The COVID-19 pandemic has forced everyone to reimagine the social dining experience. Long Beach has seen over 100 parklets constructed across the city, as well as street closures to make outdoor dining a reality. On Naples Island, Naples Rib Co. has reimagined its area to create a workable–if not ideal–solution to the challenge of turning a restaurant inside-out.
“When this all started, everybody wanted a parklet,” explains Naples Rib Co. owner Dave Ursini. “I have an incredible amount of space in front of my restaurant that would be perfect for that, but 75 percent of my business right now is takeout, so I didn’t want to take that parking away.”
So instead of constructing a parklet out in front of the restaurant, Ursini came up with an alternate site for an outdoor dining setup. Since he also owns the adjacent Naples Car Wash, Ursini decided to convert that lot into an outdoor dining area in the evenings. That meant closing down the car wash at 4 p.m. instead of 5, to allow more time to set up the makeshift dining room.
Opting to avoid a more long-term parklet setup has allowed Ursini’s takeout business to thrive, but it creates a consistent challenge to set up and tear down the outdoor dining set up night in and night out.
“The parklets, you build it and it’s there. At the car wash, that’s a lot of setup to do,” Ursini explained. “Fencing, TV’s, it’s a lot of stuff. So I kind of break it up. The car wash guys at 4 p.m. set up the restaurant, they bring out the tables, chairs, fencing, all that stuff. Then the servers put the tablecloths on and the candles and put the finishing touches on it. Because at the end of the night the carwash guys are all gone, so I didn’t want to make one person set it up and take it down.”
Ursini said it takes a four-person crew about a half hour to set up and tear down the outdoor dining room, which sits beneath a large white tent with white picket fencing around it. The opportunity to have dining on-site has helped bring in some additional revenue, but Naples Rib Co. is one of countless locally-owned restaurants who are braving a difficult year financially.
“Normally we do about 250 tables for dine-in per night, now we’re doing about 90-100,” Ursini said. “The only good news for me, I have take-out. That has kept me going.”
While outdoor dining offers customers the option of sitting down and having dinner socially, it’s added new challenges for the Naples Rib Co. staff. Aside from assisting in setup and teardown, servers also have to walk from the kitchen, through the restaurant, down steps, and across a street before reaching their tables.
“We’re definitely getting our steps in, that’s for sure,” joked Megan Till, who has been a longtime server at Naples Rib Co. “Finding a way to make everything work outside has been very interesting for us. We really had to reframe everything we do as a server. We all have to communicate and work together more than ever before.”
While it has been a struggle operating under the new and less-than-optimal conditions, Till says that things have gradually gotten streamlined, and she’s been appreciative of the regulars who’ve been understanding of the situation for her and her coworkers.
“You’re doing more work for less money, but you have those customers who understand and make it all worth it,” she said.
While Ursini and his staff have been able to piece things together with take-out orders and outdoor dining, the loss of catering opportunities has hit Naples Rib Co. harder than most. A significant number of sports teams in the city use Naples Rib Co. to either host or cater their team banquets, which haven’t been a possibility for most of 2020. Ursini says about half of his business comes from catering orders, which have almost completely disappeared.
December is usually an exceptionally busy month for catering orders during the holidays, but it’s impossible to predict what the next few months will look like. Still, Ursini is grateful for the business he does have and will continue finding new ways to persevere.
“I’ll survive,” Ursini said. “We own our building, I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to make less money this year, that’s just the way it goes. But we could be closed like a lot of restaurants.”