The pandemic pushed consumers out of dining rooms and onto sidewalks, parking spaces and open streets. Now the push is coming from restaurant owners to keep their outdoor dining structures, tents and sheds around forever.
In July, San Francisco’s board of supervisors voted in favor making dining parklets permanent. Atlanta and Philadelphia are among the cities that are weighing similar measures. New York City is hammering out the technical details for more sustainable outdoor dining rules after Mayor Bill de Blasio made its Open Restaurants program permanent a year ago.
It isn’t just big cities mulling over the change either. The town of Fairfax, California, conducted a survey in August open to residents, visitors and businesses to determine if it should allow restaurants to operate their dining parklets permanently. Out of the 987 respondents, 91% said that they were in favor of the measure.
David Ruiz opened the restaurant Stillwater with his wife in June 2020 in Fairfax. The location came with a rear patio, but as Fairfax started approving parklet structures, Stillwater built one of its own on the street that accounts for about a third of the restaurant’s total capacity.
“It’s a game changer, for sure,” he said. “We probably seat anywhere from 30 to 100 people out there every day.”
Veselka, a staple of Manhattan’s Ukrainian Village, built an outdoor structure that added roughly 50 seats to its capacity.
“That’s really helped my bottom line,” co-owner Jason Birchard said. “Without those 11 tables, a whole 50 seats, it’s definitely earned its keep.”
The extra sales from those tables have meant less pressure for Veselka to return to its pre-pandemic 24-hour service, even as the city relaxed restaurant curfew laws. Staffing troubles and rowdy late-night crowds would have made those hours difficult to resume.
Still, while making outdoor dining a permanent fixture is popular with restaurants, there are some opponents. Some eateries have fielded complaints about noisy outdoor customers and the loss of parking spaces.
“There was a lot of resistance in the beginning regarding parking,” said Pietro Gianni, co-owner of Atlanta’s Storico Fresco and Forza Storico restaurants. “I would rather have four parklets in front of my building, with people seated and you can see the restaurant, than four Yukons or a wall of SUVs.”
In New York City, de Blasio has defended the loss of roughly 8,550 parking spots by crediting the program with saving 100,000 restaurant jobs. The city had about 3 million spaces available on its streets, as of 2019.
“It’s small, but nonetheless it’s an issue that needs to be addressed,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, which lobbies on behalf of restaurants. “As many people say, one parking spot is for one car, and usually they’re temporary, versus how many seats can be put in one parking spot and how many jobs does it create.”
Opponents also complain about the safety of the dining structures. On Wednesday, a sanitation truck driving through Manhattan accidentally picked up a street-side dining structure with a person inside, dragging it down the street.
Sanitation is another issue.
“You see rats coming out of the sheds all the time,” Cue Up NYC member Stuart Waldman told CNBC’s Kate Rogers in August. Cue Up NYC, or the Coalition United for Equitable Urban Policy, is an alliance of neighborhood organizations that opposes the city’s outdoor dining program.
Even as cities try to resolve those issues, restaurants may find that customers aren’t as eager to sit outside year-round. Last winter, many braved cold temperatures rather than dining indoors, leading operators to invest in propane heaters and other features to warm customers. Veselka, for example, enclosed its outdoor structures somewhat.
This year, many restaurateurs are planning on maintaining their street-side dining set-ups throughout the winter, although they may change their plans based on demand. Covid-19 vaccines have made many consumers feel comfortable dining indoors again, although a new variant or another surge of cases could once again change their minds.
“I believe some people will never go back into the dining rooms,” Gianni said.