By Joshua Burd
With outdoor dining set to begin Monday as part of New Jersey’s phased economic reopening, landlords across the state have been preparing alongside their restaurant tenants.
Larken Associates is certainly among them. In recent weeks, the Branchburg-based developer and owner has been working with some 40 eateries across its portfolio to ensure they’re ready to welcome diners who have spent the past three months eating at home.
Those plans have ranged from setting up one or two small café tables to closing off a section of the parking lot with a tented seating area.
“Obviously, from a landlord’s standpoint, I want the tenants to do business,” said Victor Kelly, an executive vice president with Larken Associates, so the firm has sought to be proactive and creative when it comes to helping restaurants prepare. Many of those tenants reached out in early June after Gov. Phil Murphy announced the reopening plan, he said, while Larken has contacted others to encourage them to take advantage of the opportunity.
Kelly noted that the firm’s portfolio stretches from the Lehigh Valley to northern and central New Jersey, with operators running the gamut from family-owned Mexican and Mediterranean restaurants to national operators like Wendy’s and Outback Steakhouse. Their plans for outdoor seating also vary, but he said “it’s fairly common” that municipalities prefer to deal with the restaurant’s management when it comes to approvals.
“The townships really want to talk to the tenants directly,” Kelly said. “The tenant doesn’t come to me (so that) I then go to the township. It’s really that they go directly to the township to get permission to put tables outside.”
That’s not to say that a landlord can’t help or that it should be hands-off. He said “we do get involved with the tenants because we want to keep it neat and orderly,” adding that Larken has required all tenants to sign an amendment to their lease and to obtain an insurance policy allowing them to have seating outside.
“Each one of them really is on a case-by-case basis,” Kelly said. “But in general we are working with the tenants diligently in getting them ready so they can serve patrons outside.”
Doing so will be a small but welcome source of relief to eateries that have been shut down since mid-March, when Murphy ordered all restaurants to close as part of the state’s sweeping effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. Restaurants were allowed to remain open for take-out and delivery, which Kelly said many of his tenants opted to do as they adjusted to the crisis.
“I would say that in the beginning, the first two or three weeks, everybody was shell-shocked,” he said. “Everybody shut down until they figured out what was going on and then they started opening up a little bit at a time.”
He noted that none of the retailers in Larken’s portfolio have gone out of business during the emergency period. As those businesses now look ahead to their reopening, Kelly believes maintaining communication over the past three months will have gone a long way.
“We realized early on that it was up to us to help the tenants and to be flexible in how we dealt the situation in general,” he said. “And we think that it will pay off for the tenants big time, so we’re happy to be here and happy to do it. It’s what it’s all about.”