The pandemic pushed consumers out of dining rooms and onto sidewalks, parking lots and open streets. Now comes the urge from restaurant owners to keep their outdoor dining, tents and sheds forever.
In July, the San Francisco Board of Directors voted for the permanent introduction of restaurant parklets. Atlanta and Philadelphia are among the cities weighing similar measures. New York City is working on the technical details for more sustainable rules for outdoor dining after Mayor Bill de Blasio made his Open Dining program permanent a year ago.
Not only big cities are thinking about change. The city of Fairfax, California, conducted a survey in August of residents, visitors, and businesses to determine whether restaurants were allowed to operate their restaurant parklets on a permanent basis. Of the 987 respondents, 91% said they supported the measure.
David Ruiz opened Stillwater Restaurant in Fairfax with his wife in June 2020. The site had a back patio, but when Fairfax began approving parklet structures, Stillwater built one of their own on the street, accounting for about a third of the restaurant’s total capacity.
“It sure is a game changer,” he said. “We probably have between 30 and 100 people out there every day.”
Veselka, an integral part of the Ukrainian village in Manhattan, built an outdoor structure that increases its capacity by around 50 seats.
“That really helped me,” said co-owner Jason Birchard. “Without these 11 tables, a total of 50 seats, it definitely deserved it.”
The additional sales at these tables have meant less pressure for Veselka to return to its pre-pandemic 24-hour service, despite the city easing the curfew on restaurants. Staff problems and noisy crowds until late at night would have made it difficult to resume those hours.
While it is popular for restaurants to make alfresco dining a fixture, there are some opponents. Some restaurants have filed complaints about noisy outdoor customers and the loss of parking space.
“Initially there was a lot of opposition to parking,” said Pietro Gianni, co-owner of Storico Fresco and Forza Storico restaurants in Atlanta. “I’d rather have four parklets in front of my building where people sit 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 approximately 8,550 parking spaces by crediting the program with saving 100,000 restaurant jobs. The city had around 3 million spaces on its streets in 2019.
“It’s small, but it’s still a problem that needs to be addressed,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, a restaurant advocate. “As many people say, parking space is for one car, and usually it’s temporary compared to how many seats can be put in a parking lot and how many jobs it creates.”
Opponents also complain about the safety of the dining facilities. On Wednesday, a garbage truck driving around Manhattan accidentally picked up a street-side restaurant with a person inside and dragged it down the street.
Hygiene is another issue.
“You see rats come out of the shed all the time,” Cue Up NYC’s Stuart Waldman told CNBC’s Kate Rogers in August. Cue Up NYC, or Coalition United for Equitable Urban Policy, is an alliance of neighborhood organizations that oppose the city’s outdoor dining program.
Even as cities try to solve these problems, restaurants may find that customers don’t want to sit outside all year round. Last winter, many braved the frigid temperatures instead of eating inside, prompting operators to invest in propane heaters and other features to keep customers warm. Veselka, for example, has somewhat enclosed its outdoor facilities.
This year, many restaurateurs plan to keep their street restaurants running throughout the winter, although they can change their plans depending on demand. Covid-19 vaccines have made many consumers feel like they are eating indoors again, although a new variant or a further surge in cases could change their minds again.
“I think some people will never go to the dining rooms again,” said Gianni.