Neir’s Tavern opened for outdoor dining shortly after the state announced food establishments could bring back socially distant in-person service a month ago.
The historic bar and grill, located at 87-48 78th St., had temporarily closed at the height of COVID-19.In May, bar owner Loycent Gordon told QNS there were many concerns that came with reopening. But when Gov. Andrew Cuomo said outdoor dining could commence on June 22, Gordon said they were eager to come back.
“We took our dining room chairs and put them outside,” Gordon laughed. “Nobody really was prepared to operate in this way. We’re all flying by the seat of our pants. So, we’ll take our dining room chairs and put them outside if it means the possibility of surviving the pandemic.”
One of the biggest challenges that has come with reopening has been navigating the ever-evolving COVID-19 guidelines, Gordon said.
According to Gordon, city agents hit them with a violation just a week ago, shortly after guidelines were updated to include barriers enclosing tables and patrons for restaurants participating in the Open Streets program.
“I found out on the Friday and then the Sunday they came,” Gordon said.
Gordon explained the violation could have resulted in a $1,000 fine if it had not been fixed within 24 hours. He said that although it took longer than 24 hours, they built the required barriers and didn’t have to pay the fine. The barriers ended up costing them $1,100.
Gordon said that while he understands there are businesses that don’t comply with regulations, restrictions like Cuomo’s new “Three Strikes and You’re Closed” policy presents another hurdle for them to jump through. Cuomo announced the new initiative on Thursday, July 16, to ensure restaurants and bars comply with state social distancing and face covering orders.
“Now we’re trying to figure out how we police people that we have less off,” he said. “There are business owners that are probably skirting the law. But don’t punish the lot that are doing great, for the few that are spoiling it.”
Gordon added that 90 percent of the time, he hears about new guidelines or restrictions from the media or a neighbor that flags it for him.
Neir’s Tavern is conveniently located in a residential area with ample space for outside seating. But Gordon isn’t taking that for granted.
The business has markers for the required six feet distance, with only three tables for two alongside the building’s outdoor perimeter and four tables for groups for the on-street potion of their outdoor dining set up.
“We value a life and customers ahead of all things, and we believe in people first, profit second,” Gordon said. “You don’t have to talk to a business owner to know what they value. You just have to look at their COVID-19 set up.”
One former employee whose grandmother had a wedding reception at Neir’s in the 1970s said she’d been to another restaurant in the neighborhood, but she felt most comfortable at Neir’s.
“I keep seeing so many familiar faces,” she said. “As soon as me and my boyfriend came here and sat down, we felt comfortable. It felt safe.”
But, as Gordon put it, businesses participating in outdoor dining “are at the mercy of the weather.”
“Not only is the pandemic unpredictable, but the weather is also unpredictable,” Gordon said. “So now you’re dealing with two unpredictable circumstances.”
Gordon was in the middle of setting up the tavern’s outdoor dining seating when it suddenly began to pour. One patron, who visited the tavern to celebrate his birthday, helped him set up the canopies, which resulted in them both getting soaked.
“He waited in this for a half-hour for the rain to stop,” Gordon said. “When it eased up, he went to sit with his wife a little bit underneath the overhang, and it was drizzling. So half the table was wet and the other half was wet, all because he wanted to be here.”
Neir’s Tavern is offering delivery via their own app, and curbside pick up. Gordon is working with Edwin Rivas, a consultant with Yves Jadot restaurant group, in order to optimize the restaurant’s resources and re-work operations.
“We were only able to open for three days, but when he came, and after a couple weeks, we opened more and more and now we’re at seven days a week,” Gordon said.
In regards to another recent order from Cuomo mandating bars to serve food with drinks, Rivas said this is actually a good addition.
“We’re not just a bar,” Rivas said. “Customers never complain when you tell them that they need to buy something else together to drink. It’s a good effect, a good way for business to push and upsell something else.”
Rivas said the Neir’s opening was gradual, first starting with delivery then staff. But they are still operating at less than 50 percent. They felt they were ready for indoor dining, but that was also pushed back from Phase 4.
“I am getting dizzy from pivoting.” Gordon said.
Mayor Bill de Blasio recently extended the timely for Open Restaurants program until Oct. 31, rather than Sept. 31 like originally planned.
Gordon joked they might have to get heaters by then, because “the weather is unpredictable, remember?”
“It’s a start, but it’s not the panacea,” he said. “We’re still gonna find a way to make sure we’re sustainable. This helps. I don’t think it hurts.”