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Weather, Regulators Meet Their Match With Outdoor Cafes

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Patrons love eating outside during warmer months, but what is the real cost to operators?
By Milford Prewitt July 2011 Restaurant Design

Whoever said you can’t beat City Hall or Mother Nature might want to talk to some savvy restaurateurs with outdoor dining spaces who have learned to do just that.

Cold-weather days, blazing-hot-sunny ones and the licensing fees that local governments impose are frustrating discomforts that operators endure for the sake of a traditional sidewalk café or city park location.

Yet by choosing novel sites like high-rise rooftops, abandoned parking lots, patios, and private space adjoining, but not on, public sidewalks, operators are escaping the clutches of revenue-grabbing local governments.

At the same time and at the same locations, operators are taming brutish-cold-wet-windy days—as well as scorching hot sunny ones—with retractable roofs that can cover hundreds of square feet or are installing large table umbrellas. Even for diehard guests who want to dine outdoors in seasons when Jack Frost is back, operators are providing plush blankets for their guests and installing a variety of heating options for customers and serving staffs.

Taking advantage of the 3,000-square-foot outdoor open space on its property, the outdoor dining patio at Café Ba Ba Reeba in Chicago’s historic Lincoln Park neighborhood exemplifies the best practices of operators who are buffering themselves from local government fees and the peccadilloes of the weather.

One of the many full-service restaurants in the diverse and cutting-edge portfolio of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, the 26-year-old Café Ba Ba Reeba is a local dining favorite in the Windy City, best known nationally as one of the pioneers in tapas and small-plate food presentations.

Michael Cunningham, proprietor-partner of Ba Ba Reeba, says that of the 330 seats on the restaurant’s property—which actually occupies three building lots—80 are on an outdoor dining patio, a 25-foot-by-125-foot space with a hand-cranked retractable roof that can be deployed within minutes.

He said the outdoor dining space averages about 300 guests a night on a busy night, or one table turn every 90 minutes. Although the restaurant takes reservations for indoor seating, it is first-come, first-served seating on the patio. Nevertheless, some guests are willing to wait 2.5 hours to dine outdoors.

Cunningham says that when Ba Ba Reeba’s patio makes its annual spring debut in April, and if the weather is particularly cooperative, it is not uncommon to generate 400 to 500 diners as winter-weary Chicagoans bask in the first blushes of spring.

“We specialize in small plates that people share, and so it has a communal feel to it,” Cunningham says. “So when you are looking into the patio at so many people enjoying themselves and enjoying nice weather, whether you are a pedestrian walking by or a driver, you want to become part of the scene.”

From an aesthetic standpoint, Cunningham says a leafy 30-foot-tall sweet gum tree adds to the patio’s attractiveness. The floor of the patio is made with century-plus-old stone pavers in different hues of red; some were recovered from Lincoln Park streets and avenues when roadways were repaved.

Ba Ba Reeba pays an annual fee for outdoor dining facilities, as do all restaurants with outdoor dining space that operate in the city of Chicago between Memorial Day and Labor Day. But the operation’s costs would be considerably more if it spilled out to the public sidewalk, Cunningham points out.

Regulated by the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, a traditional sidewalk café license in Chicago covers March through December and starts off at a minimum annual fee of $600 and increases based on size of the facility and its location. Moreover, operators are required to install and maintain living plants around 50 percent of the perimeter.

When it’s raining or threatening to rain, the Ba Ba Reeba staff deploys the retractable tarp roof attached to two buildings on each side of the dining space. The tarp has a 30-degree incline on one end so rainwater drains off.

Cunningham says the one downside to patio dining is the toll it takes on his service staff. Running between the kitchen and the patio can exhaust servers and busers. That is why no staffers are scheduled to work the patio on consecutive weekend nights when the place is really jumping.

Brooklyn’s Nightly Street Fair

In the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, Fulton Street, South Portland Avenue and Lafayette Avenue form a triangle just a few blocks from the borough’s legendary cultural institution, the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

When arts, movie, concert, spoken-word or dance patrons leave BAM after a performance to dine in the vicinity, they invariably walk to the triangle, where, on any given warm summer evening, a street fair, music and food festival materializes like some regularly scheduled Brigadoon.

Along that triangle, 16 restaurants and bars form an international restaurant row featuring German, Turkish, French, Austrian, Ethiopian, Italian, Peruvian and Mexican cuisine, not to mention American favorites, a gourmet burger joint, a barbecue shack, and ancient bars.


Cafe Ba Ba Reeba in Chicago’s historic Lincoln Park seats 80 on its outdoor patio.

Smack-dab at the heart of it all is the rowdy but cheerful dining patio of Habana Outpost, a three-unit Cuban-themed restaurant (with one in Malibu, Calif., and another in the Nolita section of Manhattan) that operates seasonally.

But Habana Outpost is not one of the 940 restaurants in the city that pay the Department of Consumer Affairs—the regulating agency of outdoor dining in New York City—the complicated schedule of fees, security deposits and renewal costs that can soar well into the mid-to-high four-figure range to run a sidewalk cafe.

Habana Outpost is immune from such fees because its dining patio is a former sinkhole on private property that used to be a parking lot before the owners abandoned the space. Like Café Ba Ba Reeba, Habana Outpost is not on the sidewalk, yet gives motorists and pedestrians the same twinge of envy that they are not part of the good-looking, boisterous crowd.

Habana Outpost was founded by former Ray-Ban sunglasses model Sean Meehan. The restaurant bills itself as New York’s first all-solar-powered restaurant with its 40-foot array of rooftop solar panels and uses disposable flatware, utensils and cups that are petroleum-free. It has scored high marks for the authenticity and quality of its food from some reviewers, including New York Magazine.

Using a self-serve format, Habana Outpost requires guests to order food and drink from two separate and perpetually long lines inside, where there is, at best, seating for 20 people. After paying and leaving a tip in a pitcher on the counter, guests proceed to the large, but crowded outdoor patio filled with about three dozen park-style picnic tables with wide umbrellas.

A visitor estimated that each table could seat 10 guests each. Strangers share the tables while they are dining and are required to bus the tables afterward. Meehan says he has never counted the seating capacity of his restaurant.

Meehan says the restaurant is a dream brought to life that he developed after visiting Havana, Cuba, years ago. He wanted to create a dining environment that replicated the richness of Havana’s street life, food and engaging street vendors.

Meehan even encourages street vendors of jewelry, clothing, art works and other crafts to set-up shop on the periphery of the patio, giving the dining experience the energy of a street fair or block party most nights.

“People thought I was bugging out when I told them I was going to open a restaurant on a sink hole where a parking lot failed,” Meehan says with a chuckle. “But they didn’t know I had been to Cuba and was just mesmerized by the street life there and thought that whoever could come up with a concept that brought together great food, vendors, street life, that was going to be a winner.”

Asked what the pros and cons are of running an outdoor dining space, Meehan goes poetic.

“What makes it great makes it terrible: six months out of the year, you can’t sit out there,” he says. “Six months out of the year, you are having the time of your life.”

But there is another downside he did not expect.

“What I didn’t expect is that because it looks like a public park, people have a tendency to bring in their own food and drink, even boxes of pizza, and think nothing of it. Others bring in their backgammon games or play dominos for hours.”

If detected gatecrashers with their own food are politely shooed off the premises, as are the board game players who don’t order.

Dining In the Sky

One New York establishment that is defiant in the face of bad weather and that pays the city not a dime beyond sales taxes for its outdoor dining space is the uber-cool 230 Fifth, the posh and luxuriant 22,000-square-foot rooftop garden bar and enclosed penthouse lounge on the 20th floor of 230 Fifth Ave. in Manhattan’s Flatiron District.

For much of the 20th century, the building was known as the Victoria Hotel, but in more recent times, the building has been converted into an office tower exclusively for businesses in the marketing and advertising industries.

A marketing blurb at its website is unabashed about 230 Fifth’s intentions: “230 Fifth is open 365 days a year, and no matter what the weather is like, you can still enjoy our rooftop bar. NYC is, after all, as beautiful in the winter as it is the summer. There's no reason to give up this incredible view just because it turns a little cold. Our Rooftop Garden Bar is partially heated and you can even use our cozy fleece hooded red robes or oversized blankets if you need a little extra warmth.”

What makes the facility all the more highfalutin is the individual who runs the place. Were there a New York City Hall of Fame for Late-Night and Dance Club Impresarios, Steven Greenberg, 230 Fifth’s operating partner, would certainly be among the anointed.

Greenberg is one of the last active operators from the disco era, having befriended celebrated hotel designer Ian Schrager and the late disco king Steve Rubell, co-founders of the infamous Studio 54 in New York City. Later Greenberg co-partnered with them in the combination dance and concert hall, the Palladium (now a dorm for NYU students).

If the weather is just too unbearable, 230 Fifth built an enclosed restaurant that serves primarily Malaysian fare. Greenberg describes the restaurant décor as 1940s retro.

Voted the No. 1 outdoor bar and dining space in New York by nothing less than Zagat, New York Magazine, NBC.com, CitySearch.com, and Spur magazine (Japan’s leading fashion publication), and named the Second Best New Bar/Lounge in the United States by AOL’s City Guide, the 5-year-old 230 Fifth is a scene for those who want to see and be seen, weather be damned.

Greenberg says that thanks to the location, the city’s revenue collectors—save for sales taxes—have no stake in 230 Fifth.

Brunch is one of the busiest dayparts for the place, Greenberg says, usually drawing 1,000 guests. But as many as 2,300 will dine and bar hop on weekend nights.

“I think we fill an important niche for diners who are trendy and looking to having an amazing NYC nightlife experience, but aren't willing to sacrifice food quality, taste, style, or ambience,” Greenberg boasts.

Palace Café’s Air Rights

In New Orleans, the famed Palace Café—one of the four distinguished restaurants (which includes Commander’s Palace) operated by Dickie Brennan & Co.—has a sidewalk café that seats about 40 people and operates year-round lunch, dinner and late night, even in the Big Easy’s scorching, humid summers.

The Palace Café was the first restaurant in New Orleans to get a sidewalk café license when local officials created a new classification for such businesses in 1991, just one year after Steven L. Pettus, general manager of the Palace Café, joined the company.

Pettus says the business pays a several-hundred-dollar annual fee to the city for “air rights” to operate the sidewalk café right outside of its historic building on Canal Street, just outside the French Quarter. By “air rights,” what Pettus is actually referring to, according to the city’s code, is a minimum $2-per-square-foot, per year fee sidewalk operators pay.

He says the fee to operate the café is well worth it, given the pull it has on passers-by. Like his colleagues in Chicago and Brooklyn, Pettus says outdoor dining is a kind of reality advertising.

“Whether a tourist walking by or riding in a street car, they see us and they see people enjoying themselves eating and drinking and they want to be a part,” Pettus says.

“But it’s an amenity for people who want to smoke outside and for our locals. They can bring their pets and eat outside.”

Four nights of the week, a guitar player performs outside the sidewalk café, makes a few bucks from admirers, and gets the chance to widen his fan base, Pettus says. Though the musician is not on the payroll, Pettus says the restaurant encourages his street performances and allows him to take a break inside the restaurant and cool off in the air conditioning when it’s too hot.

Committed to getting food to their outdoor dining guests as promptly as possible, the Palace Café has instituted a practice that goes farther than local health regulations require.

“The only downsides are the operational challenges in getting the food to the guests as promptly and fresh as we can,” Pettus says. “We require that every dish has to be capped, not by city laws, but our own standards. That cover keeps insects and bugs off the food and the occasional spells with flies.

“But really there is no downside to the sidewalk café. After all, there’s always a breeze on Canal Street.”

SWC license applications
Calendar YearNewRenewalTotal
2010222416638
2011128174302
Grand Total350590940
Source: New York City Department of Consumer Affairs

NYC Operators Face a Maze of Fees and Inspections to Get Sidewalk Café Licenses

For a city that says it actively supports and encourages the expansion of sidewalk cafés as an indispensable economic bloodline, a cultural treasure and a tourism magnet, New York City puts restaurateurs through a labyrinth of hoops to serve on public sidewalks.

The Department of Consumer Affairs, the primary agency that regulates sidewalk cafes and issues the permits, says its utmost concerns are pedestrian congestion, safety, noise and sanitation.

And it makes operators clear a series of hurdles to make sure those concerns are muted. But it can be quite a pricey proposition. Consider this:

Assuming the operator can show that 12 feet of open sidewalk space remains unimpeded on all sides of the cafe, and assuming the Health Department, the Fire Department, the local community board, the Building Department, neighboring churches and schools within 500 feet of the project have no objections after the DCA’s approval, all operators—renewing or opening a new sidewalk café—pay a $510 two-year licensing fee and an annual $445 minimum consent fee to the DCA.

Then the city has two categories with different fees, unenclosed sidewalk cafes and enclosed sidewalk cafes.

An unenclosed sidewalk café is usually distinguished by a perimeter of collapsible or removable fencing, gates or potted foliage, velvet ropes, or sometimes canvas bunting about waist high that displays a logo of the restaurant. Often, there’s nothing at all.

The Good and The Bad in Outdoor Dining
PROSCONS
The weatherThe weather
Attracts passers-byDraws panhandlers
Longer table turnsLonger table turns
Food seems to taste betterLicensing fees are worse
Increases footprintInvites gate crashers

An enclosed sidewalk café is a year-round extension of the dining room with a roof and walls, often built with see-through Plexiglas, plastic siding, even glass vinyl that protrudes into the sidewalk. Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues on Manhattan’s Upper Westside are replete with these.

In addition, whether enclosed or not, all operators pay an annual $310 plan review fee to the DCA. Unenclosed sidewalk cafes also pay a one-time security deposit of $1,500.

But the enclosed configuration has some additional stiff fees. Operators pay a one-time fee of $4,000 and another annual renewable fee of $55 per seat, or a minimum payment of $1,360 to the City Planning Department.

The city’s code makes no reference to a per seat minimum for unenclosed cafes.