The familiar sounds of construction noise filled 9th Avenue this Sunday morning — but it wasn’t the usual road work rousing West Siders from their slumber. More than 30 Hell’s Kitchen restaurants and bars were ordered to dismantle their outdoor dining structures over the weekend, leaving small business owners angry and frustrated at more than 500 outdoor dining seats being lost.
The sheds were ordered to be removed as part of an extended water main repair and sidewalk expansion project commissioned by the Department of Design and Construction (DDC) and Department of Transportation (DOT) that started in 2017 and is estimated to run through the end of this year. The project, a continuation of work being completed further up the West Side, will both replace and install thousands of feet of water mains as well as expanding the existing sidewalk and creating curb enhancements for enhanced pedestrian safety. Due to the nature of the work, portions of the construction must be completed during the warmer months, leaving restaurateurs in 9th Avenue between W50th and W59th Street without outdoor dining sheds during their prime revenue months.
Kasia Banas, owner of Route 66, fought back tears as she watched the outdoor dining next door at Kashkaval Garden and Blue Seafood being dismantled. She’d planned one last day of outdoor service before facing the inevitable destruction of her 24-seat dining area. “This was built with borrowed money — it didn’t even pay for itself,” she said of her restaurant’s structure. “It’s going to cost me even more to take it down — and they don’t give a damn. They won’t even let me use it this summer to pay for this. It feels like I’m being hit in the gut again.”
Banas was frustrated at the near never-ending roadwork on the avenue and its effect on her long-term revenue. “They’ve ruined my business with this stupid construction that they don’t do properly,” she said. “Since 2017, they dug up those holes at least 10 times. It’s such a waste of money the way they work. They’ve been here for six years, and now they don’t want to give us few more months to work,” added Banas. “We’ve been through a pandemic. They told us we could build it. If they had told us a few months ago that we would have to tear it down, I would not have spent so much money on it. The bureaucracy is awful. You can’t fight them. You can’t reason with them. They have so many different agencies — all working separately. It feels like an effort to kill small businesses.”
Dorian Gashi, who has two restaurants affected by the project — Blue Seafood and Medi — told us: “COVID world started for us in 2017 when the City began this 9th Avenue construction project. Revenues dropped by 30 percent in both places. Every time they move the wire fences, they add their garbage and portable bathrooms. So 2020 was the cherry on the top for us. The miscommunication between their departments is just a mess.”
The loss of critical revenue was particularly painful for NYC restaurateurs, who rely on every meal ordered (known in the industry as “covers”) to stay in business. According to a report from hospitality payment service Toast, the average restaurant profit margin is between 3 and 5 percent. Losing profitable seating areas greatly increases the risk of already-struggling restaurants of dipping into the red. The New York State Comptroller’s office estimates that as many as 44 percent of the city’s restaurants have used outdoor dining as a lifeline to maintain sales during the ebbs and flows of COVID-19.
Joey Chanco, owner of fast-casual Filipino restaurant Tradisyon noted that “our small restaurant depends on the outdoor dinning. Almost 50 percent of our sit-down sales comes from it, especially big groups. Most customers still prefer outdoor seating because COVID infections are still occurring. With the increasing inflation of COGS, this is a big loss for us,” he said.
Sean Hayden, a partner in Alfie’s and Jasper’s Taphouse which both lost outdoor seating this weekend, emphasized the many costs that restaurants face which render a loss of seating disastrous. “It’s very disappointing for us and for neighboring restaurants. We are coming out of a pandemic that was disastrous for our industry and we rely heavily on these months between March and June. We can’t recover in one summer from all that has happened over the last two-plus years — there are PPP Loans to be paid back, EDIL loans to be paid back, rising costs, inflation, ConEd, labor worries, and now talks of a recession,” he said.
Hayden added that fraught communication lines between the city and proprietors have not helped their long-term prospects. “There has never been a clear message from the start from the DOT. It changes every week,” he said. “The outdoor seating has been our lifeline and now they are taking it away. It generates more jobs, more sales tax — and it’s not just the restaurateurs, it’s the whole chain back to the small farmer in Vermont. I understand that some people took advantage and built obnoxious structures that can be eyesores, but it’s up to the DOT to come up with a uniform program that works for all.”
The circular nature of inter-agency communication was a point of frustration for Hayden and other restaurateurs. Hayden said, “The last five years in particular, construction on 9th Avenue has been a nightmare. It also caused flooding in one of our restaurants and no one took responsibility. DOT blames Con Ed. And Con Ed blames DOT and we pay the price.”
Ted Arenas from Rise Bar argues that a potential compromise between the DOT/DDC and proprietors could have been reached: “We lost 24 seats. I took my outdoor seating down last week and it cost $3k to remove. I had to trash everything because we didn’t have storage for it, and it just doesn’t make sense to keep it as the outdoor dining rules are going to change by next year. The DOT wants to pave 9th Avenue over the summer and needed us to remove it,” he said.”
“I think because the DOT is only working mornings until 3pm, something could have been worked out between restaurants and DOT to give 9th Avenue a special allowance to use the street while not working on it. Some neighbors spent over $20k on their structures and summer would really be the most financially rewarding to cover the costs of their structures.”
Corey Samuels at Kashkaval Garden has spent around $10,000 on his “beloved roadway seating” which was being broken down as we spoke on Sunday morning. The design has gone through many iterations as City regulations changed. “We originally had the structure on wheels to take them in and out of the restaurant when indoor dining was not allowed. Then DOT didn’t like the wheels, so we sorted that. Then DOH came and wanted a floor. Then DOT came by in January and made us fix something that cost $2,500 — and then a few weeks later we got the notice that it had to be removed. If the left hand and the right hand of the city knew what they were doing. They could have saved us a lot of money,” said Samuels.
Kashkaval Garden lost a wedding booking worth over $5,000 for a full buyout in June because the couple wanted the outdoor dining. “So many people who call us want to make a reservation for outside. The timing is unfortunate, yesterday was so warm and beautiful,” he said.
Jaz Rupall, co-owner of Jaz Indian Cuisine (which has just opened on 9th Avenue) built his business around the availability of potential outdoor revenue. “We based our business plan on having these 20 outdoor seats available for customers,” she said. Steven Padernacht from Bar 9 added: “We lost 20 outdoor seats — and in a time like this, that really hurts. Never mind the fact that the city has now rescinded the permits they gave us to use outdoor seating, they forced us to pay to tear down the very structures they used to enhance our business. In this city, it’s always one step forward and two steps back. We paid $5,000 to build this structure which is under constant scrutiny by inspectors who issue us fines and now we had to pay the same amount of money to tear it down! How do they expect us to survive without outdoor dining going into the summer months?”
Socrates Nanas, owner of Empanada Mama also blamed the ever-changing goalpost of navigating the avenue’s construction limits. “I think it’s ridiculous to make us take down the outdoor dining for construction. That’s the way it is in New York, they start things and it keeps on going and going and going,” said Nanas about the work that has been on 9th Avenue since 2017. His outdoor shed, a series of “cubes” made by modular company Podnology was one of the few structures that could be reinstated, though the pods were already craned out as of Thursday to be used at a different Empanada Mama location. “Nobody takes time to think things through. They don’t care that some of these business owners are hanging on by the skin of their teeth.”
Other restaurant owners had already made the decision to remove their outdoor dining ahead of the project. “I took mine down because I wanted it gone. I felt that they were dangerous, unsanitary, and created a place for homeless and junkies to gather and use,” said Tommy Greco from K Rico Steakhouse. “I removed it in December, I just felt like it was a huge eyesore that caused more trouble than good — also, walking through a bike lane to serve customers was beyond dangerous. I literally watched multiple people go to the hospital after getting hit by an electric bike or gas-powered scooter.”
Some Hell’s Kitchen locals also found the sheds to be a safety risk on the avenue. In a survey conducted by W42ST, reader Susan Lahn responded: “The sheds appear to be a hazard for fires and limit access to buildings in case of fire.” Another reader agreed: “The sidewalk width on 9th is not wide enough to safely accommodate these structures. It is impeding accessibility and makes me avoid walking along 9th Avenue entirely.”
Several readers explained that while they supported small businesses, the urgent need for pedestrian improvements was also a critical neighborhood issue. Said reader Charlie Todd, “This is a special situation as this section of 9th Avenue is getting an exciting new road design with wider sidewalk space for pedestrians. It will create more space for people and less for loud, dangerous, polluting vehicles. In the long run the restaurants will benefit from the new wide sidewalk space.” Added reader Jenny, “They are a great step toward prioritizing the city’s human residents over car traffic.”
Pibool Koonvirarak from Three Roosters told us: “We are sad to see it go, but we understand the reason why they have to go. Our plan is to improve our sidewalk seating experience and make it look more inviting to the neighborhood and attract more tourists.”
Christine Berthet, co-chair of Manhattan Community Board 4’s Transportation Committee added: “As unfortunate and unlucky this situation is for individual operators, conflicts between transportation, utilities maintenance, construction and outdoor installations are inherent to the outdoor dining program. This reconstruction project was due to be done last year, but was delayed to give the restaurants an opportunity to get back on their feet.”
One resident and former member of MCB4 was less than sorry to see the Atlas Social Club’s shed (recently run over by a runaway truck) shut down. “These outdoor dining sheds were always intended to be a temporary measure during the COVID pandemic. And the Open Restaurant guidelines issued by DOT were mostly ignored by the bars and restaurants,” he said.
“Many businesses soon erected mini-houses that were fully or mostly enclosed, which flies in the face of why outdoor dining was needed in the first place — so I really don’t want to hear about businesses complaining about paying for removal of the sheds. Removable tales, chairs and barriers, where appropriate, will still be permitted by DOT and the guidelines are now being developed. I am sensitive to the needs of the industry, but also cognizant of the needs of the residents as well,” he added.
The team at the popular 9th Avenue Hummus Kitchen — which also lost its dining structure, argued that despite the need for temperature-contingent sidewalk construction, the project came at a critical crossroads for the city’s hospitality recovery. Sharon Hoota, the owner of Hummus Kitchen, concluded: “Unfortunately, the city has chosen the worst time to evacuate the outdoor structures and start the construction. Hell’s Kitchen was highly affected during COVID — all Broadway shows were shut down, as well as the offices nearby. The neighborhood has just started to restore itself and the spring brings new and fresh air to the area. It is ridiculous that especially now we’ve been asked to destroy an essential part of our restaurant and to spend a fortune on demolishing our outdoor structure and rebuilding it in the future.”
W42ST reached out to the DDC, Mayor’s Office, and local council member Erik Bottcher for comment. This story will be updated if we hear back.