The outdoor dining plan for Angelo’s Fairmount Tavern in Atlantic City and just about every other South Jersey restaurant sounds simple.
“We’re bringing our inside outside,” Angelo’s owner Angelo Mancuso III said.
The reality couldn’t be more complicated.
On Monday, restaurants can offer outdoor dining as part of Stage Two of New Jersey’s reopening plan from the COVID-19 pandemic.
There’s plenty for restaurants to account for: bugs, pollen, humidity, wind and rain.
Never mind maintaining social distance, having hand sanitizer available, disinfecting tables and importing portable restrooms.
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“Instead of linens, rolled silverware and napkins, everything is throwaway,” said Matt DiNardo, front house manager for the Tuckahoe Inn in the Beesleys Point section of Upper Township. “When you look at the definition of disinfecting something, it’s a lot different than just wiping something down and making sure it’s a surface clean.”
It may be a daunting proposition, but most restaurants, and more importantly their customers, can’t wait.
Romanelli’s Garden Cafe on Route 9 in Galloway Township is not accepting reservations for the opening week, but owner Drew Huggard said if the restaurant did, it would be completely booked.
The Tuckahoe Inn begins outdoor dining with 50 picnic tables Wednesday, and reservations are almost completely booked for that day.
“We’re not experts at inside food outside,” DiNardo said. “We will be by Wednesday. People are excited to get back to some form of familiarity.”
Many restaurants are converting their parking lots into outdoor dining areas. Romanelli’s erected a tent just outside its front entrance. With the tent and a side porch that already was used for outdoor dining, Romanelli’s plans to accommodate close to 70 diners at a time.
Angelo’s fenced off a 5,000-square-foot area in its parking lot and strung lights above it to create ambience. It will feature 35 tables and a full bar.
The Tuckahoe is one of the lucky restaurants with a view. It already had an outdoor dining area that overlooks the Great Egg Harbor Bay.
Most restaurants needed approval from their towns and the state Division of Alcohol Beverage Control to convert to outdoor dining. The ABC permit costs $75 and is valid until Nov. 30.
“Galloway was extremely helpful with getting permits set up,” Huggard said. “The ABC application got forwarded to the township. The township reviewed everybody’s plans. It was a seamless process.”
Murphy’s executive order gave some of the basics on how to conduct safe outdoor dining. Additional details came from the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association.
Tables must be 6 feet apart, eight or fewer customers can be seated together and restaurant employees must wear gloves and masks.
Diners must sign in with a phone number in case there is a need for contact tracing.
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Many of the servers at Tuckahoe will wear clear plastic masks that allow patrons to see their faces.
“People can see you smile,” DiNardo said.
Food will be served in disposable containers. There are also disposable menus, condiments, and salt and pepper packages.
“There will be minimal items on the table,” Huggard said, “probably nothing on the tables here.”
Huggard and his staff are excited but nervous for the start of outdoor dining. He’s been meeting with his managers daily to discuss solutions for what he describes as “the weirdest things that can go wrong.”
South Jersey restaurant owners have also been in contact with restaurant owners from other states to discuss the challenges they faced when reopening.
Weather is the biggest unknown. Rain will close nearly all restaurants.
“We call the local priest and rabbi,” DiNardo said with a laugh, “hope for the best and watch The Weather Channel.”
With all the hurdles, it might seem easier for restaurants to forgo outdoor dining and wait until indoor dining is permitted.
But the restaurants need to return to some form of normalcy.
“Are we going to make all the money we want to make?” Huggard said. “No, because we’re going to be on limited seating, but it’s good to get ourselves back in the groove of things. I strongly believe the governor will continue to open things up, and this almost gives us a practice run.”
The biggest reason owners and operators are embracing outdoor dining is their passion for the restaurant business.
“If you have a dream for a business, then yes, it’s always worth it,” DiNardo said. “What price would you give to have your dream come true?”
For many restaurants, Monday will be an emotional day. It will serve as a reunion.
Many restaurants received loans from the Small Business Administration to continue to pay employees, but the workers haven’t seen each other since dining was shut down three months ago.
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Angelo’s will have 35 people working Monday compared with six on a usual takeout day. Romanelli’s will have 15 to 20 people working compared with four or five when it only served takeout.
“You put so many hours in,” Huggard said. “When you work in this type of industry, your co-workers become your family.”