DC Restaurants Throw Open the Patio Doors 

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Washington D.C. restaurants hit a milestone in late May, when those with approved outdoor spaces, such as patios and rooftops, were allowed to welcome customers back. 

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The move comes as D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser lifted the district’s stay-at-home order on May 29, sending D.C. into Phase I of its reopening plan with Phase II tentatively scheduled for June 19. 

In Phase II, restaurants can serve indoors, but must maintain a maximum of 50 percent occupancy as determined by their business certification and space all tables at least 6 feet apart.

 Meanwhile, neighboring restaurants in Northern Virginia are allowed to use sidewalks and parking spaces for outdoor dining as well as any patio and rooftop space.

Immigrant Food, a fast-casual restaurant at 1701 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, opened its patio on Friday for outdoor dining. The restaurant is known for its advocacy efforts, such as offering an engagement menu where patrons can support immigrant causes.

“We continue to take the strictest safety precautions for our employees and customers,” Tea Ivanovic, Immigrant Food’s director of communications and outreach, told Commercial Observer. “Our patio tables and chairs are set up according to Mayor Bowser’s restaurant guidelines. No reservations are required, and we’ve placed QR codes outside where you can check out the menu and order directly on your phone, allowing for contactless ordering. As always, anyone in contact with food or packaging is wearing masks and gloves.”

As a downtown fast-casual restaurant targeting the professional crowd for lunch and happy hour, the restaurant felt the impact of the stay-at-home orders early, even before the order went into effect. 

“For example, many of our customers are World Bank employees, who received a note in late February suggesting they work from home,” Ivanovic said. “We temporarily closed, but our entrepreneurial, immigrant, employees suggested we reopen for contactless delivery and takeout. We did so by employing back some of our own staff to work hourly or on commission—including former cashiers-turned-drivers through our own ordering system.”

Since no one knows for sure what the “new normal” will look like, Ivanovic understands the restaurant has to be creative and adaptive with its business model.

“For example, our focus will remain on growing our delivery and takeout business, virtual events will be here to stay for a while, and our Engagement Menu, where people can engage directly with immigration-related causes, has moved to a weekly Saturday newsletter,” she said. “This is a difficult time for the service industry, especially for small restaurant businesses, and we are learning and adapting every day.” 

Jennifer McLaughlin, owner of Virginia’s Caboose Brewing Company in Vienna and Caboose Commons in Fairfax, said she consolidated both operations into the latter location, and pivoted to curbside and delivery service. She also launched a market for grocery and pantry items that helped sustain the business.

“Because we stayed open during the quarantine, we’ve had the advantage of time to learn and live best practices as we geared towards reopening,” she told CO. “Even with [the Center for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines, it’s easy to underestimate the hours and logistics planning that goes into a safe reopening. We have two very different locations in terms of space, so we are grateful that we’ve had this time with our team to prepare and understand what works and what doesn’t.” 

Caboose Commons was using GoTab for contactless ordering and payment before the pandemic, so the browser-based mobile ordering platform helped everyone adapt quickly for curbside and delivery, and it has capabilities that are making the Phase I reopening and beyond possible.

“Our chief concern is the safety of our team and our customers,” McLaughlin said. “Phase I for our locations is outdoor-only seating. In addition to touchless ordering, we have implemented a rigorous cleaning protocol that includes sanitizing tables between guests, cleaning bathrooms hourly, and cleaning equipment and surfaces with a higher frequency. Our staff is wearing masks and gloves and continuing to wash their hands frequently.”

The restaurant has also spaced out tables to comply with proper social distancing, propped doors to reduce touching surfaces, and hand sanitizer is available to all guests upon entering the building. Guests are also required to wear masks when they are not eating or drinking. 

Espita DC at 1250 9th Street NW, has reopened its patio for contact-free dining. 

“We don’t intend to open back up for full service until there is a vaccine,” said Josh Phillips, general manager of the popular Mexican restaurant. “Patio business has been strong. It’s still something we’re figuring out. There are some tech changes we are making, but overall, it feels very much like dining in Mexico to us as most of our favorite restaurants down there have outdoor dining rooms.”

Of course, not every restaurant has decided to reopen. For instance, Andrew Dana, co-founder and CEO of Call Your Mother at 3301 Georgia Avenue and Timber Pizza at 809 Upshur Street NW, are only open for carry-out currently. 

“We really want to see how Phase I goes before we offer any outdoor or dine-in seating,” he told CO. “We believe that maintaining some stability for our staff and our guests will go a long way right now. We’re fortunate that our sales have been relatively on par with our normal numbers, despite a pause in areas of revenue like farmers markets, dine-in and catering. The community has come out in droves to support us during a difficult time, and we couldn’t be more thankful.” 

Plus, not everyone has the space to open outdoors. Danny Lledó, owner and chef of Xiquet DL at 2404 Wisconsin Avenue, noted when the dining room first closed in March, it took more than a week to turn operations to takeout and deliveries and it went from 19 employees down to four. That remains the case since there’s no patio seating options for him.

 “We will reopen our dining room when the D.C government announces the beginning of Phase II, and we will continue to operate carryout and deliveries most likely until everything is at 100 percent back to normal,” he said. 

Judging by the numbers of people reported to have gone out to eat this past weekend, restaurants look to be on the right track back to business.