By: Charlotta Janssen, owner of Bed-Stuy Chez Oskar since 1998
2020 has been our worst year, but for every door that closes a window … and with my colleagues and I facing restaurant closings due to the pandemic, an unexpected window of opportunity has opened.
On March 16, 2020, auxiliary police officers walked past my restaurant, Chez Oskar, ordering us to close. Angélique Calmet-Strakker, general manager of Oskar since 2012, Octavio Simancas, the chef since 1999, and I were devastated. Our 21 year old bistro was dying quickly.
April 2020, the streets have become a ghost town. Ambulances, ice trucks, friends of lost friends, then friends. In Oskar, we stapled store towels to rubber bands: one of the many masks we had just worn.
Given the circumstances, we’ve been forced to work with third-party delivery apps, looking to squeeze everything out of the companies they work with. A friend of mine called me and asked me, “Are you okay?” My answer: a tirade of profanity. He again: “We need to get to work on a city-wide outdoor dining program that includes restaurants like yours, which lost their commercial zoning years ago. ” “GREAT!” I answered.
He knew that I had been trying for years with other restaurants in the neighborhood to get the zoning of our establishments changed so that we could use our sidewalk for commercial purposes. Alone, that would cost us each about $ 100,000 and would take 2 years with no definite result. I had sent local authorities a dotted map of restaurants with no commercial overlay, vying for their support of outdoor dining for all of us, but I had not made any progress.
I had lost the commercial overlay in 2006. I was not alone. Shrinking trade corridors are helping big developers claim the scourge and get low-interest loans and tax breaks to build big box stores. This coincided with the five-fold increase in outdoor dining fees, making sidewalk cafes an exclusive club.
I passed around the dotted map again, this time wider. Brooklyn Borough President Adams wrote an open letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio on May 15 to immediately support alfresco dining for all restaurants, regardless of zoning issues. The window had opened.
I hit the sidewalk. About 30 of us, the “outcast,” gathered across Bed-Stuy and downtown Brooklyn, fighting to be included in the emergency outdoor dining program. We posted a video and testified to be added. The city council approved. Applications were easy. For a city that is usually a tight ball of paperwork, this was a miracle.
Our first outdoor dining setup consisted of socially distant tables and a thin bamboo divider. Soon we had to fortify structures, then we had tents, then clear corrugated, then radiant heat. The rules were constantly changing. Everyday roller coaster: fill out forms, fight the elements, correct infractions. It was a long winter with makeshift carports, closings and reopens.
In May 2021, Angélique and I aspired to a more aesthetic, welcoming and permanent structure. We have concocted a modern version of Art Nouveau in steel and clear. It made sense: Oskar is iconic and French. To date, the structure (now covered in morning glory and wisteria) has survived three tropical systems. Our sidewalk is much more community-based.
A total of 11,500 restaurants participated in the outdoor dining program, including 2,500 “grandfather” restaurants like mine, which had never been able to serve outdoors before. Some, however, after suffering violations accompanied by threats to revoke licenses, have given up eating al fresco. You only have 24 hours to heal.
I am encouraged by the proposed text change to remove the commercial zoning requirement for restaurants to serve outdoors. On October 6, the Planning Commission is holding a public hearing on this proposal, and I encourage all supporters and owners to participate and share positive feedback and a vision for the future.
Restaurants are a vital part of the economy, employing 10% of New Yorkers. We have seen during the pandemic how important they are to communities. The heated and air-conditioned outdoor spaces provided year-round gathering spaces for tired New Yorkers.
The next challenge: create encouraging rules to tackle ‘ugly’ and inequity, continuously streamline the program and make it accessible to all, encourage small businesses to make investments that reflect alfresco dining as an asset community. This means a more thoughtful design considering each use and user of the sidewalk.
To support smarter and more innovative rules and standards, which support beauty and improve functionality, I have collected and shared recommendations with the Regional Plan Association and the Department of Urban Planning, to authorize structures year round that welcome all sidewalk users, for space for those with obstructions, a minimum of 10 seats per business, fair prices and more.
The restaurant industry was not consulted enough on delivery app caps, reopening indoor meal dates, or shutting down “take out liquor” overnight which were all well-meaning. and idiots. We restaurateurs have over a year of useful information.
Don’t Exclude Us – Hear Us!
Charlotta Janssen was born in Maine to German parents before moving to Iran, which her family fled during the revolution. Back in Germany, she studied painting at the University of the Arts in Berlin and then traveled the world as a street musician and performer. In 1995, Janssen moved to New York and in 1998, she opened a restaurant in Brooklyn. Since then, she paints and manages her restaurant Chez Oskar, and uses both professions to get information.
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