By JEFF CLEMETSON and DAVE SCHWAB
San Diego businesses, restaurants in particular, have been turned inside-out once again.
Citing rising positive tests and hospitalizations from coronavirus, on July 13 Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered the statewide closure of indoor operations at a laundry list of establishments including restaurants, wineries, gyms, hair salons, worship centers, personal care services, malls, movie theaters, zoos, aquariums, family entertainment centers, and card rooms, as well as the full closure of all bars and non-critical office settings.
In response to the rollback in small-business re-openings, just recently undertaken before COVID-19 cases spiked, San Diego Mayor Kevin L. Faulconer signed an executive order on July 7 that order provides regulatory relief to restaurants and makes dining safer by encouraging outdoor operations. The order, effective immediately, waives permitting and parking requirements for the use of sidewalks and private parking lots as outdoor dining venues.
Parking lot patios
While some restaurants have long taken advantage of San Diego’s sunny climate with outdoor dining patios, there are still many more that do not have them. After the city gave the OK to move seating into parking lots or sidewalks, restaurants have come up with interesting ways to take advantage of the new outdoor option — with various degrees of success, depending on the space available to them.
Dirty Birds, a chicken wings restaurant in the College Area, set up its outdoor dining area July 10. Located in a strip mall off El Cajon Boulevard — already with a limited size parking lot — the restaurant could only find space for nine tables that seat roughly 24 customers. Dirty Birds’ indoor dining area can serve over 100. Still, the restaurant is thankful for the business it still has with its limited seating.
“It has been helpful,” said Dirty Birds manager PJ Cagnina “As you can see, we have five tables sat and it’s 2 p.m. on a Tuesday, so it’s been helpful so far.”
The limited number tables have cut staff and sales at the restaurant by roughly half, said Dirty Birds owner Noli Zosa.
“Customers overwhelmingly love [the outdoor dining] because of the pleasant atmosphere,” Zosa said. “The only issue is the longer wait times because of our limited capacity.”
Cagnina added that on weekends there are people waiting for tables and he also gets around 30 to 40 calls a day from people asking if there is outdoor dining available.
Despite tables now taking a few of the limited parking spaces in front of the restaurant, Cagnina said it hasn’t been an issue.
“We have enough neighborhood street parking that it facilitates what is needed,” he said.
Across Interstate 8 in the San Carlos neighborhood, The Trails Eatery has benefited from a location with a large parking lot — and some forethought to how the pandemic might affect business.
Trails Eatery owner Stacey Poon-Kinney finished her parking lot patio a little over a week after restaurants were allowed to open for indoor dining at half capacity.
“I had been working on opening the patio space for weeks — five weeks — before we ever opened it. While we were just doing takeout, before we were even allowed to do 50% dining inside, I saw the writing on the wall. I knew we were only going to be able to open at 50%,” she said. “The biggest motivation for me to put a patio space out here temporarily was that with 50% capacity dining, I can’t pay my rent. It wasn’t going to be enough.”
Although Poon-Kinney said her landlords were amicable to allowing a patio into the parking lot that is shared with neighboring stores like San Carlos Hardware and Keils grocery store, it was still “a very difficult process” to get it done, mostly due to getting the patio insured.
“Nobody likes to insure parking lot patios. So my insurance company required me to jump through lot of hoops,” Poon-Kinney said. “I was able to send back everything they asked for and it still took them three weeks. They had to send it all the way up the flagpole. We were the very first restaurant in the nation that they insured for this.”
Poon-Kinney credits the safety precautions she took for the patio for the eventual insurance policy that covers it. The Trails Eatery patio is protected on three sides by concrete barriers — colorfully painted with hearts — as well as the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. There are umbrella tables and planters to add ambience to the makeshift outdoor dining area.
“The expense of doing this is an absolute killer, but it is a requirement because otherwise we just be doing to-gos and I can guarantee we’d be out of business in the very near future if we didn’t have this patio,” she said, adding that the patio cost was thousands of dollars.
Poon-Kinney also pointed out that the patio “did not happen in a vacuum.” It was possible because of support from her landlords as well as local businesses like Art’s Trenchplate & K-Rail Services who were able to supply the concrete barriers and set them up using a crane for a good price and neighboring San Carlos True Value Hardware who also offered a good price for the paint.
“It’s things like that that make all the difference in the world and that’s what has made this possible,” she said.
In the same spirit of community, the patio at The Trails Eatery inspired another local restaurant’s parking lot patio. The Longhorn Bar & Grill in Grantville extended its outdoor area shortly after the mayor’s July 7 executive order.
Longhorn owner Paul Bernhardt credits his wife Bettyann for quickly designing and setting up the patio, which also features concrete barriers from Art’s Trenchplate & K-Rail Services and features a bamboo privacy screen and putting green-style astroturf.
“It took a couple of weeks to get dialed in, but it’s been working out really well,” Bernhardt said. “It wouldn’t be a bad thing to keep it even when we’re allowed back inside.”
Maintaining a patio past the quarantine would require some costs and regulatory hoops, Bernhardt said, including monthly rent for the concrete barriers, permission from the property owner, permits from the city and the Alcoholic Beverage Commission, who would need to sign off on the plan so drinks can be served. Future plans aside, the current outdoor patio has become integral to Longhorn staying open.
“We’d be dead in the water without it,” Bernhardt said.
In normal times, Longhorn has 19 tables and 15 bar seats. The new patio dining offers 12 tables.
“[Seating is] down quite a bit but people have been generally been pretty patient when we do have a wait for tables, which happens” Bernhardt said.
Bernhardt also credits his community involvement, sponsoring local Little League teams and the Patrick Henry football program, for the continued support he gets back from his local customers.
“The community knows we’re supporting them and they definitely have come out to support us,” he said.
Although the most visible businesses to take advantage of operating in patios are restaurants, more and more service industry businesses are also moving outside.
Tony Ganaway, owner of The Cutting Edge barber shop in College Area, was quick to set up barber seats outside when inside businesses were again forced to close.
“I had a pretty good idea in my head how I could operate in the parking lot, and it actually worked out pretty well,” he said of his parking lot shop with barber chairs and work stations under pop-up tents.
“It’s good publicity. People see us out here,” he added.
For safety, Cutting Edge has hand sanitizers for barbers and customers to use, disinfectants to clean up after every haircut, and all barbers wear masks and gloves. Safety, he said, is the most important consideration, but so too is keeping his doors open.
“It was very important to keep it open because everybody here, in some sort of fashion, has a family they need to take care of, whether its kids or adults,” he said, adding that he has a 2-year-old daughter. “We all shut down at the beginning of this and waited our time to be able to reopen and follow the state’s orders. So now that we reopened, it’s imperative for us to make some money and there’s no telling how long this will be and we need to feed our families.”
With the coronavirus pandemic still growing, it is likely that even more types of businesses will find ways to move operations outdoors, a move that is supported by College Area Business District executive director Jim Schneider.
“We are pleased to see so many businesses taking advantage of this and the other progressive programs offered to keep small businesses alive during this pandemic,” he said. “Their creativity and ability to pivot demonstrates the entrepreneurial spirit by proving to be able to adapt quickly. Given the emotional and financial cost of these adaptations, we hope some of these temporary measures, like Outdoor Business Operations, can become permanent small business assistance for years after this pandemic.”
— Jeff Clemetson is an editor and Dave Schwab is a contributing editor at the San Diego Community Newspaper Group.