Outdoor Dining: Saving The Economy One Patio At A Time

David Todd McCarty

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Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Have you ever been on vacation, or maybe visiting a friend in a distant city, and you went out to eat and found yourself sitting outside? When it’s done right, there is nothing like it. The carnival atmosphere, the fresh air, the thrill of it all. There is something childlike about it—like it shouldn’t be allowed. Which, let’s be honest, it usually isn’t.

We’re used to seeing outdoor dining in hip, urban neighborhoods; breezy, coastal towns; and tropical, luxury resorts; but finding a suitable place to eat outdoors hasn’t always been that easy to do. In many instances, this is the product of local, municipal regulations that restrict restaurants from establishing outdoor dining operations, usually due to fear of noise complaints.

Then there are all manner of rules that towns establish about what you can or cannot do on the sidewalk space that is deemed public property. Suffice it to say it generally leans heavily to the cannot do.

There has probably been no industry more seriously damaged by the pandemic than that of hospitality. Our restaurants and hotels have been decimated as we closed down indoor activities, travel, and congregating of any kind. But the first ones to begin to venture forward this past spring were the entrepreneurs who dared to negotiate a terrifying Covid world with good, old-fashioned, al fresco dining.

Once we learned that stale air, not contaminated surfaces, were the thing to fear, everyone moved outdoors and established exciting new dining rooms in parking lots, sidewalks, and driveways.

Anywhere you could put a table and chairs became an impromptu patio. Empty lots became garden cafes. Sidewalks became tasting rooms. At a time when people were afraid to go out and yet stir crazy inside, outdoor dining gave everyone the freedom to explore again.

The silver lining in all this pandemic madness may just be that city leaders, municipal committees, and zoning boards will finally wake up to the notion that activating the streets is not only a good thing for businesses but for the communities they serve. Towns all over America, from large cities to tiny hamlets, have had their eyes opened to what can happen when you allow businesses to take to the streets, rather than hiding indoors.

One of the side benefits to any challenge is it brings forth creativity in unexpected ways. We are all guilty of becoming complacent when nothing is rocking our boat, so we let things slide and begin to rest on our laurels. The beauty of adversity is that it causes us to rise to meet the challenge and from that, comes innovation.

Big cities all over the country have opened up their sidewalks and closed down their streets, giving communities a strange new world to live in. Neighbors greet one another and communities are renewed. But why can’t small towns take advantage of the same spirit of entrepreneurialism and do the same thing?

One of the challenges most small-town business districts have is making a quiet place look welcoming. They usually lack the concentration of activity that makes a place look like somewhere you'd want to drive to, or at least spend some time. An outdoor dining area, pop-up restaurant, backyard patio, beer garden, or bbq picnic area can change that.

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By creating a focal point, with a social, communal, party atmosphere, you invite people to come and stay, invite a friend or even bring their family. The act of breaking bread is literally the definition of community in many cultures and honestly, America is no different.

In cities, towns, and villages all over Europe, you will find people eating outside, year-round. The same holds true for Canada to the north of us and Mexico to the south. Only in America do we feel the need to restrict al fresco dining to certain places and times.

Small businesses all across America need our help, and no one more than restaurants and parochial business districts. We need to bring a sense of excitement back to Main Street and the easiest, fastest, and most economical way to do that is to put out a few tables and chairs, set up some plants and maybe some twinkly lights, buy a few propane heaters and invite people to bring blankets, and let everyone be a community again.

Community is the gift that keeps on giving and we shouldn't give it up once we've determined that it's okay to go back inside. America has an opportunity to come out of this mess stronger than we were before. We have plenty of other obstacles and issues that we need to worry about, but maybe one thing we shouldn't do is keep quiet. Let's bring a little life back to the streets of America. The sound of laughter and the clinking of dishes, the smell of a warm dinner roll, and a little soft music.

Can you feel it?

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David Todd McCary is an international branding consultant that specializes in destination marketing, hospitality branding, and brand storytelling.

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Writer, Director, Photographer, Designer, and Journalist. I am endlessly curious about politics, street food, photography, and garden gnomes.

Cape May Court House, NJ
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