Hope springs eternal for restaurants as winter approaches

Sparta. Firepits, outdoor heaters, tents, and barns: Restaurants and event venues adapt and persevere despite COVID-19 restrictions, with an eye toward the cooler weather to come.

Newton /
03 Sep 2020 | 05:20

The summer has been hot. It’s been humid. And to top it off, we’re in the midst of a pandemic.

Area restaurant owner have limited options: outdoor dining, take out, delivery, and, starting Friday, indoor dining, but at a much-reduced 25% capacity. As fall approaches, and with it cooler temperatures, the option to dine outside will shrink. Meanwhile, airlines are allowed to pack 150 people into a plane and fly up from Florida, a coronavirus hot spot.

“It’s really hard,” said Tracey deWaal, who co-owns Andre’s Lakeside Dining in Sparta with her husband, Andre. “It’s hot, and the staff is working extra hard with masks and taking all the precautions to keep our guests and themselves safe. We are trying to take as much business as we can now in case we have to go back to only take out. At least we are blessed with a beautiful covered outdoor dining area on a lake. We feel very fortunate about that. Our hearts go out to those restaurants working in parking lots or are depending on nice weather to open.”

Old Crow’s Coffeehouse and Café, located in the historic Andover Grist Mill, serves breakfast and lunch. “We definitely had to cut down our menu, and I feel all of us won’t be the same for a very long time,” said co-owner Michele King. “But we are so very blessed with an incredible community that supports us, and because of the community, it makes us very much stronger.”

Located on Lake Lackawanna in Byram, the Alibi Beach Bar offers cocktails, catered parties, live music, trivia nights, open mic nights, bike nights, and weekend breakfasts. Like most New Jersey restaurants, the Alibi requires all of its staff to wear masks and gloves, and sanitizes after every guest leaves. We have installed hand sanitizer stations around the property and have placed all tables six feet apart,” said one of the owners, Anthony Ziccardi. Customers, like Wendi Sweatt of Hampton, applaud The Alibi for its festive outdoor set up. The Alibi hopes to continue outdoor dining as long as possible and is looking into outdoor heaters.

Short-notice weddings

Sue-Ann Hansen is the event coordinator at The Conservatory, a banquet hall in the Sussex County Fair Grounds. At the beginning of August, The Conservatory put up a 40-by-80 foot tent and is hosting weddings through October. Small ceremonies can be held inside the grounds’ barns. “For the brides who had big weddings planned but just want to get married now, we can accommodate them,” Hansen said. “We have dates open still and are happy to work with couples.”

The Conservatory is working with caterers Andre’s, Krave, and Redwood, and is ready to book on short notice. “You can have an outdoor function with food, with caterers, no more than eight at a table, six feet apart, no mask while at table,” Hansen said. “For those having events, they bring their own alcohol and the caterers serve as bartenders. It’s a legal way to do it.” Come colder weather, there are those barns. But what is allowed will depend on the governor.

Mountain Creek in Vernon says it’s “good to go” if indoor dining doesn’t resume. “We’re lucky to have a beer garden built right into the outside of the lodge with fire pits,” said Evan Kovach, marketing and sales manager. “That’s been open since we were allowed to reopen.”

Come winter, Kovach said, Mountain Creek’s clientele comes prepared to be outside. “They’re dressed to be outdoors skiing and snowboarding, so with some fire pits and propane heaters, we’ll be fine,” he said.

When it comes to weddings, Mountain Creek has gotten creative with “micro packages.” “Couples can get married at our wedding venue where they can view three states and then we have tents set up behind our lodge for receptions,” Kovach said. “This way they can tie the knot on a smaller scale and hopefully come back once bigger events are allowed.”

Grateful diners

Although a lot of restaurants were contacted about their plans for when Old Man Winter descends, many did not care to comment. The industry has been hit hard, and without a viable indoor option, some will be forced to close. Members of the community, however, are eager to give accolades to their favorite places.

“The Hampton Dinner did a nice job on their set up,” said Stacey Michelman of Stillwater. “It’s nice to be in the back, away from traffic. They added landscaping to take away from the feeling if being in a parking lot. I just fear what will happen to these places once the colder weather sets in.”

“Krogh’s Restaurant in Sparta “has been fantastic at eat in and take out,” said Melissa Towey of Sparta. “With delivery/takeout everything tastes fresh -- not like delivery that needs reheating. Their crab cakes were impeccable delivered to us.”

The restaurant already has fire pits in the parking lot for cooler nights. “For the fall, we are exploring propane heaters and also electric heaters,” said the general manager, Jason Fuchs. “Going forward, we’ll let the market dictate what we do. We’re happy to let people sit outside and serve, no matter the weather.”

Casa Capri in Lafayette “has super take out, delivery and tables to eat at or bring your own chair and sit in the back,” said Kathy Modrow of Newton.

“Mohawk House was great to eat on their back outside porch,” said Alice O’Rourke of Sparta. “Great spacing between tables, and there is an overhead cover too.”

“I’m not one to dine out much, however, I met a friend for lunch at St. Moritz in Sparta,” said Tracie Van Hook of Newton. “It was so nice. They know what they are doing with the situation regarding precautions -- you even scan a code to your phone for the menu so no touching anything -- and yet they were easily accommodating to both of our gluten allergies. This is super important. That was the best meal either of us had in a long time.”

They’re busy. For now.

“It’s sad to say, but many of our small local places will not survive,” said Kristy Kunkle of Fredon. “There will be so many hoops they will have to jump through, and it will cost them a fortune to make all the necessary changes. My opinion, they should be able to open. If you don’t feel safe, you have the right not to go out to eat.”

For one restaurant owner, in Lacy Township, N.J., enough was enough. Brian Brindisi, the proprietor of The Lakeside Diner took out some booths, spaced things out, and opened the doors of the diner where he’s worked long hours for the past 30 years. In an interview with ABC News, he urged officials to use what he had done as an example for successful indoor dining in the state. Instead, the sheriff’s department changed the locks and ordered the diner closed.

“California, New York City, and New Jersey are the only places indoor dining is still not allowed,” said Amanda Connelly of Stillwater, before the governor permitted limited-capacity indoor dining to start. “It’s ridiculous, especially in places like here in Sussex County, where Covid numbers are nil. He needs to open up before it gets cold.”

Please see related story, “Indoor dining, gyms cleared this week with limited capacity.”

“Going forward, we’ll let the market dictate what we do. We’re happy to let people sit outside and serve, no matter the weather.” --Jason Fuchs, Krogh’s Restaurant