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The OBX Restaurant Future Beyond COVID—Will Outdoor dining, entertainment and takeout continue?

The OBX Restaurant Future Beyond COVID—Will Outdoor dining, entertainment and takeout continue?

Sue & Tori under COVID restrictions at OBX.Live

The COVID-19 crisis sparked some unique changes in how OBX restaurants conducted business during the crisis.

And Dare county and local governments, including Currituck county, also got into the act by relaxing ordinances that otherwise prohibited such options such as OBX outdoor seating and permitting full-service dining on the Outer Banks in those outdoor settings.

Suddenly there was more takeout on the Outer Banks available than we’ve ever seen. Many restaurants in Dare county offered delivery, even at the higher end of the spectrum for dining on the Outer Banks. And who doesn’t enjoy outside dining when the weather on the OBX cooperates?

And many of us got used to these new offerings. Some patrons are members of the vulnerable population where COVID is a significant concern, while others in the less vulnerable population are also wary of dining out in the OBX—even if outdoors.

Another consideration has been the rise in more populated areas of delivery options and services as Grubhub, Uber Eats and others expanded into areas far beyond the usual pizza, Chinese food and deli sandwich restaurant-to-door deliveries in Dare county.

Sitting around the OBX.Live office we began to discuss the new temporary services and wondered if OBX restaurants would continue such services once full-service operations are authorized in Phase 3 of the state’s re-opening scheme.

We sat down with Daniel Lewis, president of the Outer Banks Restaurant Association and co-owner (along with Scott Foster) of Coastal Cravings and the Tap Shack in Duck to get his take on a future where COVID will still be among us even after life returns to a more typical pre-crisis rhythm concerning everything related to Outer Banks dining.

The first issue we tackled was outdoor seating with full-service—taking orders and waitstaff rather than carrying your own food outside to a table.

In many parts of the country and of course, internationally, al fresco dining is commonplace. On the Outer Banks, where six incorporated municipalities exist as well as two county governments and two health departments with a hodgepodge of differing rules and overlapping authorities, OBX full-service outside dining has presented an uphill battle for restaurant owners. What is allowed in Duck may not be the case in Kill Devil Hills or unincorporated parts of Dare and Currituck.

Phase 2 of the state’s re-opening guidelines allowed Outer Banks restaurants to resume indoor dining but only at 50% capacity. The OBRA asked towns to temporarily allow outdoor full-service dining and in quick succession Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills made the changes and other localities followed.

It wasn’t necessarily pretty as restaurants on the Outer Banks used parking lots and makeshift seating to add more capacity, but we were curious if these OBX restaurants and local government would allow these options on a permanent basis post-COVID-- giving establishments the option to invest in nicer outdoor serving areas.

“I would think this is going to be trend that is long-lasting. Regardless of how long this situation lasts or when a vaccine comes onboard there’s certainly an appeal to outdoor dining (on the Outer Banks). I think now that we’ve been through this pandemic, we’re all distinctly aware of spacing and a little bit more hesitant about being in a crowded room with a lot of unknown people,” Lewis related.

From there we segued into another important component of restaurant operations—on-site entertainment in the world of COVID. The Outer Banks music scene is vibrant and local musicians perform in venues ranging from small, intimate surroundings to full-blown bands and DJ’s where dancing is part of the OBX nightlife and social distancing impossible.

Local entertainers saw their livelihoods completely shut down in Phase 1 and even Phase 2 is making it difficult for musicians to play with crowds reduced by half or split between indoor and outdoor seating arrangements.

Lewis thinks that entertainment may be a challenge unless and until a vaccine is developed, especially for the handful of venues that ‘flip’ from dining to music (with or without dancing) after 10 p.m. “In the short term we’re still under Phase 2 guidelines… I think there’s still plenty of outdoor venues here on the Outer Banks and I think that will continue to be an option for OBX restaurants that only had entertainment inside before,” he said.

The combination of a more permanent move to increased outdoor dining on the Outer Banks and entertainment options is likely opening a Pandora’s box in Lewis’s view but he believes more of a push from restaurants and patrons may change the views of local government on that front. In the past objections about noise have hampered such uses as rental and year-round residences are in close proximity to such venues.

The OBRA has requested all Dare municipalities and the county government in unincorporated areas to consider such permanent changes in outdoor dining and entertainment as well as more leeway with food trucks—another area we wanted to explore on the Outer Banks.

The food truck craze has taken the country by storm and has even spawned reality TV shows and food truck ‘rodeos’—including a very popular such event on the Outer Banks.

But restaurant owners aren’t unified on the subject. Some existing restaurants see food trucks as a way to extend and expand their brand’s reach, while others fear food truck- only operators that do not bear the cost of a brick and mortar store are a form of unfair competition, especially if they operate right outside their front door.

The geography of the Outer Banks beaches also discourages food trucks given the lack of public spaces where food trucks can congregate as they do in urban areas around city parks and along roadsides with sidewalks and ample parking along curbs with sidewalks.

But food trucks have an appeal in the world of COVID—a form of mobile, curbside takeout.

Lewis stated the opposition from OBX restaurant owners contains some valid points and the geography of the area does make it more difficult to implement here. But some towns have allowed them on a limited basis, and he noted Nags Head relaxed some restrictions as the COVID crisis unfolded. But OBRA will continue to push for a greater food truck presence that will be acceptable to his members and local government.

Wrapping things up Lewis also felt more takeout and delivery will ‘stick’ with some restaurants post-crisis but he cautioned that some OBX dining establishments are better suited to takeout and delivery while others are likely to take a more restrained approach given the difficulty in balancing call-in orders with high indoor volume for the kitchen and other staff.

The accompanying video provides much more detail and Daniel Lewis is always an engaging interview. Other areas of interest to fans of OBX dining are also explored. It’s worth a look!

COVID introduced some diner options that had long been available outside of the OBX. It’s up to the restaurant industry and local government to decide if some of the creative ideas deployed during the crisis might remain over the long term in regards to all things related to Outer Banks restaurants and OBX nightlife.

Stay tuned to OBX.Live and our business directory to keep up with your favorite dining OBX restaurants.

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