Before the pandemic, it was difficult to get outdoor seating approved in Chapel Hill, parking was limited and sidewalk space was minimal.
But for the past year, local restaurants have benefitted from curbside parking spots, extended sidewalks, outdoor seating and other temporary allowances approved by the Town of Chapel Hill. And although social distancing and capacity guidelines are being lifted as the state slowly returns to normalcy, some of these new policies are here to stay.
Jamil Kadoura, the owner of Mediterranean Deli on West Franklin Street, said this has been an extremely tough year. The deli had 97 employees before the pandemic, and kept 66 of them. He took out private loans to help keep his employees paid.
“My family here, they'll do anything for me. I'll do anything for them. That's part of the success of us here,” he said. “It's a family atmosphere all the way.”
But Kadoura said outdoor seating gave his business hope. With larger sidewalk space, he’s been able to bring in more business. He said he hasn’t seen this many people dining out in a long time.
“The sidewalk dining has helped us a lot," he said. "I wish it will stay forever this way.”
Kadoura said the damage isn’t nearly fixed though. His business is recovering, and he said it will take at least a year and a half to return to how things were before the pandemic. Without outdoor seating, that timeline could be much longer.
Matt Gladdek, executive director of the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership, said the Town plans to keep sidewalk extensions and outdoor seating on West Franklin Street until summer 2022.
He said he is not sure that this timeline will stand for East Franklin Street, though.
“On East Franklin Street, it's still a topic of discussion,” he said. “Some businesses really love (outdoor seating and extended sidewalks), others love it less. So the (North Carolina Department of Transportation) might put pressure to reopen that street differently, at least by August 2021.”
In September, Four Corners Grille on East Franklin Street opened a deck on the sidewalk for extended seating.
“I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say five out of seven days a week, somebody makes a positive compliment about how much they enjoy sitting outside on the street and eating,” Kristian Bawcom, the owner of Four Corners Grille, said. “It has definitely been a game changer for us.”
Bawcom said that although the deck has proved positive for business, he understands it may not be permanent.
“It was an expense to throw that out there; it wasn't a couple dollars,” he said. “But the Town has done a really nice job of just paying attention to other cities and trying to follow the lead on things that are working and pull away from things that aren't working. So if they say it’s time to take it down, we’ll do it.”
Robert Poitras, the owner of Carolina Brewery on West Franklin, has advocated to make patio extensions on West Franklin Street — like the one at Carolina Brewery — permanent to both the Town and the NCDOT.
“The reason why is that it’s working,” he said. “Secondly, customers have come to expect it. And thirdly, we’ve invested a lot of money now in planters, heaters and new furniture. It’s a big investment for us to spend money during COVID to help our business.”
Poitras said customers have sought outdoor space with separation and clean air.
“It helps make our downtown a viable downtown," he said. "It brings the energy, and to take that away would be a real hit for businesses."
Regardless, all three owners said they’ve appreciated the work the Town and CHDTP have done to keep businesses afloat. Gladdek said they are doing their best to make sure outdoor dining will be possible well into the future after so many business closures since COVID-19.
Outdoor and extended seating, Bawcom said, have invigorated downtown Chapel Hill.
“Outdoor dining could maybe make East Franklin Street the downtown destination spot all over again," he said. "Like it was way back in the day.”
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