Chicago’s outdoor dining program ends for the season, but some restaurants think it should be year-round

Chicago
By Chicago 5 Min Read

Phillip Walters described the difference in his restaurant’s business as “like flicking on a light switch” when it was allowed to expand its outdoor dining during the pandemic in 2020.

The extra seating still is always full in the warmer months, said Walters, part owner of Formento’s, 925 W. Randolph St. in Fulton Market in the West Loop.

With the city’s seasonal outdoor dining program having ended Tuesday, some restaurants are thinking again why the program couldn’t become permanent.

A plan pushed by Mayor Brandon Johnson that would have made the seasonal program permanent, with bars and restaurants only required to get annual approval from its local alderperson, has stalled.

The outdoor dining space of Formento’s at W. Randolph St. and N Sangamon St. in the West Loop neighborhood, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023. | Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The outdoor seasonal program allows for seating in the curb lane, on sidewalks, in adjacent parking lots, in front of adjacent neighbors and even on an entire street if three businesses petition for it.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Time

While some owners and industry leaders would like to make expanded seating permanent, they agree the program can act as “a double-edge blade.”

“It really is a very sensitive issue because on the one hand where the street was able to be closed, you have businesses that made substantial sales during the pandemic and that was good, however, the city prohibited other street closures,” leaving other restaurants in the dust, said Roger Romanelli, Fulton Market Association executive director.

Roger Romanelli, the Chicago Restaurants Coalition’s coordinator, speaks during a news conference on Jan. 12, 2021.

Roger Romanelli, Fulton Market Association executive director, says the outdoor dining program is “a very sensitive issue.”

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Kuma’s Corner West Loop, 852 W. Fulton Market, was one of the restaurants that feasted off the expanded program in the summers.

The entire block is closed off in front of the business to provide extra seating for Kuma’s Corner and a few other restaurants in the area, bringing “a sense of vibrance” to the community, general manager Tommy van Arsdale said.

But in the winter, van Arsdale said, “We don’t see any folks that want to sit outside.”

In fact, he said, the restaurant is better off when the street is reopened to vehicle traffic in the colder months, allowing for guests to be dropped off at the door and for delivery drivers to avoid the “hassle” of finding parking elsewhere to pick up food orders.

For many in the industry, choosing to have the extra outdoor seating comes down to a cost-benefit analysis. It also depends on each restaurant’s needs, physical location and ability to provide service outdoors year-round.

“The short answer is yes,” Walters said of wanting to expand the extra outdoor seating all year. “The long answer is: It’s an analysis. We’d have to do all the math to see if we can even afford it.”

Converting a makeshift outdoor patio area to an all-season dining experience could come with a lot of work because it means building essentially a new structure.

“You’ve got to heat it, you’ve got to electrify it,” Walters said. “You’ve got to build something that a guest would feel safe in, as well as the employees, but it’s also an experience. You don’t want to feel like you’re just sitting in some tent having a quality dinner. You want to feel like the ambience befits that, or else you’ll just wait to sit inside.”

The broken down and put away outdoor dining space for The Publican at W. Fulton Market and N. Green St. in the West Loop neighborhood, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023. | Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The outdoor dining space at The Publican in the West Loop has been broken down for the season. The seasonal outdoor dining program, created during the pandemic to help struggling restaurants continue serving patrons in a more socially distant way, is only permitted between May 1 and Oct. 31.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

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