By now, diners eating in a roadside tent or igloo erected in front of a restaurant is a common sight. Many Washington cities have even waived fees for restaurants setting these up, but in Edmonds, restaurant owners, customers, and City Council members are at odds as the pandemic drags into year two and some feel these street-side eateries have overstayed their welcome.
The City of Edmonds introduced its temporary “Streatery” program in December 2020. Interested restaurant owners could apply for a permit with a $110 fee, and initially the program was set to sunset on December 31, 2021. After multiple meetings, on January 4 the Edmonds City Council offered a choice to streatery owners: leave it up and pay $2,000 in four $500 monthly increments (down from an initial ruling of a $4,000 lump payment) beginning in January and ending April 30, or dismantle it by January 15. It’s a decision many are concerned about.
Adapting in the pandemic
Under the initial permitting process, interested restaurants had to show a dining plan, proof of insurance, proposed construction plans, and an elevation sketch. Once approved, the permit would last no longer than a year — a sign of the times when many thought the pandemic would be over in a matter of months.
Shubert Ho, owner of multiple area restaurants (including three in the Edmonds downtown corridor) worked with an architect to design a structure and shared the plans with anyone who was interested.
“I wanted to provide a unified look and process for the building department to approve these structures. Instead of having the one guy review 20 different plans, he had to review one plan. It was in the best interest, for everyone,” Ho said.
Ultimately, 17 structures were built, 12 of which used Ho’s plans. It was a moment where the community came together in the hopes that everyone would make it through the pandemic supporting each other. But it wasn’t long before things turned ugly.
“The ugly came out right when we started building them. It was minimal, as we were still unable to seat people inside but as the streets got busy that’s when we saw comments come out about taking up parking spaces for free and the perceived inequities of it,” Ho said.
As the weather turned nicer, the streets filled up with diners eager to take advantage of the street side dining.
“Edmonds is an incredibly social town. We built a lovely open outdoor space that allowed people to come out to eat, drink, and socialize all the while feeling safe doing so,” Venus Forteza, owner of Maize & Barley, wrote in an email.
Still, discord was brewing and arguments came from all sides. Restaurant owners without the room to establish outdoor seating argued that streateries give certain restaurants an upper hand — extending their capacity for free while other restaurants might not have the same option, business owners complained the structures limit people’s view of their storefronts, and patrons complained about the reduced parking.
Kali Kelnero, co-owner of Kelnero and Vinbero, had a streatery in addition to an existing front patio as well as a back parking lot that has been converted into a seating area (under a separate permit). With all that seating, it would be easy for her to oppose streateries because when everyone can erect outdoor seating — like the streatery in front of Daphnes, a 200-square-foot cocktail bar a few blocks away — it devalues hers.
“From a capitalist view, it harms us. I love Daphnes. Their having more capacity didn’t help us, but somehow it did. It brought more people to Edmonds. So as a person, I think Daphnes should’ve been allowed to have that streatery. I don’t think they would’ve survived the pandemic without it. We wouldn’t without the combination,” Kelnero said.
Now, in the middle of winter, many streatery seats are empty, throwing fuel on the fire of an idea that it’s time to tear them down. Still, with COVID-19 cases on the rise and no end to the pandemic in sight, some restaurant owners argue that streateries still provide a safe option for diners.
Guidance from Public Health – Seattle & King County states: “Dining outdoors is generally less risky than indoors because better air flow prevents the virus from building up in enclosed places, especially where customers must remove their masks to eat or drink.”
Councilwoman Laura Johnson was one of the supporters of the streatery program, calling it a “pro-human connection approach” during a recent phone call.
“Why [streateries] are a big deal is because we’re in a pandemic and they’re offering an alternative dining experience,” Johnson said.
When asked why the issue seemed to be so contentious, Johnson said, “We have a historic downtown and in many ways we still have an old school approach to things. Change can be uncomfortable. Change can also be exciting. I think that’s what we’re seeing here.”
Take it down or pay?
Jeff and Erika Barnett of Salish Sea Brewing are among the business owners choosing to tear down their streatery rather than pay the $2,000 fee. The brewery has two locations, one of which is just a block off Main Street, with zero encumbrance on any other storefront. They say the fee, which will go toward creating free public parking at nearby lots to replace the spaces occupied by streateries (minus any administrative costs), is taking money away from small business owners.
“The parking lot is not locally owned and not locally operated. You’re not employing any Edmonds people with this,” Jeff Barnett said.
The Barnetts said communication from the city has been confusing.
“These were put into place as a pandemic response… Are we or are we not still in a pandemic? Do we still need to provide this to citizens of Edmonds? If it’s yes, then you’re not going to charge [$2,000] to a business to provide a public safety measure,” Erika Barnett said.
Ultimately for them, the fee was too expensive, they said, citing payroll increases and increased operating costs as a deterrent.
“They’re imposing this [fee] at the most desperate time of year for any of us to operate. This was not a business operation strategy as much as it was a pandemic response,” Jeff Barnett said.
Forteza, the owner of Maize & Barley, is also tearing down her structure, citing the fee as the most prominent reason for the decision. Still, she is concerned about losing business without the structure in place.
“We are still reeling from the omicron variant that is closing the doors of our business friends and neighbors in Bellingham, Seattle, and as far as Portland. We will be navigating how to keep our space safe for dining and providing a safe outdoor space for dining,” Forteza wrote in an email.
Brian Taylor, co-owner of Daphnes cocktail bar, initially agreed to the original $4,000 payment because the streatery was “huge” for their business, as it wasn’t easy to enforce proper social distancing in such a small space.
“Now with people coming inside, it’s still huge for us but I can certainly understand the other side of it. They’re not the most attractive and it’s not a level playing field if you’re not in a spot that can have one,” Taylor said during a recent call.
Even though the City Council reduced the fee to $2,000, Taylor and his business partner Louise Favier decided to remove their structure, writing in an email that while they were grateful for the support from the community, ultimately, “the issue has been divisive, and we feel we can be a better neighbor and community member by ending our participation in the program.”
Kelnero said she and her husband Kris never wanted their streatery to be permanent. And, because it was a 20-foot walk from their front door, it was an easy decision to tear it down now. “The more you can be outside the better,” said Kelnero. “But the practical nature of the streatery was difficult. In the winter it does get icy and slippery. We don’t feel good about having our staff do that.”
Ho, owner of The Market, Fire & The Feast, and Salt & Iron, is planning on leaving his three streateries intact until April and has developed an “Apres Edmonds” promotion running the month of January to entice people to keep dining outdoors during the winter months.
“We got 20 locations to participate with us. Basically, you get a punch card — no purchase necessary — and go around getting stamps. Extra credit for dressing in 80s ski gear,” Ho said. Completed punch cards will be put into a raffle for a new pair of skis at the end of the month.
As the structures begin to come down this weekend, some wonder what it will mean for diners’ safety as the pandemic continues.
“I have customers who still pull a credit card out of a plastic bag and wipe it down with a Clorox wipe,” Jeff Barnett said.
“It’s good to provide space for those customers outside,” Erika Barnett added.