Small Businesses

Outdoor Dining Offered a Glimmer of Hope for Struggling Businesses

By Gui Oliveira

Over the past several months, in response to the health challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic, business owners all over the Richmond District have taken the initiative to build in one form or another an outside dining space as a means to keep their doors open.  

While being open or closed is a moving target for restaurants, many of these outdoor dining spaces had become an attraction to residents and visitors who enjoy going out to eat and crave a sense of community. Since indoor dining was again recently shut down, outdoor dining was an option for people aside from delivery and takeout.

parklet story photo RR 12-20Tony Lai of Eat Americana on Balboa Street sees parklets as a helpful addition to his business during the pandemic. Photo by Gui Oliveira.

Albert Lara Rodriguez, owner of Chomp N’ Swig on Geary Boulevard, needed to be creative when presented with the hurdles the new health measures dictated. 

“On March 16, when they shut everything down, we just basically had to shut all indoor stuff down and figure out what we were going to do outside,” Rodriguez said. “So, I contacted a company and we got some metal barriers outdoors within a couple weeks after COVID. That’s how we got started initially.” 

Without much of a budget, Rodriguez erected a makeshift parklet by putting metal barriers, wine barrels and chairs out in front of his restaurant. It worked out great for a few months. But it wasn’t until he saw Ireland’s 32 bar build an actual parklet that he filled out the paperwork to obtain a permit to officially build a parklet.

“We have more stuff that we’re building, but it’s been a savior,” Rodriguez said. “It helped our business stay afloat. People really love it. Without the parklet, people would just be drinking on the sidewalk and it would probably be too congested for the sidewalk, so that extra space out there makes a huge difference for us.”

According to the SF Public Works website, the application fee for a permit is $306. This does not include the SFMTA’s processing or meter-removal fees. The initial permit must also be renewed annually. The permit approval process takes two to six months, and successful permits must meet certain conditions. 

Suket Mahal, bar manager at the Richmond Republic Draught House on Clement Street, shared his challenges to keep the business going. 

I remember there were provisional things given initially, but it definitely took the City a little bit to start processing all the requests,” Mahal said. “Once they did, everything kind of just sprung up. So, as soon as they assigned someone, they just knocked all that out. But it did take a little bit just to get their attention about it. And then it picked up steam and they started giving everybody the permits.” 

The Richmond Republic Draught House was one of the first businesses in the Richmond to utilize an outside dining space. It had been open for outside dining since July when its permit got approved and has since gained popularity among its customers. 

“We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback over here, so I’m definitely all about it,” Mahal said. “I love it and I want to keep it going especially for the customers and regulars. The community has been fantastic.” 

Richmond resident Rick Kelly hopes that the parklets stay permanent. 

“On the weekend I’ll go down to Eat Americana and get a burger and fries,” Kelly said. There are quite a few good restaurants down there on Balboa Street. There are still plenty of places to go eat.” 

Johnny Luther, who doesn’t live in the neighborhood but visits frequently, said he liked the addition of the outdoor dining opportunities.

“Something that was really lacking in San Francisco was street-side dining,” Luther said. “Some places had it, like North Beach. Many people like sitting outside and enjoying a meal.”

In other parts of the City, outside dining had become so trendy that some streets are closed off to vehicles, allowing people to freely gather on the street and sidewalks. Moreover, the climate in San Francisco usually allows for street-side dining, with some restaurants putting heat lamps outside and others building walls to guard against the wind.

 “I feel very strongly that having outdoor spaces and restaurants open can help alleviate the social anxiety and pressure people have,” Mahal said before the recent closures. “If all this stuff were to shut down tonight, I think that it’ll only force more people to be indoors with other people and larger parties and that will contribute to more (COVID) case counts.”

Tony Lai of Eat Americana on Balboa Street likes the idea of parklets.

“People get tired of to-go. You take it home and it’s soggy. So, after we got the parklet, it seems like it brings up the business,” Lai said.

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