Restaurant owners nationwide push to make street-side dining permanent

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  • Restaurant operators are pushing to keep their outdoor dining infrastructure in place permanently.
  • San Francisco and New York City are among cities that have already voted in favor of making dining parklets permanent.
  • But the move is facing some opposition, as some neighbors and business owners have complained of noise and damage to parking spaces.

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The pandemic pushed consumers out of dining rooms and onto sidewalks, parking lots and open streets. Now there is a push from restaurant owners to keep their outdoor dining structures, tents and sheds forever.

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In July, San Francisco’s board of supervisors voted in favor of making the dining parklet permanent. Atlanta and Philadelphia are among cities weighing similar measures. New York City is pushing the technical details for more sustainable outdoor dining regulations after Mayor Bill de Blasio made its Open Restaurant program permanent a year ago.

It’s not just big cities that are contemplating this change. The City of Fairfax, California, conducted a survey in August of residents, visitors and businesses to determine whether it should allow restaurants to operate their dining parklets permanently. Of the 987 respondents, 91% said they were in favor of the measure.

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David Ruiz opened the Stillwater restaurant with his wife in Fairfax in June 2020. The location came with a rear patio, but as Fairfax began to approve parklet structures, Stillwater built one on the street that holds about a third of the restaurant’s total capacity.

“It’s a game changer, for sure,” he said. “We probably sit with anywhere between 30 and 100 people every day.”

Veselka, the head of the Ukrainian village of Manhattan, built an outdoor structure that added about 50 seats to its capacity.

“It really helped my bottom line,” said co-owner Jason Birchard. “Without those 11 tables, without the full 50 seats, it certainly earns its earnings.”

Additional sales from those tables mean less pressure on Veselka to return to its pre-pandemic 24-hour service, even as restaurant curfew laws are eased in the city. Staff woes and late night rush hour would have made it difficult to resume those hours.

Still, while making outdoor dining a permanent fixture is popular with restaurants, there are some opponents. Some eateries have filed complaints about noisy outside customers and loss of parking spaces.

“Initially there was a lot of opposition to parking,” said Pietro Gianni, co-owner of Atlanta’s Storico Fresco and Forza Storico restaurants. “I’d love to have four parklets in front of my building with people sitting and you can see the restaurant instead of the wall of four Yukons or SUVs.”

In New York City, de Blasio has defended the loss of approximately 8,550 parking spaces and credits the program with saving 100,000 restaurant jobs. As of 2019, there were approximately 3 million places available on city streets.

“It’s small, but it’s still an issue that needs to be addressed,” said Andrew Rigi, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, which lobbies on behalf of the restaurant. “As many people say, a parking lot is for one car, and they are usually temporary, versus how many seats can be put in a parking lot and how many jobs it creates.”

Opponents also complained about the safety of the dining structures. On Wednesday, a sanitation truck driving through Manhattan accidentally pulled a roadside food structure into the street with a man inside.

Cleanliness is another issue.

“You see rats coming out of the shed all the time,” Q Up NYC member Stuart Waldman told CNBC’s Kate Rogers in August. Que Up NYC, or Coalition United for Equitable Urban Policy, is a coalition of neighborhood organizations that oppose the city’s outdoor dining program.

Even as cities try to address those issues, restaurants may find that customers are not eager to sit outside year-round. Last winter, as many faced colder temperatures than dining indoors, leading operators invested in propane heaters and other features for hot customers. For example, Veselka somewhat surrounded its outer structures.

This year, many restaurants plan to maintain their street-side dining set-ups throughout the winter, though they may change their plans based on demand. COVID-19 vaccines have made many consumers feel comfortable eating indoors again, although a new version or another surge of cases may once again change their minds.

“I believe some people will never go back to the dining room,” Gianni said.

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