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Reopening NJ: Outdoor dining begins at the Jersey Shore, Asbury Park complies with order

APP.com (Asbury Park, NJ) logo APP.com (Asbury Park, NJ) 6/15/2020 Dan Radel and Keith Schubert, Asbury Park Press
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ASBURY PARK - The first customer was David Mendez, owner of WB Law Coffee Co. in Newark, who took a seat at Toast restaurant and ordered a sausage and pepper omelet with fruit and coffee.

Mendez, of Hoboken, chuckled at the idea of being the first to take a seat, at least on Cookman Avenue. Elsewhere on the Shore, other restaurants were also reopening.

"I'm extremely excited to get back into the dining scene," Mendez said. "In terms of reopening, I don't know if anyone really knows what the right answer is."

Cookman Avenue was not packed with breakfast customers early Monday morning, the first day restaurants were permitted to allow outdoor dining since they were shut down in March to flatten the curve of COVID-19. 

The city last week briefly tried defying Gov. Phil Murphy's order to allow indoor dining as well. The City Council went as far as passing a resolution to permit restaurant owners to seat patrons inside but backed off when Murphy countered with a lawsuit on Friday.

a person standing in front of a store: Amy Quinn, deputy mayor of Asbury Park, and Amy Russo Harrigan, owner of Toast, talks outside of Toast before the restaurant opens for outside dining in Asbury Park, NJ Monday, June 15, 2020. © Tanya Breen Amy Quinn, deputy mayor of Asbury Park, and Amy Russo Harrigan, owner of Toast, talks outside of Toast before the restaurant opens for outside dining in Asbury Park, NJ Monday, June 15, 2020.

So what could have been a controversial morning, was not. Instead, the restaurants, which had seating for about 12 patrons on the sidewalk in front of their establishments, had a few patrons waiting at 7:30 a.m. when they opened.    

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Mendez said he stood with Asbury Park's decision to defy the governor's order. However, the risks, such as losing their liquor licenses, were not worth it, said the restaurant owners who spoke to the Asbury Park Press.   

"Absolutely not," said Bob Fahey owner of Cross and Orange.  

Fahey described a nerve-racking week leading up to the reopening, as plans were constantly being changed while the city was on the brink of defiance.    

"We need to get back to some normalcy because trying to reinvent the restaurant every day is getting real taxing on my staff, who doesn't know what to do, or when they're coming back to work, if they're coming back to work," Fahey said.

Fahey said outdoor dining will "open up a little bit of revenue for us and bring some staff back to work," but it's not going to sustain them.

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"I've got an occupancy of 180 people and I need every one of those seats to be filled to pay my bills, to pay my staff. To have 12 tables outside is a fraction of what we take in," Fahey said.

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Asbury Park's Deputy Mayor Amy Quinn, who spearheaded the resolution to allow indoor dining, visited the Cookman Avenue eateries Monday.

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"We had to try. I'm not sure Gov. Murphy understands the economics of a Shore town. As I've said repeatedly, the name of the game is Memorial Day to Labor Day to make the most amount of money you can make," Quinn said referring to the two major holidays that bookend the summer season.

"In January and February, people are not here," Quinn said.  

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Around the Shore

The restaurants were pretty quiet elsewhere at the Shore during the morning but started to pick up in the afternoon. Blend on Main, located in downtown Manasquan, did not have its first customer until 10:30 a.m. when customers started to trickle in by the twos. 

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Blend is not usually open on Mondays but on a typical weekday this time of year, Chef Lou Smith said the restaurant would be packed at this hour.

"I'm hoping because it's a little windy out, they're not here," Smith said of the turnout. 

The restaurant has an outdoor seating capacity of 60 patrons between the front sidewalk, backyard patio and gazebo. Judging by Smith's reservation list, Blend hoped to fill them all at dinner. 

The restaurant's going to need a lot of busy days and nights if it's going to make up the lost revenue from being shut down for months due to the executive orders during the pandemic.

"Sometimes you have to take the loss. We're not going to recover any of that revenue. We can stop the bleeding," Smith said.     

Joe Dringus, co-owner of The Waterfront, talks about the first day of outdoor dining at The Waterfront in Lacey Twp., NJ Monday, June 15, 2020. © Tanya Breen Joe Dringus, co-owner of The Waterfront, talks about the first day of outdoor dining at The Waterfront in Lacey Twp., NJ Monday, June 15, 2020.

The Waterfront in Lacey, a brand new wedding and banquet destination with two levels of outdoor entertainment space, had a lunch crowd of several dozen patrons at 1 p.m.

Owner Joe Dringus and his partners bought the property in October, renovated it and then endured the delays to its opening when life came to a standstill at the Shore from the pandemic.   

"Our entire industry was flipped upside down. But rather than scrutinize how things have been handled were going to keep a positive attitude," Dringus said. "We're all in this boat so let's just make the most of it."

On top of the customers, Dringus had about 75 employees on staff, he said, though not all were on hand for lunch. At full capacity with indoor dining, he said he'll be closer to 100 to 125 employees.     

a group of people sitting at a dock: Joe Dringus, co-owner of The Waterfront, talks about the first day of outdoor dining at The Waterfront in Lacey Twp., NJ Monday, June 15, 2020. © Tanya Breen Joe Dringus, co-owner of The Waterfront, talks about the first day of outdoor dining at The Waterfront in Lacey Twp., NJ Monday, June 15, 2020.

Alli Voigt, 28 of Lacey and an elementary school teacher in Stafford, is one of the new hires. After months of teaching virtual classes to her students, she said she's happy to "see people out in the world again."

When Jersey Shore native Dan Radel is not reporting the news, you can find him in a college classroom where he is a history professor. Reach him @danielradelapp; 732-643-4072; dradel@gannettnj.com.

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Reopening NJ: Outdoor dining begins at the Jersey Shore, Asbury Park complies with order

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