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BWW Interview: How Emmy Award Winning Set Designer Matthew Anderson is Rebuilding NYC's Restaurant Industry

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Anderson, one of the founding partners of SET Solutions NYC, is using theatre set fabrication shops to build safe, re-usable, creative outdoor dining spaces.

BWW Interview: How Emmy Award Winning Set Designer Matthew Anderson is Rebuilding NYC's Restaurant Industry

The ongoing global health crisis has affected businesses all over the world, many of which have been forced to shutter their doors- leaving millions of people out of work- in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. The arts and hospitality industries have been hit especially hard, with the hospitality industry in New York City facing a decline of over 400,000 jobs, and the arts industry facing around 1.4 million jobs lost overall in the United States.

In June, when New York City entered Phase 2 of reopening and began to allow for outdoor dining, there was no precedent for what that would look like. Quickly, restaurants began to adapt, constructing the outdoor dining spaces that we see lining the sidewalks today, and helping to slowly bring business back to the restaurant industry. While the restaurant industry has seen a boost, the arts industry remains mostly dark, with live performances unable to be brought back due to the health concerns of gathering together large groups of people.

But, one company has found a creative solution for bringing back jobs to both the entertainment and the hospitality industries, marrying together the skills of those who work within the worlds of live entertainment and restaurants. SET Solutions NYC is utilizing artisans who work in theatre set and event fabrication shops to help build re-usable modular outdoor dining spaces for restaurants in New York City. Not only is SET Solutions NYC helping restaurants further adapt to our new normal of outdoor dining, which could be the industry's solution to keeping business going well into 2021, but they are also putting people in the performing arts industry back to work.

We spoke with Emmy Award Winning Set Designer, Matthew Anderson, one of the founding partners of SET Solutions NYC, about how the company is helping to bring work back to set fabricators and craftspeople, as well as helping the restaurant industry better adapt to outdoor dining, the company's plan going into 2021, and much more.

I would love to start by learning a little bit about your background!

I grew up in Iowa and went to undergraduate at Northern Iowa, and then went to graduate school for set design at California Institute of the Arts with the intention of coming to New York and pursuing a career in set design for theater and television, which I then did. I moved to New York in the late 90s and started out assisting Broadway and regional designers and then working with them as associates while I also pursued a career as a set designer and art director and production designer for television. I did that for a number of years and then got asked to design a trade show exhibit, and that intrigued me a lot, I'd never done anything like that. I discovered that I enjoyed that as much, or really more than, doing set design. And so I pursued that a little more and ended up creating a business to help people with experiential marketing, so that's trade shows, events, conferences, meetings, that kind of thing, and then we also branched out into corporate marketing....

I did that for a number of years, went out on my own as a consultant, and in March kind of got blindsided like so many other people. The areas of my career that I was used to in terms of entertainment and corporate events, all of that went away. For several months, [I was] just trying to figure out what to do next. That was the genesis of our business, putting together this idea of set shops, set fabrication shops, and event fabrication shops, and building outdoor seating environments.

Talk to me about what SET Solutions NYC does and your role within the company.

We design and build outdoor modular seating environments for restaurants, and we BWW Interview: How Emmy Award Winning Set Designer Matthew Anderson is Rebuilding NYC's Restaurant Industrydo that using set fabrication and event fabrication shops. My partner, Erika Farber, brought to my attention an article on Eater online about the Rockwell group designing outdoor environments for one restaurant in each borough. And this was back before there was outdoor dining in New York City... So, she showed me this article, we looked it, and I said, "This would be a terrific thing if scene shops built these, it would put those guys back to work, a lot of them it would turn the lights back on, and at the same time, help restaurants."

What I didn't realize was, the expectation of restaurants is that all that work would be done on site, and it creates a bit of a mess, and takes a long time, and I said, "Scene shops are used to producing anything in a fast way that's structural and safe, and then they build it over here, and then they put it on a truck and then they install it over here." So, there's so no muss, no fuss at the restaurant, and I said, "It's got to be less expensive right away," because with the construction crew on site, 25% of the day is spent taking tools and materials out of overnight storage and then putting them back into overnight storage. And with a theatrical set shop, at the beginning of the day you turn your lights on and you go to work because your tools are right there, safe. And at the end of the day you turn the lights off and you go home. So right away we're saving money on labor...

We've created a product that is sustainable and reusable using methods of theatrical construction and event construction. So what I do particularly with SET solutions is help facilitate design, help facilitate execution, and then I also have a small business background with experiential marketing. So, we think about how to tell the restaurant's story outside and try to embrace some component of what the restaurant does outside...My partner, Erika Farber, she concentrates on sales and marketing, and we overlap a bit on the marketing. And then our other partner, Michael Welch, he has a deep history in restaurants, working in operations. So he concentrates on what the restauranteur is going to need and want with our solution and helps navigate that process with them.

Tell me about how who is currently working with SET Solutions NYC. How are those who work in the theatre industry involved in the company?

BWW Interview: How Emmy Award Winning Set Designer Matthew Anderson is Rebuilding NYC's Restaurant IndustryEverybody is, more or less, freelance at present. We've reached out to a variety of sources. Initially, we were talking to a lot of restaurant architects. We talked to Bentel & Bentel, who do a lot of restaurants all over the country, and we also talked to BLANK Design and Aki Miyazono [President of BLANK Design], and he worked with chef Morimoto on a lot of their restaurants. He came up with a nice concept for us that I then translated into designs for shops. We helped D & D Productions, which has been around for a long time, and they produce Off-Off Broadway as well as Off Broadway sets, and a lot of scenery for events, everything from fashion week to dinners and award celebrations. We also worked with Wade Wesson, who, before Dazian Fabrics shut their doors temporarily, he was one of their creatives within Dazian. We also have worked with a couple of design assistants that just recently graduated from theatrical set design programs, and Erika's brought in a few sales people that she worked with at Convene, who haven't permanently shut their doors, but they had to furlough a lot of their team. They were an events organization, they did corporate events at their various locations throughout the country. So, we really pulled in a variety of different people in theater, restaurant, and events.

Are you custom building the outdoor dining spaces for each restaurant? How does the process begin?

The initial idea for us is to create modular outdoor dining environments. So, we have a kit of parts, if you will; we have a deck, we have planter traffic barriers, and we have a pergola structure that all can be assembled and disassembled quickly. We can expand or contract those ideas depending on the amount of curbside frontage that a restaurant has. You self-certify in New York City as a restaurant and you tell the city how much frontage you have in terms of space in front of your restaurant, which is typically anywhere from 24 feet up to 50 to 100 feet depending on the restaurant and location. We essentially just do a step and repeat of that module. So, some restaurants can have only one module, some could have four, five , six modules. But, it's all based on standard, basic, theatrical set construction. So, we're building a deck, we're building a box, and we're fabricating a simple pergola structure. We also help customize things for restaurants. So, we've done a little bit of customization work on sidewalks. In an effort to stay as lean as possible and move as quickly as possible we'd like to focus on modular, but recognize that each restaurant needs a bit of customization. The nice thing about our solution is it falls into that custom modular category where we can adjust it as needed.

BWW Interview: How Emmy Award Winning Set Designer Matthew Anderson is Rebuilding NYC's Restaurant Industry

What does it feel like to be a part of a company that is helping to put those in the theater industry back to work, and also helping the restaurant industry?

It's great! It's very fulfilling. I think for a lot of my friends and family in the theater world and the new friends I've made in restaurants as well as ones I've known for a while, this idea of being furloughed and not being able to do what you do, not being able to go to work every day is really tough. And the idea of feeling useful and adding value is priceless. So just starting out it was exhilarating. Getting to help people and find a solution to bridge the gap between where we were and where we are has been terrific. And everybody is very eager to pitch in. We've asked a lot of the folks that are helping us, but we're also able to give them a lot as a result of what we're doing.

What is the company's plan for the months ahead, moving into colder weather? How are you hoping SET Solutions NYC adapts going forward?

Externally, we've been focusing on providing cool-weather solutions for outdoor dining. Hoboken, New Jersey extended their outdoor dining to December 31st. We expect New York City to follow suit. We know Chicago is trying to figure out a solution for outdoor dining as well into the cooler months. There's a little bit of unknown in terms of what city expectations are going to be for removing structures off of the street. Initially when it was conceived, most of these saw an end date to street seating. And with the obvious need for things to be off the street for snow removal, that's in a bit of a grey area right now. So, we're kind of waiting to see, but in the meantime we're trying to figure out solutions, ways to create barriers in outdoor structures and at the same time continue to embrace the safety of being outdoors in a COVID-19 environment.

So, how much temporary wall can you put up and still be outdoors? We're looking at space heaters, electric heaters, we're waiting to see what the city does with propane heaters. We're also looking at ways to heat seats and floors, and just provide as much runway for restaurants [as possible] into the cooler months. At the same time, the other thing we're doing, is we're gearing up for 2021. We anticipate there is going to be another strong need for outdoor environments. With the rush to get outdoors, a lot of restaurants will have to gather a solution, understandably just to get back to business. And our solution, while pretty inexpensive, is still more of an investment than restaurants were willing to make given the uncertainty of city regulations, of what's going to happen next, of their ability to stay open. So we're trying to create different solutions for 2021, and we want to start building in the winter to accommodate restaurants in the early spring that will need a permanent solution for all of 2021.

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