The program launch was timed to coincide with revised guidelines from the Alameda County Public Health Department for the re-opening of restaurants with outdoor dining beginning June 19. Alameda County currently has the highest number of coronavirus cases in the Bay Area and is one of the last Bay Area counties to ease restrictions on outdoor dining. There is no indication when indoor dining will resume.
Said Mayor Lili Mei, “Through the early creation of a streamlined permitting process, we are excited to see how the new pilot program will positively impact our community as a whole and further support our resilient small businesses.”
The program comes at a critical time when residents are eager to get out again after sheltering in place for more than three months. While online sales and curbside pickup have helped eateries stay afloat, for many restaurants it’s all about the experience of dining together as a community.
Case in point is Joe’s Corner in Niles, an iconic local watering hole built in 1925. Owners Amit and Neelam Chakrabarty bought the place in 2017 and have fallen in love with the community. Says Neelam, “We had heard all the stories about the place, how it used to attract a rough crowd, with a speakeasy in the basement during Prohibition. Now it’s more family friendly. We have specialty craft beers. People come to hang out with their pets and chat with their neighbors.”
Since COVID-19, sales at Joe’s Corner have dropped over 60%. Like many, they have had to adapt, adding online ordering and signing up with delivery services like Grubhub and DoorDash. Says Neelam, “ When COVID came along we lost that experiential part, which is really the essence of our restaurant. Many customers told us they missed being here. So it was very important for us to open up again.”
When the Pop Up Patio Program was announced, the Chakrabartys were one of the first to apply. The entire process, from turning in the application, to obtaining their permit, to scheduling a building inspection, and then opening, took about a week. Says Neelam, “I was very impressed. We were struggling a little with the paperwork but then five city members from different departments jumped on a Zoom call with us to answer any questions and walk us through the process. It’s been a nice, positive experience.”
Says Christina Briggs, Deputy City Manager, “We’re quoting a 48 hour turnaround on all applications and we’re waiving all fees.” Not bad for a process that can normally take 2 weeks or more. Thirty businesses have applied to the program so far, with 9 of those already permitted and ready to go. Restaurants include places like Meet Fresh, Fredericos Grill, Ristorant Il Porchino, Frodo Joes Petit Cafe, El Patio, Gelato Classico, Applebees, Dish N Dash, and ITEA.
The Pop Up Patio Program is focused on turning existing public and private spaces into usable areas for businesses. This includes sidewalks, parking spaces, and plazas. In the case of Joe’s Corner, they can now offer outdoor dining on the sidewalk while adhering to state and county health regulations, including erecting barriers, wearing face masks, maintaining 6 feet of distance between tables, offering disposable menus, and using a touchless payment system. Says Briggs, “There are a variety of city disciplines that need to look at something like this. There’s the Planning Division, the Public Works Department, Engineering, Building and Safety, and our Economic Development team. It’s a comprehensive review based on our city-wide commitment to making the program successful.”
For the Chakrabartys, newbies to the restaurant world, it’s a godsend. Says Neelam, “We opened up last Friday (June 26) and that weekend we were just swarmed. It was lovely! Our patrons consider Joe’s Corner to be part of their family, so it was good to see them again.”
Indeed, community support for the historic venue has been overwhelming, with many customers offering to help with cleaning and delivery. Others have donated money. Says Neelam, “It’s all been very humbling. When we first bought the business 2 1/2 years ago, many residents were resistant to change, but we’ve since gained their confidence, support, and love. Now they would do anything to support us.”
Currently the pilot program is slated to run until the end of October. If successful, the city anticipates incorporating the proposed zoning amendments into a more permanent solution. And while places like Joe’s Corner still cannot host live events like they used to, the Pop Up Patio Program is giving them hope that someday soon things will go back to how they used to be, where neighbors can gather and tell stories over a pint of beer. Says Briggs, “Everyone understands that we are in a moment in time where we must rise to the challenge. It’s our job, and our obligation.”
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