As New York City settles into the slowest period of the summer season, some restaurant owners are once again on the back foot, shelling out thousands of dollars to outfit their outdoor dining structures with air conditioning units and other cooling devices.
For those who can afford them, air conditioners have become the latest pandemic pivot, a bid to keep outdoor dining structures cool, even as their windows and doors stay open to combat the spread of coronavirus. The recent rush to install the outdoor cooling units may overlook the debate over their environmental impact, but for many restaurant owners, it was less than a year ago that they were installing costly air purifiers and weighing whether air conditioners actually helped spread the virus. For some restaurants, adding an outdoor dining setup was a significant investment and keeping the structures operational is a financial priority.
Jason Yim, director of operations at Osamil in Koreatown, purchased two air conditioning units — totaling nearly $3,000 after installation fees — in late April, even before temperatures had started to rise. “I went through the time period when customers were complaining that it was too cold,” Yim says. “I knew that when the summer comes they were going to complain that it’s too hot.”
The Korean gastropub runs its air conditioning units during dinner service and the windows and doors of the outdoor structure remain open the whole time. “It doesn’t really make sense,” he says, but then again, neither has most of the past year.
At Oiji in the East Village, the restaurant’s air conditioning units are the latest addition to its ever-evolving outdoor dining structure. “Everything would have been in place from the beginning if we knew how long this was going to last,” says Max Soh, a managing partner at the modern Korean restaurant. The restaurant’s outdoor setup has evolved considerably over the course of the pandemic, as seasonal weather and shifting pandemic guidelines from city and state officials forced the restaurant to renovate and reinvent.
It started last fall with a few outdoor tables and umbrellas, which were thwarted by a season of “sideways rain,” he says. The restaurant erected a tent to shield its diners, but windy weather threatened to tear it down. The restaurant’s enclosed outdoor dining rooms came next, outfitted with heaters to keep diners warm through the fall and winter, but the summer heatwave turned the once-cozy structures into “hot boxes,” he says. “They were completely unusable.”
By early June, Soh had started receive complaints from customers about the temperature in the structures, with several parties walking away from their meals completely. He decided to purchase seven air conditioning units, one for each of Oiji’s private outdoor dining rooms. The units, which totaled around $3,000, have helped the restaurant exceed its pre-pandemic sales numbers ahead of one of the slowest months for New York City food businesses.
Still, air conditioners aren’t a cure-all and restaurateurs say they’re once again caught in a impossible balancing act: Their customers want outdoor spaces to be cool but also compliant with coronavirus guidelines, especially as cases of the delta variant increase citywide. Customers have cancelled reservations at Osamil for both reasons, Yim says, forcing him and other restaurateurs to run their air conditioners with the windows and doors of their outdoor dining setups left open.
Left to compete with the summer heat, Yim estimates running his two air conditioners has increased Osamil’s electricity bill by $800 per month. Payal Sharma, owner of Baar Baar in the East Village, says the two water coolers and roughly 20 fans powering her outdoor setup have caused her electricity bill to “skyrocket.”
The sheer cost of cooling units, which can range from $400 to $4,000, is more than many independent restaurant owners can afford, and some restaurateurs who previously invested in enclosed outdoor spaces have had to get creative. American Brass in Long Island City turned one of its outdoor dining greenhouse into an actual greenhouse after realizing that the structures would not be usable in the summer heat, according to a spokesperson for the restaurant.
Others are looking at the units as a long-term investment for future summers of outdoor dining. “That structure is going to stay no matter what,” Sharma says of the outdoor setup at Baar Baar. The restaurateur has outfitted her outdoor dining space with two water cooling units, which she received in July after a months-long backorder. The coolers cost $4,000 each before installation and electrical fees. It’s expensive, she says, but a small price to pay after the thousands of dollars she’s already sunk into the outdoor structure, including roughly $13,000 on individual heaters this past winter.
“This is a never-ending development,” she says. “You just keep going and going and going until something new pops up.”