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Calicraft Brewing Co. founder Blaine Landberg didn’t expect much support from Walnut Creek officials when he proposed reopening his taproom in the Shadelands neighborhood before the pandemic had subsided.
“I was expecting a bunch of red tape,” he said.
Instead, the two-month old Walnut Creek Rebound program has helped him stay solvent. “What I’ve been able to do is keep my business going,” he said.
In consultation with the Downtown Business Association, the Chamber of Commerce and other local groups, city officials launched Rebound in June to help restaurants and small businesses weather the pandemic by moving outside.
The program offers restaurants and retailers the opportunity to expand their footprints into blocked-off street parking spaces and private, open-air parking lots and do business outdoors while the state’s ban on indoor dining is in effect.
Assistant City Manager Teri Killgore said the program emerged from the necessity to keep businesses afloat despite a limited range of options.
“We knew going in this was never going to be a silver bullet,” she said.
Downtown commerce pops up
The city focused first on businesses in downtown Walnut Creek because they lacked the outdoor space that businesses in shopping centers tend to have.
There are now 29 “pop-ups” — street parking spots blocked off and turned into outdoor dining patios — and several dedicated curbside pickup areas for businesses dependent on takeout orders. And 15 more businesses downtown are using their private lots and breezeways for outdoor dining, according to Killgore.
Walnut Creek Downtown Executive Director Kathy Hemmenway said only a half-dozen businesses have let their leases expire since the pandemic began. She said Rebound has saved businesses and made clear that residents want to return to restaurants.
“We’ve been very fortunate with our customer base in Walnut Creek,” Hemmenway said.
“This is an experiment that shows you can bring businesses out in the streets with minimal disruptions.”Jay Hoyer, Walnut Creek Chamber of Commerce
Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jay Hoyer said his group has advocated for two decades to reduce traffic on part of Main Street to one direction to make space for shops and restaurants to expand.
“This is an experiment that shows you can bring businesses out in the streets with minimal disruptions,” Hoyer said.
Hemmenway noted that the loss of street parking has been insignificant because so much parking is available in garages along Locust Street. Killgore said the loss of revenue from about 125 prime parking spaces that are now blocked off was also insignificant, compared with the potential losses for the city from local businesses closing.
Killgore lauded Walnut Creek Downtown and the chamber for helping the city collaborate closely with the business community.
“They are regularly in communication with the businesses,” she said of Walnut Creek Downtown. “They bring back to us the concerns they’re hearing and are really looking for ways they can contribute, and I would say it’s the same with the chamber.”
Program expands citywide
Rebound’s second phase expanded the program citywide, enabling retailers and restaurants in shopping centers to expand their footprints into their own parking lots.
This was when Calicraft opened a cordoned-off, 20-table beer garden in its 300-spot parking lot. Landberg said each table has a buffer of at least 12 feet to allow customers to practice physical distancing.
Landberg said Calicraft Brewing, like many of the city’s businesses, had made do with to-go orders when the pandemic began. Now, between in-person customers and to-go orders, it is bringing in 75 percent to 80 percent as much revenue as it did before the shutdowns began.
July was Calicraft’s best month for sales since it opened in 2016, Landberg said, though increased costs associated with the nationwide aluminum can shortage weighed down his profit.
Killgore said the city hopes to add a third phase to the program folding in businesses like hair salons, gyms and offices. City officials have also discussed maintaining the program in some form after the pandemic is over, but “we’ll cross that bridge once we get back to normal,” Killgore said.
Both Hemmenway and Hoyer said that, while factors like weather might make it hard to keep doing business outdoors after summer ends, they would support a permanent program akin to Rebound.
“It’s definitely something the businesses would like to see,” Hemmenway said.
Landberg said he hopes the city will continue the Rebound program for at least two or three years to allow businesses to rebuild their revenue streams and customer bases.
“For us, it would be transformative,” he said.