Over the past six months, NYC restaurateurs say that customers choosing to dine outdoors wanted to know two things above all else: Is the restaurant’s outdoor setup heated and how warm would it keep them? Hefty propane gas heaters, made legal for restaurant use this winter while indoor dining was banned, were nearly a requirement to driving reservations in colder temperatures.
Now, the emergency propane heating program — hailed as a boon for restaurants when it launched last October — is coming to a close in the next few weeks. While sub-freezing weather has subsided, heater use could still be good for business on cooler spring and summer nights, restaurateurs say, and many expect that customers will continue to request outdoor dining seats in the upcoming months and beyond because many people are still uncomfortable dining indoors. Concerned that the city may drop the program altogether after the emergency allowance expires at the end of May, owners have started rallying to push the city to make outdoor propane heater usage permanent.
Bowery Group co-owner Chris Paraskevaides, who runs four restaurants including Chelsea spot Cookshop and Vic’s in Noho, estimates that the group spent between $4,000 to $5,000 a week running propane gas heaters between all of their locations through the winter, plus they also outfitted each of the group’s six streetside outdoor structures with five to seven electric heaters, and offered diners blankets. “It was expected by the customer and we did it,” Paraskevaides says. “We wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for all that.”
The outdoor propane heating program, greenlit by the mayor’s office last fall and overseen by the NYC Fire Department, was originally slated to end last week, on April 30. With plenty of cooler evenings still in the forecast, the looming deadline spurred Derek Kaye — an enterprising restaurateur who started his own propane delivery business last fall — to start a petition urging Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council to permanently allow restaurants to use outdoor propane heaters in the city.
“Despite the vaccine, some health experts [are] stating that it may not be possible to have indoor events in winter due to the seasonality of Covid-19,” Kaye, who runs Takumi Taco in food halls including Chelsea Market and Urbanspace, wrote in the petition. “To keep our doors open we need to be able to continue to serve our customers outdoors throughout the year.”
Kaye admits that his efforts are self-serving — his delivery business stands to benefit from making the program permanent — but others have expressed interest in the same goal. Over 250 people signed Kaye’s petition after he launched it in late April, and Kaye separately received confirmation of support from owners behind 100 NYC restaurants — including Veselka, Pig and Khao, Tribeca Kitchen, and Marea — urging the city to extend the emergency program with a longterm goal of making it permanent.
The FDNY confirmed last Friday that it had extended the emergency program through May 31, according to a department spokesperson. Separately, de Blasio has repeatedly said that outdoor dining is a permanent feature of the city now, but he hasn’t indicated what that will look like come next winter. The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on whether the city is currently considering making propane gas usage permanent for restaurants.
Many restaurateurs were forced to get creative with their limited real estate even as they invested thousands of dollars on their outdoor dining setups. Basque restaurant Ernesto’s on the Lower East Side brought in a general contractor to install more outlets inside their space in order to run electric heaters plus five propane heaters to cover the restaurant’s 50 outdoor seats through the winter. “Diners are expecting these luxury outdoor facilities,” operating partner Alexandra Niakani says. “We never wanted to be in a situation where a diner would come and not get what they were expecting.”
Before the FDNY confirmed that the program had been officially extended, Niakani was prepared to risk fines to keep running the heaters after the April 30 expiration date for fear of losing customers otherwise. “People have expectations as diners now, especially when it comes to outdoor,” Niakani says. “They’re expecting a little bit more of a grander, al fresco experience.”
The program “saved our business,” says Bill Zafiros of Ten Hope, a Williamsburg bar and restaurant that relied on its open-air outdoor garden to get through the winter. Zafiros couldn’t hook up electric heaters from the restaurant, which was already maxed-out on electric usage. Instead, he set up around 12 propane heaters to warm the space’s 70 outdoor seats. He’s packing the heaters away now, as they were expensive to run nightly, he says, but he hopes to bring them out again next fall. “It seems like a lot of people will still want to eat outside,” Zafiros says. “We hope that we can bring it back when the weather turns again.”
Bowery Group’s Paraskevaides also hopes that the city will allow propane gas heaters again in the fall, but the program’s stringent rules — a pain point for many restaurateurs — need to be reexamined, he says. The Bowery Group’s four spots received roughly 25 warnings and three to four violations per restaurant — which came with fines starting at $1,000 apiece — over propane heater usage throughout the winter. The Department of Buildings issued a violation to Vic’s because the restaurant employee certified to handle propane heaters was in transit to the restaurant but not yet on-site when a propane delivery arrived, Paraskevaides says. If a propane heater that wasn’t included in the restaurant’s submitted site plan was found on the premises, that also got written up.
The FDNY inspectors were mostly understanding and gave the restaurants time to fix the issues, according to Paraskevaides, but by late April, he and his team decided to stop using propane altogether to avoid the steady stream of tickets.
“Hopefully we’ll have another round of propane use going into next year,” Paraskevaides says. “But if the rules don’t change, I’m not going to do it.”