Restaurant Owners Get Relief with Outdoor Dining

Joey Montello, owner, La Piazza Cucina, measures space between tables, as he preps his restaurant for diners once more COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

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NORTH WILDWOOD - Restaurant owners finally got something to look forward to June 1, when Gov. Phil Murphy announced outdoor dining will be permitted beginning June 15.

“It’s still too little too late,” said North Wildwood Mayor Patrick Rosenello. “[Murphy] is doing everything he can to wreck the economy of the Jersey Shore.”

Murphy’s announcement offered few details, but the governor mentioned that temperature checks, masked servers, and paper menus could be part of the precautions restaurants will need to take when reopening.

Joey Montello, who owns La Piazza Cucina, a Wildwood restaurant known for its dining room atmosphere where Montello regularly takes the mic to serenade his dinner guests with classic song covers, said takeout only had not been not cutting it.

“My whole business revolves around entertainment and dining. It’s like a supper club, all the years I’ve been in business,” said Montello, known affectionately by his regulars as “Joey M.”

Montello, sipping a scotch and water, set up for a 6 p.m. livestream performance on Facebook, where he now sings for viewers who he hopes are at home chowing down on one of his Italian staples. His audience has swelled online to six thousand people, he said, but that doesn’t mean there’s money going into the till.

“If those six thousand people were spending, I’d be in good shape,” said Montello.

He puts on a good front and began his set with the classic “When You’re Smiling," but he admitted just after finishing the song, that’s far from what he’s been doing. “I’m beyond depressed. Believe me when I tell you,” Montello told his Facebook audience.

The addition of outdoor dining is welcome news to Montello, but he knows it won’t be enough.

“If we have any kind of bad weather, we’re in trouble,” he said. “I’m excited about it because it’s like an infant taking steps. You have to crawl before you walk. I think we’re heading in the right direction and I think in July we’ll see a major change again.”

The urgency of the situation was exacerbated by a Memorial Day weekend much slower than even those who took the pandemic’s certain impact into account had imagined.

“Most businesses I talked to over Memorial Day weekend were down 90% from last year - 90. They did 10% of the business they did last year,” Rosenello said. “Most of that blame lays at the governor’s feet for his lack of transparency, his lack of clarity, his lack of giving specific dates.”

Bars were hit especially hard, as the concept of takeout and take-home alcohol, including mixed drinks, allowed by the governor, wasn’t a smashing success.

Chuck Lear, mayor of Cape May, said City Council will review a resolution at their meeting June 2 to allow open displays of alcohol. Lear says it’s a needed measure to help bars survive and a way of being above-board about something he says will happen anyway.

“It’s uncomfortable to enforce because you know people are going to do it, just by the climate. They’re not being able to stay at the bar to drink and to eat. They’re going to take it with them to go and you know they are going to drink it,” Lear said, "so is the city going to realize and say OK, let’s address this, for a certain period of time how we can help make the purchase, get away, and then legitimately, legally consume it in public. It’s something we wouldn’t even be talking about if it wasn’t for this crisis right now.”

The relaxed rules open the door to block-party, tailgate type atmospheres in the streets, but Lear said he doesn’t think that will happen and if it does they can always change the rules.

“I don’t think we have that kind of community. We don’t have that clientele,” he said. 

In North Wildwood, Rosenello is allowing open consumption in the bar district, but said he had to tell businesses to remove tables that were placed in the streets ahead of Memorial Day weekend after intervention from the state attorney general and county prosecutor.

“You will not read that anywhere in the governor’s order. This is an interpretation being put together by unelected officials in Trenton and Cape May Court House,” Rosenello said. “The governor and his unelected bureaucrats are losing credibility on this issue. They know they’re losing credibility so I think they’re lashing out at any perceived violation of their order at this point. That’s what I think you’re witnessing here.”

Rosenello said the public consumption will continue in the designated area of North Wildwood, but the tables will be back inside.

“The open public consumption continued and continues and worked out very well,” he said, adding there were no open display tickets issued by North Wildwood police over the holiday weekend.

Many municipalities are adopting relaxed zoning to allow restaurants to have outdoor seating on public sidewalks and in adjacent parking lots to help them replace the seats lost in their dining rooms.

Frank Dallahan, a Stone Harbor councilman, argued against sidewalk dining in a May public work session.

“It just doesn’t make any sense,” Dallahan said. “I, for one, don’t like the idea of outdoor dining when I’m sitting there at a beautiful restaurant having a nice meal and listening to people walk by smoking cigarettes, smoking cigars, ice cream cones, kids yelling and walking through. It’s not the ambiance that you would expect to see at an outdoor dining location. I just don’t think it’s a practical idea.”

Mayor Judith Davies-Dunhour responded, “What somebody thinks is annoying, somebody else thinks is vibrant. To each his own.”

While many may agree that the idea of sidewalk dining is not ideal, many see it as necessary to help restaurants survive these economic times. Margaret Day, president of the Stone Harbor Chamber of Commerce, put some quick perspective on the impact. If a restaurant has one table which they seat three times a day and do $100 in sales per seating, that would be $2,100 a week, over ten weeks that’s $21,000 in revenue the restaurant otherwise wouldn’t have, Day said.

“You’re basically putting it in our hands and the consumers' hands. You’re saying if you want to eat outside, you have a choice now,” Casey O’Hara, the third generation Uncle Bill’s Pancake House owner told Stone Harbor council. “Every person that owns a business in this town is capable of doing it the right way. I think everyone who comes to those businesses is capable of doing it the right way.”

Lear said in Cape May they are considering removing parking meters, closing streets and making other sacrifices to help the town’s small businesses survive.

Restaurant owners are still anxious about how they will make the outdoor only model economically feasible.

“I’m grateful that the governor opened the doors. I’m glad he gave us the first step. I just hope he lets us walk by July,” said Montello.

To contact Shay Roddy, email sroddy@cmcherald.com.