Faced with coronavirus-related restrictions limiting them to 50 percent of their usual capacity, restaurant owners in the city of Meadville are taking it to the streets — and they are doing so with the support of city officials.
Following approvals from Meadville City Council last week, two restaurants hope to shut down portions of city alleyways and open outdoor seating areas by the end of the week. Elsewhere, one restaurant already has erected a tented area for outdoor seating in its parking lot and another plans to use a portion of a city parking lot as a seating area.
“It’s a great idea. I think it’ll beautify our area as well. It’ll be different, but I think it’s a good different,” said Java Tree Cafe and Catering owner Melissa Kebert. “It’s starting to remind some people of going down to Pittsburgh.”
Linda Ruth, owner of E-Street Eatery at the corner of North Main and Randolph streets, looked in a more easterly direction to describe the “cozy outdoor atmosphere” she hopes to cultivate under the tent hung with colorful flower arrangements that has been set up in the parking lot.
“Some people have said it feels like a bistro,” Ruth said, “like a down-the-street-in-Paris bistro, somewhere you would sit outside.”
Both women have kept their restaurants open for curbside service and delivery during the state’s COVID-19 shutdown. Because of the interior layouts that make social distancing problematic, however, they have chosen to keep their dining areas closed even since Crawford County entered the green reopening phase, which allows for dining in at 50 percent of an establishment’s usual capacity.
Kebert hopes her vision for the section of Mulberry Street just north of Chestnut Street will draw enough customers to lessen the impact of not having interior dining. She came armed with an “artist’s conception” of what she’s already calling “Alley Cat Patio” when she spoke to City Council last week in support of the license agreement.
“I have a little bit of a knack for decorating,” she told council. When complete, she hopes to have dozens of plants spread around wrought iron-style tables with umbrellas, additional well-spaced seating and, later this summer, live music. The section of Mulberry Street that extends north from Chestnut Street alongside Sandy’s Artworks (which is between Java Tree and the outdoor seating area) will be closed to vehicular traffic but will remain open to pedestrians.
A similar set-up will be found alongside Julian’s Bar and Grill on South Cottage Street, where owner D.J. York envisions enough seating to make up for nearly half of the 85 seats inside that he lost due to COVID-19 restrictions. He also hopes to install triangular sunshades and string lights from the side of Julian’s to the Movement Unlimited building across the alley and to add giant-sized games, activities and musical performances as the summer progresses.
Julian’s was also approved last week for a license agreement to use the public street for outdoor seating. In fact, it was York who initially proposed using city property for outdoor seating locations — an idea Walker liked so much, he pitched it to other restaurants in a May 29 meeting with owners. York was excited to see the idea spread.
“I want to see patios all over Meadville,” he told council last week, “with music blaring and (people) 6 feet apart, having a drink.”
Council also approved a license agreement allowing Voodoo Brewery Co.’s Arch Street location to use a portion of the Mill Run parking lot for exterior seating. The proposal was actually under discussion prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, Walker told council.
According to Tony Lang, Voodoo’s chief marketing officer, work on the seating area probably will take place later this summer, but for the time being the Arch Street location remains closed. Instead, enough widely spaced outdoor seating has been set up at Voodoo’s Bessemer Street Compound to accommodate up to 35 parties. The Voodoo food truck has also been brought in and an outdoor bar in a repurposed shipping container has been installed — “all in an effort to create a safe outdoor space,” Lang said.
“Based on all of our feedback from (Memorial Day) weekend,” Lang added, “lots of people came to ‘see how safe it was,’ then went home and got their families and spouses once they saw there was room to distance.”
The license agreements for Java Tree, Julian’s and Voodoo to use city property came with a $100 fee. Voodoo was charged an additional $200 to install year-round chain-link fencing with woven bamboo inserts to enclose the seating area.
The closure of portions of two alleys immediately adjacent to Chestnut Street was unlikely to present any public safety issues, according to Walker. The city’s police and fire departments are aware of the closures and given the temporary nature of the seating areas, the alleys could easily be reopened. The license agreements allow the city to terminate the arrangements for any reason.
The impending outdoor adventures for both Java Tree and Julian’s come at a time when both restaurants could use a boost.
“COVID-19 has hit everybody pretty hard,” York told council last week.
In an interview this week, Kebert offered a similar perspective. “We’re hanging in there,” she said. “I have to be honest — it’s barely, but we are hanging in there.”
Support from the city on outdoor seating was all the more welcome as a result.
“They’ve been wonderful,” Kebert said. “I couldn’t say enough about our city right now.”
Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.