements Commission] is too burdensome in our case and not business friendly.”
Since the new outdoor dining space was created, many restaurants have also invested large sums of money in outdoor dining equipment and furniture like tables, chairs, umbrellas, heaters, and barriers, with no real assurances that they’ll be able to use them (or offer outdoor dining) again in the future.
But on Beacon Hill, Bina has heard nothing but praise for the new outdoor dining opportunities in the neighborhood.
“Our neighbors in Beacon Hill have been thrilled about living in the neighborhood and being able to walk down to their favorite restaurants to enjoy outdoor dining,” he said, “and without exception, every single diner who is our neighbor on Beacon Hill commented that they hope outdoor dining [in the neighborhood] is here to stay.”
Outdoor dining also benefits other businesses besides restaurants, Bina attests.
“In the summertime, Charles Street was normally dead at nighttime, and now, there is vitality in the community that everyone can benefit from, including retailers, so I have seen no downside to outdoor dining,” said Bina. “There’s no argument or pushback. It’s a win-win all around.”
One unprecedented challenge now facing Bina and other Boston restauranteurs is not only how difficult it can be to get a part replaced for an essential piece of equipment like an oven or a dishwasher, but also the difficulty of having the coveted item installed by a service professional once it’s in hand.
“At jm Curley, one of our oven’s motors burned out and needed to be replaced,” said Bina. “We had to wait eight weeks for a part we were told people were fighting over and ultimately another two weeks for the service person to come.”
Bina added: “We had to wait 10 weeks for what would’ve been one week in the old days. We have two ovens, but the other one’s gone now. Luckily, they didn’t both go at the same time.”
And Bina also knows he’s not alone in this: “People are grappling with supply-chain issues for grills, refrigerators – you name it,” he said.
On top this, the price of seafood has skyrocketed, with the cost of scallops quadrupling, while restaurants still struggle to find workers.
“There’s such a labor shortage out there,” said Bina. “There’s competitiveness in pay-rates, which has increased our labor costs in the restaurant industry.”
And restaurants now must find a way to absorb these additional costs without passing them along to patrons.
“Now, we have pushed the cost of everything across the board up – labor, parts, services and we’re able to support that without drastically increasing our menu prices,” said Bina. “But take out the outdoor seating income, and we’re going to be upside down.”
Outdoor seating accounts for 25 to 30 percent of some restaurants’ overall revenue, said Bina, while some restaurants have more seating outside than they do inside.
“The Upper Crust [on Charles Street] is a perfect example,” said Bina, “as is Coppa in the South End and Little Donkey in Cambridge.”
And the loss of outdoor dining could prove an unsurmountable setback for some restaurants, Bina believes.
“We’re creating a new cost platform, which, if we don’t get outdoor seating back, will have devastating effects,” said Bina. “Take out the outdoor seating income, and we’re going to be upside down.”