The “Al Fresco Economy” | The New Social at Restaurants

by | 28 May 2020

Over the past week, a wave of cities has begun implementing a commerce reopening schedule. Based on guidelines prescribed by the White House and CDC, large volume operations like restaurants and bars may resume operation under limited to moderate physical distancing protocols, with bars minimizing standing-room occupancy, in many states.

Pre-pandemic, food service occupancy levels were configured based on a preset estimate of square footage per customer, dependent on the venue type. Today businesses are reevaluating how to accommodate their patrons safely amid capacity restrictions that will impact existing footprints.

The total economic impact to the restaurant industry is more than $2.5 trillion. In a study conducted by the National Restaurant Association, commercial restaurant services — 75% of which consist of eating places, bars and taverns — is forecasted to generate $828.8 million in 2020. In today’s climate, unless local governments devise alternative solutions to resolve space issues, that estimate is likely to plummet.

While some venues may have an abundance of square footage, most restaurateurs and bars —especially those in urban markets —do not. The biggest challenge for many will be adjusting their restaurant’s layout and design to maintain physical distancing while preserving their establishments’ persona and vibe. With 7 in 10 restaurants considered single-unit operations, smaller restaurateurs will need to make some tough choices if they want to survive.

Off-the-grid problem-solving has prompted citizens and members of business improvement districts to consider alternate solutions that support their local shopping corridors and the communities they serve. In larger cities where public transportation and vehicular traffic is at a lull, communities are petitioning for slow streets. The Slow Streets Program launched in San Francisco to create safer routing for essential walk and bike travel while transit service levels have lessened in residential neighborhoods. Cities around the globe are adopting similar initiatives. In nearby Oakland, CA, nearly 10% of city streets have converted to slow streets. In Europe, Berlin city officials instituted pop-up bike lanes, and in Milan, the local government plans to launch an additional 14 miles of bike lanes to take the pressure off the public transport system.

Several cities have begun experimenting on how best to implement a slow streets program that benefits commercial avenues. Consider that in most suburban markets, city bylaws enforce a minimum of 10 parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet of restaurant space. In urban markets, those parking spaces are on the street. One emerging concept that keeps this in mind, involves repurposing street parking and, in some cases, lanes of traffic to expand restaurant service areas outdoors. Think of it as a supersized sidewalk café, which brings back memories of strolling through Marais and stopping for lunch.

City councils across the country are fast-tracking applications to launch “business recovery zones” — sidewalk cafés and parklets, an interim design strategy that converts street parking into vibrant community spaces. It’s not just in the United States. The Lithuanian capital of Vilnius has also jumped on the bandwagon, opening 18 public spaces for restaurant terraces, where tables must be six feet apart.

As the U.S. enters its summer season, restaurateurs from Tampa, FL, to Denver, CO, are testing outdoor service models, a temporary fix to taper long-term decision-making on how to meet indoor occupancy limits. In Hartford, CT, the governor issued an executive order suspending local zoning rules, and the lengthy process of hearings and permit applications, to expedite eatery openings and “breathe life into public spaces and sidewalks.”

In some cities like New York, officials are working with local Business Improvement Districts to launch an open streets campaign one city block at a time. As metro areas adapt to national guidelines to cautiously test out street closures, it will become more important to maintain communication between your real estate adviser, as developers, landlords, and tenants navigate land lifts and permit requirements.

About the Author:

Anjee continues to be an insatiable enthusiast of all things retail. She’s a student of culture with a pulse on future shoppers and the fleeting trends constantly changing the retail landscape … driving retailers, landlords and developers crazy!