Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki has launched a plan allowing Market Street restaurants to spread outside, put tables former parking spaces directly in front of their businesses so more diners can eat al fresco during summer months.
The expanded dining areas will allow more seating at safely spaced distances in accordance with Governor Carney’s COVID guidelines.
The new initiative is called Curbside Wilmington, which is designed to support local businesses and encourage patrons to return to the rejuvenated Downtown District this summer.
Curbside pull-in spots have also been designated throughout the downtown area for all businesses, both retail and restaurants, to use for pick-up and curbside delivery.
Town Square Delaware was first to share news about this program, which was scheduled to kick-off Friday, June 5. But restaurants that were damaged in the looting that took place on May 30th needed a few more days to repair windows and restock stolen items. So the launch of the initiative was pushed to Friday, June 12.
“All of us are super pumped,” said Rob Snowberger of Stitch House on Market Street and Faire Market & Cafe on Ninth Street. “We want the message to be positive and people to at least come down and check it out.”
The service will be available Tuesday through Saturday from 5 pm to 10 pm at three locations: the intersections of 5th and Market, 7thand Market, and 9th and Market streets.
Some restaurant owners hope the city will approve occasionally closing Market Street to traffic on Friday evenings to enhance the dining scene. If that happens, they hope to see musicians play outside, not to draw a crowd, but to enhance the dining.
Free valet service is also a part of the program, which restaurants say is a big plus to bringing customers back to Market Street.
“I’m so ecstatic,” said Scott Stein of Bardea restaurant about the city plan. “I’m over the moon that there’s talk about creating outside seating and possibly doing festivals outside that create more of an outdoor dining scene that brings people together.”
“I think we have a beautiful downtown. We’re going to make it even better. I’m excited to get going,” said Stein.
The plan, worked on by restaurateurs, Downtown Visions, the Committee of 100 and the mayor’s office, seeks to help with the state requirement that restaurants can only serve 30 percent of their capacity and that their tables and diners to be spread out. Beginning Monday, June 15 — at the start of Phase 2 — restaurants will be able to serve at 60 percent of their seating capacity.
If restaurants can expand their footprints, they can serve more and make more money, restaurant owners say.
“We’re trying to figure out how to fit the most,” said Joe Van Horn of Chelsea Tavern on Market Street. If he uses his main dining room, private dining room, patio and extended patio, he can serve nearly 50 people at once, close to his usual business. “It’s a numbers game and we’re going to go with the flow and see what happens.”
Participating restaurants include:
Bardea Food & Drink
Farmer & The Cow
Green Box Kitchen
La Fia Bistro
Stitch House Brewery
Tonic Bar & Grille
Downtown residents will also be allowed to park in Colonial Parking lots for free by calling Colonial directly at 302.651.3600.
Even with takeout and delivery, downtown restaurants lost a lot of business during the shutdown, which started March 17.
Business lunches and dinners evaporated as most offices closed and employees worked from home. Capital One already has said it won’t reopen until September, Van Horn said. But the courts are expected to open soon, complete with jury trials.
In most years, Wilmington restaurant business drops in summer, as many people decamp to beaches.
“July is our slowest month of year,” Van Horn said. He thinks things could be different this year because people worried about being exposed to the coronavirus could stick closer to home. “I’m actually anticipating that it may be a busier summer than we’ve had in the past.”
Restaurant owners said they will use attractive barriers to turn those spaces into small, classy parklets or curblets, and not just have tables sitting on a street. If the plan is popular, Snowberger said they also could create raised platforms on which tables and diners could sit.
Snowberger said the expansions into parking spaces should allow most restaurants to set out an additional six to seven tables. He already has an outdoor space, but expanding will allow him to serve more.
He said that while he doesn’t know much about the science behind outdoor dining, he believes many feel that sitting outside, especially with a light breeze blowing, is a safer way to dine.
Wilmington won’t be the first to embrace this kind of plan. Others, including Rehoboth Beach, Bethany Beach and Kennett Square, have done it and been successful. Other cities across there country have also embraced the expanded outdoor dining initiative.
“This is an opportunity where the city and everybody wants to help restaurants, and it’s a good way to do it because it increases safety,” said Snowberger. “But we have the opportunity to do it right and make sure the barriers and the spaces look nice, and it’s a nice place to be and has people coming downtown.”
No matter which way the plan goes, restaurant owners will be happy to see their patrons — without masks.
“I’m just excited to be able to serve a person instead of a Grub Hub delivery guy,” says Van Horn.