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Kings Park restaurants bring the heat to outdoor dining

Nora Garcia, the owner of Cafe Red in

Nora Garcia, the owner of Cafe Red in downtown Kings Park. Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost

The Smithtown Town Council extended through December emergency permitting for restaurants to serve food and drinks at outdoor tables, and some Kings Park restaurants started using patio heaters for cool weather dining.

Since town and Kings Park Chamber of Commerce officials made the announcement last Thursday, 15 patio heaters have been delivered to eight hamlet restaurants, some of which used them during a weekend cool spell. The Kings Park Chamber of Commerce paid for the heaters with a $5,000 grant from PSEG.

About 70 of the town’s 226 eating establishments received the outdoor permits, first offered in early summer, erecting tents and fenced dining areas on patios and parking lots to replace tables lost to distancing restrictions on indoor spaces.

Smithtown spokeswoman Nicole Garguilo said she expected most would file for the permit extension in coming weeks even as temperatures drop.

"Especially as we get to holiday time, where they used to have corporate parties, they’re going to need any revenue stream they can get," she said. For diners, she said, restaurants "provide that little bit of normalcy that’s really needed right now, that feeling of being able to go out to eat safely to hang out or take a break."

The town council is considering making the town’s foray into outdoor dining permanent. There have been hitches — neighbors of Garden Grill, on North Country Road in Smithtown, have complained about booming music and diners’ raised voices — but some have credited the provision with keeping restaurants alive in a year when many on Long Island closed or hobbled along on only takeout and delivery.

"You can’t operate a restaurant profitably on 50% of your capacity," said Scott Wexler, executive director of the Empire State Restaurant and Tavern Association, an industry group, who called the extension and the heater initiative "critical lifelines." Some of his members have already begun reporting a slowdown in business as the weather cools, and he does not expect New York State to ease restrictions on indoor dining "anytime soon," he said.

In Kings Park, Kristy Ludeman, manager of Relish, one of the restaurants that got the new heaters, said revenue was running at about half to three-quarters of pre-pandemic levels. She worried how diners would feel about the heaters, which burn propane, but at nearby Cafe Red, owner Nora Garcia said one she set up next to the entrance to her outdoor dining area last week was a hit.

"People were happy — they were so comfy," she said. With space for 24 diners inside and 26 outside, she said her restaurant was actually busier than it was before the pandemic, though she worried about how very cold temperatures could affect her staff. "We need to work from indoors to outdoors, and I don’t know how it’s going to be for us." Her diners, though, will be "in a nice tent."

PSEG has distributed close to $100,000 to chambers of commerce and business improvement districts through its Main Street Revitalization program, Amy Di Leo, a spokeswoman for the utility, wrote in an email. Other groups bought items like tables, chairs, umbrellas and planters to use as barricades; Kings Park was the first to use the grant for heaters.

Anthony Tanzi, Kings Park Chamber president, said each heater would warm an area of 15 feet by 15 feet. Under fire code they cannot be placed inside tents, but can be placed next to them; electric heaters can be placed inside tents.

Making provisions for outdoor dining permanent would "go a long way to making this community attractive," he said.

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