Innovation in Restaurant Design is the New Normal in NYC

Creative site selection and innovative design elements can help restauranteurs continue to operate during this—or the next—pandemic

This past year has been difficult for restaurant owners, particularly in New York City. A recent article in the New York Post by Carl Campanile surmises that jobs in the city’s food services, restaurant, and beverage industry plummeted by 43 percent year-to-year — from 324,500 in December 2019 to 183,800 last month. It is also noted that a return to indoor dining availability will help alleviate this downward trend.

As for the good news? If people remain optimistic and believe in the economy to turn around, there are opportunities for restauranteurs during this downturn. Our team recently celebrated the grand opening of La Grande Boucherie – a classic French restaurant in the heart of Midtown, New York City. We started working with the client in December 2019 and were already deep in design by March 2020. Once the pandemic severely impacted New York City, “operating as usual” became obsolete and La Grande was put on hold. The owner challenged us to collaborate with him to find a way to press on – and that is exactly what we did. After research, much collaboration with the entire team (including the NYC Department of Buildings), close monitoring of the situation, and as soon as the Governor allowed guidelines for essential construction to proceed, we were off and running. Thanks to that provision, in late March/early April, we were full speed ahead.

Considering how important the open passageway between 6th and 7th Avenue was to La Grande’s ability to continue with operations, we treated this space with care and installed floor and aerial heating with air curtains at the entrances. By design, the heated outdoor walkway allows for cross ventilation to help protect patrons and staff. To allow for a more safe, comfortable atmosphere for the interior, we replaced the HVAC system combined with HEPA filters. Tables are sectioned off with clear dividers offering more protection to diners. Our design solution takes advantage of the airy covered passageway to provide seating for 174, even with restrictions. Indoors, the space can now accommodate up to 100 diners with social distancing, but we anticipate we can seat 400 after the pandemic. The project total square footage is 11,000 square feet which includes both indoor and outdoor seating.

We followed our client’s lead, and as much as he was willing to continue operations, the Node team was in absolute lockstep. Although running the project looked different - from no longer shaking hands, keeping appropriate distance, limited people on site, and many more zoom calls then in-person meetings - we engaged this tight construction schedule and delivered! Construction started at the end of March 2020 and we opened by the end of November 2020. For a full interior demolition and renovation, eight months is an extremely fast track schedule, despite the additional challenges presented by COVID-19.

During this time, our team was also helping develop yet another restaurant project. I met Dusan Celic, an ambitious chef, while designing a hospitality project early in my career. Many years later, he approached me to help him look for a spot to establish his own restaurant. We looked at a few sites, but none were ideal. In Spring 2019, Dusan finally settled on a contract for a place in Harlem. We were finished with the design and starting to file permits by Fall of 2019 when COVID struck. Construction had not begun yet and, considering the COVID implications, the project had to be abandoned. Determined to continue forward, Dusan found a different site he absolutely loved by August of 2020—a spot with a wonderful outdoor patio space that coincidentally was in the very neighborhood where he lives, Astoria, Queens.

Still a work in progress, this new design - Lagano Bar -will feature a restaurant on the first floor with an open patio in the back. As New York is addressing the virus by mandating restaurants to operate, but only those with open air spaces, a restaurant that has this type of outside area means continued operations and a more sustainable business in the future. Thus, Dusan’s dream moves forward. We started construction this month, and once complete, this indoor restaurant will blur the lines between indoor and outdoor by offering retractable and temporary awnings to allow for fresh air while guarding against inclement weather.

Resilience may be defined as the ability to “bounce back” from a disaster like a hurricane, earthquake, or global infection. We know disasters are often catalysts for innovation. For the hospitality industry that has been so negatively impacted by the pandemic, the resulting innovation includes capturing real, unique site opportunities that allow continued operations. Couple that with the challenge of finding inventive ways to address heating and cooling needs, social distancing, and cross-wind ventilation, it is exactly the type of challenge the team at Node embraces and solves beautifully.