GREENSBORO — As far as sidewalks are concerned, the city’s downtown isn’t exactly like New York or Paris. That makes it tricky for restaurants to set up sidewalk cafes with enough outside space.
But with the help of a team of city leaders, restaurants have appropriated a little more room. By bumping out their available table space onto Elm and other streets, restaurants are now seating more customers outside and, in the process, creating a more inviting atmosphere downtown.
Now, you see small tables up and down Elm Street, from a few in front of the Scuppernong book store or the Green Bean coffee shop to the much larger number at Kris Fuller’s Crafted the Art of the Taco.
There on a bright, cool autumn afternoon, diners sit at shaded tables on street space once occupied by parked cars. The customers are shielded from traffic by concrete barriers with cheerful planters on top to brighten the utilitarian walls.
Fuller is enthusiastic about the possibilities.
“When you’re driving through downtown, you see how much more lively it can be,” she said. “By being able to dine outside and sit and watch and enjoy, it’s a big win for everybody.”
The idea came last summer when state shutdown restrictions were easing to allow restaurants to serve customers outside, offering a socially-distant alternative to packed dining rooms.
Mayor Nancy Vaughan, Zack Matheny of Downtown Greensboro Inc. and restaurant owners worked out a plan for temporary expansion outside to keep revenue coming and make downtown an attractive place for COVID-wary customers.
“I suggested that right at the time when businesses were reopening,” Vaughan said. “I knew that restaurants were going to be challenged.”
The city created a temporary permit process to allow interested restaurants to set up tables. But now, there’s nothing temporary about the arrangement anymore.
On Tuesday, City Council voted unanimously to create a downtown district where sidewalk cafes could become the norm.
Creating a change in the ordinance, though, isn’t easy. ABC liquor rules have to be followed for serving alcohol outside in public areas, and the Americans With Disabilities Act prevents certain setups that might block sidewalks.
In the end, however, eight restaurants are currently enjoying the extra space and are now eligible for special two-year permits so they can maintain the cafe atmosphere.
“There’s not a lot of outdoor real estate, really, for outdoor diners,” said Fuller, while standing in the midst of the busy tables in front of her restaurant.
She recalled that before the pandemic, her restaurant had created a covered patio area near the sidewalk.
“But that doesn’t really put you out on the sidewalk like cafe-style sidewalk dining,” she said. “With the new ordinances allowing restaurants to create outdoor dining spaces using some of this street parking, it really benefits us. People really enjoy being out here, especially on a beautiful day, but it really benefits some of the smaller locations that have much more limited seating.
“It really kind of slows traffic down and creates more of a walking environment downtown and I think people are kind of able to see businesses that they wouldn’t otherwise when they’re just driving through.”
Contact Richard M. Barron at 336-373-7371 and follow @BarronBizNR on Twitter.