Nothing has tested the slogan “always open” like Covid-19, even at venerable diners like the Bel Aire in Queens, New York, which hasn’t locked the doors in decades.
“Oh, man, it was scary, depressing,” said Kalergis Dellaportas, general manager of the institution in the Astoria neighborhood. “We’ve been continuously open, 24/7, for 22 years.”
When business dropped 70% in the first few weeks of the pandemic and they were forced to lay off most of the veteran staff, it looked like the Bel Aire’s ironman streak would snap.
“Before the stimulus package, it was bad in here,” Dellaportas said.
While the diner stayed open for takeout orders, it wasn’t enough to cover the loss of 180 seats.
But while Dellaportas was spitballing bailout ideas with his manager Joe Forrest, they realized that they were suddenly located next to the rarest of New York features: an empty parking lot.
“It is completely underutilized now that the bank is closed. The post office has minimal hours. And he was just like, ‘Why don’t we do a drive-in?’” Dellaportas said of Forrest.
Within days, they arranged an inflatable screen and within weeks, New York City’s first improvised drive-in was a smashing success.
At $32 a car with a two-person minimum, patrons line up to enjoy “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” or “Grease” with the sound piped through their FM radios.
After receiving orders online or through a food delivery app, Dellaportas and his crew become masked carhops, dropping bagged burgers and shakes through sunroofs and windows.
“Me and a waitress were going to bring rollerblades, really do it right,” he said, harkening back to the 1950s servers on skates. “But she forgot her rollerblades.”
At the height of their popularity, as post-World War II Americans started their automobile love affair, there were around 4,000 drive-in movie theaters across the US.
According to driveinmovie.com, 330 remain and many are seeing a pandemic-led renaissance. But the Bel Aire’s pioneer effort may be inspiration for other struggling businesses across the country willing to turn an empty lot into revenue and a much-needed taste of better days.
To maximize profit, the Bel Aire now does two seatings – or parkings – opening with dueling pianos or a comedy show.
“It feels so good to be doing standup live. I’m on such a high!” said Brooklyn comedian Robyn Schall after a set where flashing headlights and honks replaced laughter and applause.
“The last few weeks, it’s been hard, because without comedy, everything just seemed so much darker. Getting onstage just now, has been just the best medicine. Today is my parents’ 47th wedding anniversary. And they’re celebrating it in that parking lot because there’s nothing else to do.”
The craving for shared experience is evidenced by ticket sales.
“We basically sell out in 10 minutes,” Dellaportas said.
Scalpers on Instagram are offering $200 for a $32 entry. Between the drive-in and a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, he’s been able to hire back most of his staff part-time and donate some of the ticket proceeds to local charities.
Equally satisfying is how the Bel Aire has returned as a hub of human connection.
“We had next-door neighbors that hadn’t seen each other in seven weeks that ended up in adjoining parking spaces. And it was just like, ‘Oh my God,’” Dellaportas said. “Really upbeat people thank us constantly. They reach out with direct messages afterwards. It’s an awesome feeling.”