The value proposition of Gitano’s Garden of Love restaurant is simple: Spend an evening drinking and eating in a tropical-inspired garden, all with minimal unwanted human interaction.
Grupo Gitano, a Tulum, Mexico-based hospitality group founded by Goldman Sachs alum James Gardner, has transformed a Tribeca parking lot into an outdoor restaurant pop-up for the third summer in a row. The Garden’s 24,000 square feet of outdoor dining space make it the ideal setting for a pandemic-savvy restaurateur’s social-distancing experiment.
With indoor dining still a distant dream for New York restaurants (and increasingly, restaurants across the country), optimizing outdoor dining space has never been more important. This year, the Garden’s automated dining experience is designed for the pandemic-era diner.
On the sweltering evening of July 3, we made our way to the Garden of Love to meet with Gardner, tour the space, and sample a shrimp taco or two. Here’s what it was like.
We arrived at the Garden of Love at around 5:00 pm, when the first guests were just beginning to arrive. In order to prevent lines and crowding, those waiting for a table were able to join the waitlist by scanning a QR code.
Before entering the space, guests are required to fill out a COVID-19 waiver form, accessed, again, via QR code. Once the waiver is filled out and signed, guests’ temperatures are taken.
Upon entering, guests are informed that they have to keep their masks on at all times when not at their tables. They’re also not allowed to wander around and take pictures.
Before checking in with the host, guests can wipe down their belongings and sanitize their hands. Gardner said that he implemented many of his entry safety measures after watching what restaurants in Hong Kong did when reopening.
We met up with Gardner and his assistant, Xavi De La Mora, whom he’d met four years ago while operating his restaurants in Tulum. Gardner had moved to Tulum, Mexico, in 2013 with his husband after a career in finance and luxury fashion technology. While in Tulum, Gardner started a high-end restaurant business that turned into Grupo Gitano.
Every year since 2017, Gardner has turned the same parking lot into a Tulum-themed outdoor restaurant. Usually, the sprawling garden holds up to 450 guests. This year, because of the pandemic, only 200-300 guests are permitted in the space at once.
Aside from spaced-out tables and widely available hand sanitizer, the core concept of the Garden remains the same.
While all of the Garden’s staff are based in or from New York, the plants are carted in from Florida, while the planters and some decor are shipped all the way from Tulum.
We went into the kitchen, where Chef Julio and Chef Bruno were preparing guacamole for one of the Garden’s first guests. Only three people are allowed in the back area of the kitchen at a time. “It’s a more delicate process than usual because there are less people working the line,” Julio said.
Gardner’s experience in fashion shone through in his design decisions, among which was the choice to give bartenders mirrored visors as part of their personal protective gear uniform. According to Gardner, the visors’ rainbow theme is a display of LGBTQ pride and support.
“COVID gave me the opportunity to reimagine the guest experience,” Gardner said. “I think hospitality is one of the last industries that people say technology can’t touch.”
At the core of that reimagining: fully automating the dining experience. To order and pay, guests can use their phones to scan the QR code at their table.
Upon entering their table number, guests have access to the entire Gitano menu. Gardner recommended we try a Jungle Fever cocktail. (“Jungle Fever” is also the name of a Spike Lee movie about an interracial relationship between a black man and a white woman. Lee made the 1991 film two years after Yusuf Hawkins, a black teenager, was murdered by a mob of white teenagers who thought he was dating a white girl from their neighborhood.)
Guests can select their tip and pay with Apple Pay, and are able to send their receipts via email.
Once the kitchen receives an order, the staff is able to update the guest on the status of their order: accepted, en route, or delivered. Not long after we’d ordered, a server dropped off the Jungle Fever at our table.
Not only does the automated ordering system minimize contact between servers and guests, but it also solves a major issue the Garden had faced in its first two seasons. Before, Gardner said, “it was hard to flag someone down.”
Another major change this year: the culinary brains behind the food. In previous years, the menu had been designed by white celebrity chefs such as Mike Bagale of Alinea fame and Mads Refslung of Noma in Copenhagen.
But this year, at the urging of his husband, who previously worked in the restaurant industry, Gardner hired Mexican-American chef Antonio Maldonado to redesign the menu.
“The pandemic has made people more open to change,” Gardner said.
More than anything, this year’s Garden is a proof-of-concept for new technologies and design aspects he hopes to implement in Grupo Gitano’s other restaurants.
“Hospitality is about giving guests what they want,” Gardner said. And for the pandemic era, Gitano’s guests want their stylish dinner with as little human interaction as possible.