Over my 15-year career in the restaurant industry, I’ve worked alongside many colleagues who want their small businesses to anchor their communities and flourish with their neighborhoods.
As our incoming Mayor and City Council members determine what’s next for our city’s future, I hope they hear and listen to the voices of people like me who believe supporting outdoor dining brings vitality and vibrancy to our city. As should the City Planning Commissioners, who are poised to vote on this critical program soon, and whose decision will have a significant impact on my career and the careers of so many others who depend on the restaurant industry to support themselves and their families.
When the COVID-19 pandemic ripped through New York City, I worried the industry that provided my livelihood would soon vanish, disconnecting me from my city in more ways than I could describe or even recognize, at the time. Our dining rooms were forced to close, so many of us were let go, and our would-be guests were locked in their apartments.
Fortunately, outdoor dining gave the industry and in many ways the city – devastated by a terrifying public health crisis – new life. After months of being socially distant from friends, neighbors, and colleagues, outdoor dining allowed New Yorkers an opportunity to come together and provided restaurant staff like myself a renewed sense of hope in our jobs and communities, but it has been a challenging and emotional journey.
The businesses at which we worked hummed with activity and we could, again, rely on work and a paycheck. Of course, these were the immediate tangibles of the situation, but really in the face of the severe challenges, I believe people were also given a place to go where they could feel human again.
Even in the darkest hours of the crisis or the coldest days of the year, New Yorkers came together, safely, and dined outdoors. Neighbors bundled up, brought sleeping bags, hand warmers, and blankets. They sat outside, ate soup, sipped hot toddies, joked, and laughed. On the days I was struggling to muster the emotional energy to work in these conditions, I found solace in the familiar faces and stories from my community.
Restaurant professionals will often say, “It’s just food and drinks, we aren’t saving the world.” We diminish the role we play in society, and, to a certain extent, it is a reminder that what we do is small in the grand scheme of things, but we do play an important role in people’s lives.
And with outdoor dining to thank, we were able to continue making a positive difference in the lives of our patrons. How many days have we improved by remembering someone’s name or their favorite drink? How many celebrations – birthdays, anniversaries, graduations – were better because we thought to write a message in chocolate on the rim of a plate? How many people fell in love at our bars because we turned the lights down low, lit some candles, and played their favorite song.
While managing outdoor dining can be challenging at times and there are certainly considerations that need to be addressed, these are the positive memories that have guided me throughout the course of the very difficult past 20 months. With a sense of humility, I think that the work I am doing right now is vital to the people in the community.
From a personal and professional perspective, I truly believe outdoor dining is responsible for sustaining our spirits, jobs, and revitalizing our city streetscapes from desolation. As we work to rebuild a better and more sustainable restaurant industry, I urge the city to make outdoor dining a permanent part of its future.
Ted Freedman is a 15-year restaurant industry veteran and manager of Fairfax restaurant in Greenwich Village.