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Restaurants slow to adopt city's new dining options

Only two eateries have applied to move operations after City Council passed three ordinances last month

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Springfield City Council passed three emergency bills in June to temporarily allow restaurant owners to use their outdoor parking, sidewalk or greenspace for dining.

But not many businesses have taken the city up on the opportunity.

Two restaurants were approved for the outdoor dining options by press time, said city staff, though officials had projected high demand.

“I thought there would be more of a response because it’s an option that’s available and there’s no fee associated with it,” said city planner Matt Schaefer. “It’s surprised me. Maybe there just isn’t the demand.”

Council passed the measures earlier this summer as a way to help restaurant operators increase sales while meeting social distancing requirements amid the coronavirus pandemic. According to survey results from the 2020 Economic Growth Survey by SBJ Publishing Inc. in April, the restaurant industry was believed to be the most impacted sector from COVID-19. A nationwide survey by the National Restaurant Association also found 4 in 10 restaurants closed amid COVID-19, while 2 out of 3 restaurant employees lost their jobs.

Steve Belden, general manager at Bricktown Brewery, said being able to utilize six of the restaurant’s parking spaces helped increase sales in June, though he declined to disclose revenues. When he registered to use the outdoor space, the city’s phased reopening had allowed 25% occupancy in restaurants. Through July 23, restaurants are now able to operate at 50% occupancy of square footage of indoor and outdoor seating areas, according to the city’s recovery plan. The occupancy formula divides the restaurant’s square footage by 30, which is then multiplied by 50%.

“Being able to add those spots immediately offered the opportunity for us to grow our revenue and get more people back to work,” Belden said.

Bricktown Brewery, at 2040 E. Independence St., closed for one month amid the shutdown and furloughed all 70 employees. But with carryout options and the outdoor seating ordinance, Belden said he has been able to recall 100% of the staff.

However, the use of the outdoor dining option was short-lived. Belden said he already has put away the tables that were set up in the six parking spaces.

“We aren’t using the spaces right now because of the summer heat. And once we went to 50% [occupancy], that offset a lot of the losses we were feeling,” he said. “Once we get towards a cooler temperature, we are going to utilize that again if we’re still running with restricted seating.

“I hope that we’ll be back to 100% by this fall, but certainly having that card in our back pocket is helpful.”

The ordinances are in effect until the first of three triggers: 100% occupancy of restaurants is permitted, the mayor’s proclamation of civil emergency has been lifted or Nov. 30.

Anticipated interest
Council members passed the first two bills that temporarily allowed restaurant owners to use private parking lots and sidewalk space on June 1. Then council recommended city staff draft a similar proposal for the use of greenspace, and that passed on June 15.

Restaurant owners must submit an application to the city with a site plan that includes the layout of the dining area with proof that it will be in compliance with social distancing requirements outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to city documents. For those utilizing private parking spaces, restaurants also have to meet parking requirements outlined by the Americans with Disabilities Act and have clear paths for fire access, according to city documents.

Those creating temporary sidewalk cafes have a reduced public liability insurance requirement of $1 million and are not required to pay a fee for an encroachment license, said Dawne Gardner, the city’s transportation planner and ADA coordinator handling temporary sidewalk cafe requests.

Gardner said she’s received some inquiries about sidewalk cafes, though Mudhouse Coffee, at 323 South Ave. downtown, is the only restaurant to apply and be approved so far. Attempts to contact Mudhouse Coffee officials were unsuccessful by press time.

“We expected more, but I think businesses are just trying to get their ducks in a row right now,” said Gardner. “I anticipate there will be more applications from downtown businesses.”

Rusty Worley, executive director of the Downtown Springfield Association, said several downtown restaurant owners have expressed interest in applying for the temporary permits.

“It’s just a matter of them going through the process and getting the application submitted,” Worley said. “It’s just been such a crazy time for our businesses.”

Druff’s, The Coffee Ethic LLC and The Golden Girl Rum Club are among businesses he’s heard interest from, though officials from the restaurants did not return requests for comment by deadline.

A Facebook post by Druff’s on June 12 shows a photo of at least two extra tables placed outside the 331 Park Central East diner.

Similarly, a June 20 post on the Grad School restaurant Facebook page shows additional tables set up on parking spaces behind The J.O.B. Public House on 319 E. Walnut St. Officials did not return requests for comment but previously told SBJ that it was a temporary setup.

Gardner said any business that is serving outdoors and hasn’t applied with the city will be asked to complete an application, adding city staff is enforcing the ordinances on a complaint basis.

Even if businesses aren’t quick to move outdoors, Worley said he anticipates downtown restaurants will continue exploring the idea in the coming months. He also said he hopes council considers making these options permanent.

“We’ve seen how sidewalk cafes improve the vibrancy of center city. I think many of the businesses will look at it as something they’d like to explore beyond the need from limited capacity,” Worley said.

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