Restaurateurs are locked in an epic clash over outdoor dining with local officials in the Hamptons, whose inspectors increasingly have begun to enforce a return to pre-pandemic rules.
Restaurants from Southampton to Montauk who claim they have depended on extra seating to survive during the pandemic gripe that they have been hit by fresh waves of “over-the-top” inspections and fines for exceeding capacity that are ruining their livelihoods during the critical money-making summer months.
“They took off the brakes and they say they are making up for lost time,” one restaurateur told Side Dish, referring to the crackdown by local officials. “They want to take back the outdoor spaces or restrict them, but who do you think pays our tax revenue base?”
The business owner — who, like many interviewed by Side Dish, asked to remain anonymous for fear of additional wrath — said in one instance police were going to seize his sound equipment.
“What do you think this is, the Soviet f—- Union?” the restaurateur fumed. “You can’t come take my s—. The law doesn’t work like that. It’s so messed up. We need a hospitality alliance.”
Ryan Murphy, Southampton town code compliance and emergency management administrator, defended the enforcement after the rules were relaxed during the pandemic.
Last year, the town allowed restaurants to put tents on their lawns and expand their outdoor seating, sometimes on open streets and public sidewalks, to help the struggling businesses.
However, some restaurants did not apply to make their expanded outdoor dining seating permanent until well after this summer season began, resulting in the raids, Murphy said.
While restaurants can apply to make their expanded pandemic-era dining permanent, the town still has to approve all site plan changes — based on the restaurants’ ability to host more people while complying with health and safety codes, Murphy said.
“We are aware of restaurants that expanded their footprint beyond what it should be and received summonses and violations, and the fines can escalate if they aren’t paid,” Murphy said.
Southampton restaurateur Zach Erdem, owner of the chic restaurant and nightclub 75 Main, decried the crackdown.
“We just want to survive. We pay rent year-round and just have this three-month window to make money in this little village,” said Erdem, who added he has not run afoul of any ordinances. “People need to do something, to go out for dinner, to listen to music, to dance or this becomes a ghost town.”
A group of restaurant owners in Montauk are also banding together after claiming they have been unfairly targeted. Those that have come under fire include Sel Rrose, Shagwong Tavern, 668 The Gig Shack and TT’s Montauk, as Side Dish previously reported.
“We are retaining counsel and I know others are too,” Tony Pytleski, owner of TT’s Montauk, told Side Dish, stating that he is speaking for his eatery only. “Our lease is up next year and we are considering leaving Montauk for a more business friendly town.”
Local officials denied they have it out for any of the businesses. They just want the tents added during the pandemic or the extra tables that spill out onto the sidewalks and streets removed.
“The public loves outdoor dining, but some restaurants took advantage of it, and kept it going after COVID numbers came down and the state of emergency was lifted,” said Jay Schneiderman, supervisor of the town of Southampton.
“Understandably, they are trying to make as much money as possible in a short season, and that’s where the friction is occurring,” Schneiderman added. “Restaurants are unwilling to return to pre-pandemic seating arrangements. But they have to work with pre-existing seat numbers.”
Schneiderman refuted claims the town was profiting off the summonses.
“We are hardly dependent on fines. We are primarily funded by property taxes and we are in a very strong financial position, with a Triple-A credit rating. People pay for beach parking, building permits, and all kinds of licenses. The fines we get are also minor, considering the cost of collecting those fines.”
He also said enforcing the pre-pandemic regulations doesn’t make the towns anti-business.
“We are willing to work with the businesses and we want to see them thrive,” Schneiderman said. “We want the businesses to succeed. We are not their enemy.”