Wilmington’s Friday night Curbside Wilmington celebrations have helped shift restaurants’ best nights from Saturday to Friday, and brought happy energy to downtown, say restaurant owners.
Curbside Wilmington, which started quietly in June, closes down the 800 block of Market Street to traffic from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m every Friday through Sept. 4.
That allows restaurants to expand into parking spaces so they can offer more al fresco dining.
Musicians play in front of The Grand — it will be The Q Factor this week from 5:30 p.m. to 9 .m. Car valet parking is free at three stations. And there’s an outdoor cigar lounge, the Sikar Experience in the 800 block.
Saturday had been Bardea Food & Drink’s busiest and most profitable night since it opened in 2018.
Now, with all the changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, said owner Scott Stein, “Friday night is definitely our busiest night of the week.”
He credits Curbside Wilmington for that switch.
“It’s getting a little extra people to come downtown,” Stein said. “I can tell you our sales are definitely significantly higher.”
Curbside Wilmington has been great, said Rob Snowberger, owner of Stitch House Brewery.
“We’ve seen a real energy come to Market Street and the downtown at a time when you wouldn’t think there would be any,” he said, “because of this novel idea that you’re creating more of an outside safely distanced environment with fun and fellow diners.”
Joe Van Horn of Chelsea Tavern said he’s seen the Friday night ramp up in customers and energy, too.
His Chelsea Plaza patio was full the entire time a calypso band played across the street on July 24.
Curbside Wilmington was meant to help.
Restaurants were closed by Gov. John Carney when he shut down the state in March to try to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.
They were allowed to do takeout and eventually to open at 30 percent capacity. To help them serve more customers safely, the state allowed restaurants to set up tables outside their businesses.
But most downtown office buildings are empty, with employees working from home. So are the theaters and entertainment venues. So restaurants have lost lunch traffic as well as foot traffic that brought in dinner customers, too.
“The diverse eateries that run the length of Market Street and surrounding streets are critical to the economic health of our city,” said Martin Hageman, executive director of Downtown Visions.
Downtown Visions provides additional tables and chairs to restaurants as needed. The custom-made railings created by the Challenge Program are used for both safety and esthetical purposes.
Outside dining is available on other nights, too, all three restaurant owners pointed out.
“We have our typical seating permit, which allows us to go five feet from the building’s edge and put up barriers,” Snowberger said. “So our servers walk out the door and have seating to the left and right.
“For Curbside, we take the parking spaces on the street, and we have barriers set up for the seating out there. Pedestrians still can walk safely and socially distance, but we have more seating.”
While Stein has outdoor seating, Bardea is a block down the hill and hasn’t been able to push out into the street. He’s kept busy with takeout, particularly his family dinners, which almost always sell out.
Wilmington restaurants often saw a drop in business and traffic in summer, Stein said, because so many people left on the weekend for the beach or other travel.
“But it seems like Friday night, downtown Wilmington is quite the scene,” he said.
Stein loves seeing people eating outside on Market Street.
“I think the street is so beautiful,” he said. “Nothing makes me happier when I drive on Market Street and I see people dining outside. I would love to see more people dining outside.”
While Chelsea Tavern can push into parking spaces, it’s fortunate to be able to expand in Chelsea Plaza next door.
“It pretty much doubled the size of our seating outside, which until October will save us,” Van Horn said.
He’s not sure what will happen when the weather gets colder at night.
But he knows one thing: “You can’t sell anything if your doors are closed.”
Snowberger thinks Curbside Wilmington diners like the entire social scene. They are eating out, sometimes with friends and family. They can see and hear others at nearby restaurants. They can people watch and overhear conversation while the music is playing.
“We’re all still learning this new environment,” Snowberger said. “Nobody knows how long it will be before people start coming back out, or people start going back to the office. Certainly without Curbside Wilmington, we’d be in a much worse position.”
He praised the city and Downtown Visions for pulling it off, by pulling in business owners to talk about it.
A few other cities have done the same thing with equal success, he said.
“There’s more of an opportunity to feel like you’re in a safe and fun open-air environment, where you can move around and sample different food and drink,” he said. “It’ a unique way to look at the city. When you have a high concentration of restaurants in one area, you can do this and really create that energy environment.”
The bands playing in coming weeks are Dr. Harmonica and Rockett 88 on Aug. 21, Spokey Speaky on Aug. 28 and Edgardo Cintron on Sept. 4, which is Labor Day weekend.
The free valet service through Gala Valet is available Tuesday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. at the intersections of 5th and Market, 7th and Market, and 9th and Market streets.
Meanwhile, Downtown residents are allowed to park in Colonial Parking lots for free.
“It’s really made a difference,” Snowberger said. “Downtown Wilmington and Market Street is definitely the place to be on Friday”