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During a time of social distancing, a sense of togetherness has emerged now that restaurants have taken over parking spots and expanded outdoor dining options in many Bay Area business districts.
In Palo Alto, cement boulders cut off access to University Avenue, the main artery running through the heart of downtown, to encourage diners to eat out. For the restaurant Local Union 271, the expanded outdoor dining option seems to be working as the eatery has seen an immense increase in traffic.
“Street closures bring people out, and I think it’s because it brings a sense of safety,” said the restaurant’s owner Steve Sinchek.
In fact, the city of Palo Alto has closed several key streets that cross through primary business areas, many of which are slated to remain shut through Dec. 31. But Sinchek hopes that the street closures become a permanent fixture.
Despite having two-thirds of his normal seating available, due to limited outdoor space and social distancing protocols, Sinchek says business is down only about 30% compared to the same time last year. He considers this a major success, especially since he’s been able to rehire his entire staff. Though the majority of customers request to be seated closest to the street in order to be as far away from passersby on the sidewalk.
In early June, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties announced that outdoor dining would be allowed. Soon after, cities gave restaurants the green light to build parklets — sidewalk extensions that take up parking spaces. In Palo Alto’s case, with Stanford University offering limited, in-person classes and most of the surrounding tech campuses closed, pedestrian traffic is still much less than pre-COVID times.
In neighboring Redwood City, Milagros Latin Kitchen has always had a large outdoor seating area, but now the eatery has set up more tables and is pouring out onto Main Street. The parklet’s brightly strung lights and colorful planters bring a renewed vibrancy to the area.
Greg St. Claire, owner of Avenir Restaurant Group (which includes Milagros) says guest demand has been huge, evidently fueled by the relative feeling of safety of outdoor dining.
“I was able to work with city council (and) staff to get the streets closed in front of each of our restaurants,” he said. “Without outdoor dining there was no way to survive on takeout or a small parklet dining space.”
While business is close to pre-COVID numbers most weeks, St. Claire says Avenir now has a much larger payroll, with more staff controlling guest flow, as well as cleaning and sanitizing in between every seating.
Both Sinchek and St. Claire also report that customers have been leaving bigger tips for the staff. They take it as a sign that patrons are really enjoying the new seating arrangements and that everyone is embracing the pandemic together.
While the expansion of outdoor dining is helping business right now, restaurant owners worry about what will happen during the colder months.
“With winter approaching and no indoor dining we are all staring down the barrel of a shotgun,” St. Claire said.
Ultimately, it seems the key to staying in business (and not just for restaurants) is being able to ride the ever-evolving, tumultuous wave of the pandemic with flexibility and imagination.
“We have a sign in the restaurant that says, ‘Just when I got used to yesterday along comes today,’” said Sinchek.