San Diego restaurants with little to no outdoor dining options aren’t letting COVID-19 restrictions get in the way of generating business.
A handful of operators throughout the county have opted to build out expansive — and, in some cases, expensive — parklets to make up for a lack of al fresco eating space.
Usually installed in the parking lanes of city streets and averaging roughly $40,000 to construct, parklets give food and beverage operators more outside seating room. They allow restaurateurs to make more money in the era of social distancing rules and limited indoor dining.
Chris Puffer of Puffer Malarkey Collective said he a partner Brian Malarkey opted to build an two-level parklet on an adjacent parking lot for the group’s Herb & Sea restaurant in Encinitas. The 2,000-square-foot facility took two and a half weeks to build and sits upward of 100 people, he said. The cost was about $35,000, including outdoor tables and chairs.
The parklet investment was worth it for a number of reasons, said Puffer, but mainly because it was important that the new outdoor experience matched Herb & Sea’s indoor classic yet modern vibe. With the permission of the city, he hopes the parklet will become a permanent fixture of the restaurant.
“Now that interior dining is back up at 25%, we are still seeing a trend of people preferring to sit outside versus inside,” he said. “The best-case scenario is that it will take maybe another 12 months for people to feel 100% comfortable with indoor dining. So, if I’m providing this new experience to our guests. I want it to be exceptional, not picnic tables on an uneven slope, although I’m not judging anyone that does that. For me, dining is an escape that provides comfort. It should provide shade, and lighting has to be just right. The only way to do it was to level the space by building out this deck and making it something really special.”
Matt Sieve, owner of modern Mediterranean restaurant Madison on Park in University Heights, said since opening a 100-by-8-foot parklet, the eatery has been fully booked. The effort cost him approximately $35,000.
As a result, he’s been able to bring back five more employees for a total of 30. Sieve said he hopes to keep the parklet permanently.
“Our numbers are actually better than last year same month, and that is with our bar being closed and social distancing inside,” he said, adding that he collaborated with his two next door neighbors, Small Bar and Park & Rec restaurant, on the project. “When we crunched the numbers, we knew that even if we were open just six months or a year, it was worth the investment. It is safer to dine outside right now, plus, the more businesses that can open, the more tax revenue and payroll tax and less unemployment. The city has been very good about approving the necessary permits.”
Efficient and Flexible
To Sieve’s point, Marco Polo Cortes, owner of MP Permits Inc., said San Diego City Hall has been very accommodating about the build outs. Cortes has helped a lot of the local restaurants get their permits for parklets.
“It is typically hard to get policy makers to support these types of initiatives, but they’ve been more efficient and flexible,” he said. “The city came up with a process, a four-page document they can process in 24-48 hours, which would normally take anywhere between three to six months. The city has also absorbed the cost of the permit fee, taking something like $300,000 out of their budget to cover this.”
The Alcoholic Beverage Control license, which allows restaurants and bars to serve alcohol and can cost anywhere between $900 and $90,000, cost $100 to extend a restaurant’s existing license to their parklet, said Cortes.
Six Parking Stalls
Eric Adler, co-founder of Puesto Mexican Artisan Kitchen & Bar and Puesto Cerveceria, took up six parking stalls in front of his La Jolla location to create a $20,000 parklet, which seats roughly 40 additional guests.
He said the impetus behind the build out was that the street isn’t level, so setting up tables and chairs there would not have worked. As a result of the parklet addition, which he hopes to make permanent, Adler said traffic at the restaurant has increased.
“We have more seats now than before, so it’s definitely gone up,” he said. “Without it, we would have had 10 seats out of 120. With it, along with the patio, we have almost half capacity. Now, with indoor dining, we get to around 80 seats. It’s still down from 120, but a lot closer.”
Uptick in Business
Merritte Powell, owner of La Puerta, a Mexican concept in Gaslamp Quarter, said he’s also seen an uptick in business since building out a $25,000 parklet, which has added about 150 seats.
In anticipation of cold weather, Powell said he is already looking into purchasing heaters.
“People are just more comfortable outside right now. This has been a lifesaver for us,” he said, adding that while the restaurant won’t reach pre-COVID projections of $6 million in revenue this year, the parklet addition at least $2 million. He also said he now has close to 30 employees as a result.
“I hope the city will allow us to keep this up forever,” Powell said. “I was already working on a plan before COVID to redo my storefront. As a whole, it is a nice addition to San Diego to see these around the city.”