ITHACA, N.Y. — On a Saturday night in June, people would usually be getting ready to spend a night on the town. However, with most of Ithaca’s bars and clubs closed since mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, one party took on a more unconventional setting — a parking lot.
People danced from their cars in the lot of K-House Karaoke Lounge and Suites for its weekly Drive-In Dinner Party, complete with a full menu of food and drinks and a live DJ set from Washburn Entertainment. Under normal circumstances, a DJ booth wouldn’t usually be sporting a host of hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes, but these were the precautions Alina Kim, owner of K-House, and Chris Washburn, owner of Washburn Entertainment, made sure to take in order to host a safe and fun event.
“We’re very conscious about doing this right, doing it well, making sure people are safe, and not a free-for-all house party type of thing,” Washburn said.
Kim said that the space outside of her establishment lent itself to maintaining social distancing measures. The lot, which is set up similarly to an amphitheater, has two tiers of parking and a side garden. She said she was inspired by a combination of customers asking to picnic in the lot, as well as some of the viral Youtube videos of people singing from their apartment balconies in Italy while quarantined. She came up with the idea of tying in music, the heart and soul of K-House, with the outdoor dining element.
“It was a nice area to socialize outdoors, and given the situation with COVID, we were just trying to find a creative way to have people still be able to listen to music and eat and hang out,” Kim said.
The DJ booth was set up under the K-House storefront. Attendees were required to stay in or on their vehicles, and parking spots were blocked off so individuals were able to maintain a responsible social distance. If people chose to order food, they ordered and paid online so there was nothing to sign and no exchange of a payment method.
“Nobody’s going to get any sort of contact here,” Kim said. “It’s outdoors, everyone has a mask, anyone who doesn’t have a mask can get a free mask. The idea of it was, to be the most socially-responsible party, and to be an example of how to do it well.”
The dinner parties happened every Saturday from 6 to 9 p.m., starting at the end of May. Washburn said that on average, about a dozen cars would come by throughout the night, and the sets were also live streamed.
Kim said that her business, like many other local businesses, have faced financial hardships due to the pandemic. As the Southern Tier continues to progress through New York State’s phased reopenings, some local restaurants have relied on outdoor dining to keep their businesses afloat. Despite these challenges, Kim was surprised by the amount of positive feedback she has been getting on social media.
“As far as money and the amount of money we’re making, definitely not enough to get by,” she said. “But, the response has been amazing. I’m sure that there are a lot of people in Ithaca that have not heard of K-House that now know about K-House, so if anything, it’s been like guerilla advertising to keep our presence around while we were closed.”
Kim anticipates to restart indoor dining and reopen the karaoke rooms around the second week of July, with the decision being dependent on state and county guidelines.
Both Washburn and Kim said their favorite part of the event was being able to see people outside of their homes and responsibly socialize.
“Definitely just getting out there and being around people to the best of our ability, hearing loud music from a speaker for once, and just being able to put smiles on people’s faces,” Washburn said. “From our perspective, it’s been tougher to do that during the pandemic. So getting out there, seeing people dance, seeing people comment saying, ‘This is awesome, I love the setup,’ that’s what fuels us. That energy, that reaction, being able to do that for people.”