Astoria diner transforms its parking lot to a drive-in movie theater to stay afloat during pandemic

Bel Aire diner
Photo via Instagram/belairediner.

To deal with the demands of social distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic, an Astoria diner is looking to the 1950s for inspiration.

Bel Aire Diner, located at 31-91 21st St., used its vacant parking lot to start a drive-in movie theater earlier this month and shows two features a day. The diner’s owner said the reception has been great.

“We didn’t imagine it would be this big,” said Kal Dellaportas, whose family began running the diner in 1996. “Tickets sell out in a minute. Ninety tickets in one minute. It’s crazy.”

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dellaportas began brainstorming with the diner’s manager, trying to find creative solutions to stay in business. His manager suggested they use the vacant parking lot for a drive-in theater.

“It was basically just an idea, a shot in the dark,” Dellaportas said. “We ran with it.”

The diner rented an inflatable screen and worked with a company to secure licensing rights to show films. They also implemented social distancing guidelines, instructing movie-goers to keep their windows closed. By May 7, they were up and running.

Tickets sell for $32 per car, but despite the high demand, Dellaportas says he doesn’t make a dime off the ticket sales. The profits either go toward operational costs — Dellaportas has been able to retain more staff members as a result of the theater — or charity.

In addition to screening films for the local police precinct and donating breakfast meals to the senior center across the street, Bel Aire is hosting Elmhurst Hospital healthcare workers on Tuesday, May 26, for a special screening of “The Princess Bride,” in collaboration with Queens Together.

Despite the high demand and the warm reception from the public, Dellaportas said nothing beats a fully open and operational diner.

“We’re a 160-seat restaurant. On a Saturday or Sunday, we’re turning over tables constantly, every 45 minutes to an hour,” Dellaportas said. “With the movie, it’s great, we get a 100 people. But it’s 100 people in three hours.”

When the pandemic clears, Dellaportas said, he’ll definitely consider keeping the drive-in movies going. He’s unsure what the licensing options may be once movie theaters open back up, but if it’s possible to do, he’d like to continue the events.

“If it’s viable and there’s demand, we’ll absolutely do it,” Dellaportas said.