Criticism from business leaders as Village of Pelham restaurants must end outdoor dining next week


Annabelle Hochberg

The outdoor area dining at Cantina Lobos.

After pressure from restaurant owners and the Pelham Chamber of Commerce, the original deadline to end outdoor dining on Oct. 31 was pushed back to next Tuesday by the Village of Pelham Board of Trustees. Yet some business leaders say it’s still a financial burden to tear down structures with roofs, heaters and tables, and they remain critical of what they say is the high monthly fee—higher than in most other Westchester municipalities—the village required to operate outdoors.

The village’s shutdown deadline comes as the eateries face tough business conditions, including rising food costs and staff shortages, caused by the pandemic. The village board allowed local restaurants to create outdoor dining areas to give patrons a safer way to eat out during the health crisis.

Clay Bushong, owner of Cantina Lobos, said, “I am disappointed that we have to take the structures down. Many of us put quite a bit of time and money to make these work. We were hoping to be able to offer outdoor dining options for patrons who are not yet comfortable eating indoors. With the price of goods continuing to rise, I can’t imagine that we will be able to rebuild anywhere near to what we currently have.”

Other towns are charging much less and raising money to pay for the expense, according to Chamber President Cristina Chianese. “Based on my conversations with other chamber presidents, their fee is generally zero or max $250. Larchmont, Bronxville and New Rochelle are all free. New York City is also free.”

Larchmont, Bronxville and New Rochelle are all free. New York City is also free.

— Pelham Chamber President Cristina Chianese

According to Shari Rosen Asher, the Westchester County director of policy and programs for small businesses and chambers of commerce, very few towns charge for outdoor dining. In a list published by the Journal News last month, the Village of Pelham was the only municipality out of 42 listed as requiring sidewalk eating spaces to be taken down for the winter.

Marcello’s Gourmet Pizza does not plan to bring back its elaborate al fresco dining area but instead will do tables with umbrellas because of the expense, according to one source.

Some restaurant owners say the feature should be seasonal. “I think closing outdoor dining for the winter is going to be fine because of the weather,” said John Ruffolo, co-owner of Pelham Pizza. “Also, it will open up spots on the road because people complain about the parking, and it’s good to not have them out there when it’s snowing, so I don’t think it will affect business too much given the weather.” He said that even with the closing of the outdoor dining areas, there will be much more business than last year as restrictions continue to be lifted.

Outdoor dining at Pelham Pizza. (Annabelle Hochberg)

But Chianese said the removal of outdoor areas over the winter will impact restaurants as they compete with eateries in other towns. “We are one of the few towns that is completely shutting down outdoor eating,” she said. “I believe many people will go to other towns to eat out because of this. This doesn’t just impact our restaurants but all our businesses. There is a halo effect driving people into town.”

She described the concerns that her own and other families have: “We are seeing many break through cases and people are still very concerned to go inside. I have two little children, and we just had to quarantine for ten days from an exposure. Restaurants are going to lose significant revenue over the colder months.”

“During a time where businesses are suffering in general, it’s hard to fathom having to take on more financial burdens,” Chianese said.

Marcello’s Gourmet Pizza’s elaborate al fresco dining area. (Annabelle Hochberg)

Village of Pelham Mayor Chance Mullen said closing the spaces for winter makes sense because “there are no longer any capacity restrictions for restaurants, many of the temporary structures that had been erected 18 months ago are now looking a bit run down, and most notably, outdoor seating is not as essential or attractive to downtown diners as it once was. Now that the weather is getting colder, diners are moving indoors, and outdoor dining areas are simply not being used as much.”

Mullen said the village needed to insure outdoor areas were prettier and to alleviate the concerns of neighboring non-restaurant business.

“If we’re going to have this as a seasonal feature, we need to make sure there’s more aesthetic consistency, better guidelines to protect the interests of other businesses and nearby residents, and we also want to make it more affordable for the restaurants,” the mayor said. “The village has not been charging restaurants any permit fees, but the barriers built into everyone’s structures are rented from a private vendor at $300 per barrier per month. That’s been a big burden, and we’re going to find a less expensive solution when we come back in the spring.”

“It isn’t April 2020 anymore,” Mullen said.