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- New York City restaurants have been scrambling to keep outdoor diners warm, with hard-to-come-by heat lamps and strict city guidelines about placement.
- On Friday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced an end to indoor dining, effective Monday, that’s likely to make the problem worse.
- Richard Kirshenbaum, the CEO of a branding agency, says a fellow diner tried to steal his heat lamp while dining alfresco at Nobu in midtown Manhattan.
- Avra Madison, a popular Upper East Side restaurant, says its heat lamps have a mechanism that turns them off if someone tries to move them.
- One woman became so frustrated with the lack of heaters at restaurants that she ordered her own rechargeable battery-operated heater to bring out with her.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
It had been a long and stressful day for Cindy Barshop, and she was looking forward to unwinding over a relaxing dinner with her fiancé, Jay Cardiello. Though it was late November and the temperature had dropped into the 40s, they decided to eat outdoors to be safe during the pandemic.
The two arrived early at the tony bistro Amaranth on New York City’s Upper East Side and settled in over glasses of wine. Their table was adjacent to one of four heaters used to warm the restaurant’s 10 alfresco tables.
As they engaged in deep conversation, a woman with a baby and a toddler interrupted to ask if they would be kind enough to move to another spot so her children could stay “cozy,” Barshop recalled.
“I shot her a look like ‘Are you kidding me?’ But before I could say anything, Jay leapt up and said, ‘Of course, ma’am,'” said Barshop, who owns a sexual-health spa called VSpot on Madison Avenue.
“I was so irritated. She was an entitled Upper East Sider who used the children as a pawn. They should have been home instead of outside at a fancy restaurant stealing other people’s warm tables,” Barshop said. “Our dinner was ruined because I was uncomfortable for the rest of the meal.”
Amaranth’s manager Sal Spanar says patrons are continually asking him to displace other customers in an effort to be closest to the heat lamps.
“They always have a story and say they are regulars,” he said. “They say other people have been sitting too long and want us to ask them to leave. We used to take requests for tables near the heaters, but we stopped doing it because of all the arguments.”
In the not too distant past, corner tables were the power tables. These days, the surest sign of a VIP is being seated closest to the outdoor heater. And the term “Siberia” has taken on a whole new literal meaning.
Restaurateurs say New Yorkers have been wary of dining indoors because of COVID-19 and the potential of spreading infectious aerosols in an enclosed space.
“None of our customers want to eat inside,” Spanar said.
But while eating outside is a safer option, it’s been hard for many restaurants to get their hands on heaters, with increased prices and months-long delivery times. “I have been trying to get more heaters, but they are backordered until the end of January, and the prices have gone up between 30% to 60%,” Joe Ragonese, the director of operations at Kyma, a restaurant in the Flatiron District, told Insider. City guidelines are also strict about their placement: Propane heaters have to be at least 10 feet from a building entrance and 5 feet from a combustible table. Now, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Friday announcement that he will shut down indoor dining in NYC starting Monday, restaurateurs are bracing for more combative customers.
“People are becoming more aggressive as it’s gotten colder,” Richard Kirshenbaum, CEO of the branding agency SWAT, said. “You have to be vigilant about showing you are waiting for a heated table or someone will swoop right in. It’s like hailing a cab. You have that standoff and stare at people like ‘Don’t screw with me.’ You can be polite, but at a certain moment you get your New York on.”
Recently, Kirshenbaum was having a business lunch at Nobu in midtown, he watched as a diner subtly slid their shared heater in his own direction.
“I see a pair of hands under the divider surreptitiously move the heater toward his table, and I thought, ‘OK, I’m being heater-poached!”’ Kirshenbaum said.
“When it started to disappear from view, I got really upset, walked over, and said, ‘There is something called sharing.’ He then started pushing it back like a kid who had been caught stealing a cookie.”
While some diners will avoid direct altercations, they are less shy about confronting staff.
“Customers get pretty agitated when they are cold, and they get mad at us,” said Haley Bergin, a hostess at Kyma. “People try to scoot heaters closer to their own tables, which is dangerous because it can melt the awning and decorations.”
Over at the Mediterranean restaurant Barbounia, a man became so upset when a seat near the heater wasn’t available that he began yelling at the hostess, Ivana Pancic.
“I was trying not to react, but he was raising his voice,” Pancic said. “He finally said, ‘If I don’t have a heater, you owe me $20 cab fare home.'”
Scott Brayton, the general manager at Avra Madison, a popular Greek restaurant on the Upper East Side, says guests try to outrank one another in the battle over warmers.
“Every table gets one heater, but people are very territorial, and some ask for one on each side, or even three,” he said.
“Last Tuesday, a table of two women and one man said, ‘Can’t you take one from someone else’s table? We are better customers, so we should have the heaters, not them!”’
Brayton says the restaurant is alerted when a customer tries to relocate a heater without the management’s permission.
“Our heaters have an internal mechanism that turns them off if someone tries to move them, so when they complain that the heater has gone off, we know why,” he said. “Luckily, with all those attempts, nobody has been burned yet.”
Some desperate diners have been more proactive about warding off the winter chill.
“I’ve been lugging around my own blanket for weeks now, but the other night was so chilly I thought I would have to get my toe amputated!” said Samira Shamoon, who owns a lifestyle communications company.
She went online and did some research. “I wound up purchasing a rechargeable battery-operated heater, and that’s going to be an extra 5 pounds to carry, but I’m looking forward to it arriving next week,” she said.
A real-estate broker said her heater at a chic French restaurant was recently taken away when one of the bistro’s investors unexpectedly made a reservation.
The broker decided to take matters into her own hands. She ordered the Mr. Heater Hero, a cordless, battery-operated gizmo that promised to be quiet and powerful and last eight hours.
“I thought this was the perfect solution,” the Upper East Sider said.
“There’s only one problem: It uses gas, and the restaurants won’t let me in with my own propane!”