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Local restaurateurs relish opportunity to offer outdoor dining

The sign at Uncle Bub's shows how restaurateurs are persevering and encouraging the public with messages of hope, while facing unprecedented financial struggles.
The sign at Uncle Bub's shows how restaurateurs are persevering and encouraging the public with messages of hope, while facing unprecedented financial struggles.

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Mark Link didn’t wait too long to get busy this week when he learned he could be open for outdoor business May 29.

“First thing I did was measure the area of the parking lot best suitable for a tent,” said Link, owner of Uncle Bub’s BBQ & Catering in Westmont. “The second thing was to call the village to see what requirements there will be. And then I called the rental company about china, tents and plateware.”

Link relished the opportunity to reopen for outdoor dining May 29 after Gov. JB Pritzker announced May 20 the modification of Phase 3 in the Restore Illinois plan.

Uncle Bub’s, an institution at 132 S. Cass Ave. in Westmont for 22 years, has seen its sales down 75% without the dine-in restaurant and catering since Illinois’ stay-at-home order took effect in March – even with good response from the community in curbside orders.

“I think it [outdoor dining being allowed] is great, a step in the right direction,” Link said. “I don’t think it’s the answer for everybody, but it’s still a positive. At least now he’s starting to see that restaurants need to have business to survive.”

Link said he could serve up to 75 people under a tent in his parking lot if he covered the whole thing. Right now, he has three picnic tables and umbrellas adjacent to Cass Avenue, where guests can come and eat, with 34 parking spaces in his lot where they wait for their takeout orders. Link plans to talk to neighboring Holy Trinity Church to see if he can use its lot to park cars to get a bigger tent.

Pritzker announced that bars and restaurants will be allowed to open outdoor seating with proper precautions such as the wearing of masks and social distancing requirements when Phase 3 begins. Tables must be six feet apart and away from sidewalks.

The news prompted relief from restaurant owners such as Link, but also some uncertainty and a whirlwind of preparations.

“Everything is new to everybody, a lot of questions, can we serve liquor, does the tent have to be butted up to the building,” Link said. “I would make it a bigger area but we have to follow the guidelines that the tables will be six feet apart.”

Steve Palmer, owner of Palmer Place in La Grange, said his original reaction to the news was “Christmas just showed up.” Since then, he’s grown more cautious when considering the unpredictable nature of weather – “what do we do if it starts pouring rain, we can’t just pull people inside” – and the challenges of the state’s guidelines.

Palmer Place, the western suburbs’ oldest beer garden in business since 1983, normally seats more than 200 people with 15 tables in a three-level outdoor area, but will be at half that capacity. Palmer, currently working with 18 employees, will probably bring back at least 30 right off the bat, but needs to retrain them on health guidelines.

“It’s a blessing and it’s a curse,” Palmer said. “It’s awesome and it’s a way harder way to do business than before. We have to figure it out and we have to be fluid. Hopefully people will be patient. We’re now calling vendors, we have 10 guys moving furniture and putting umbrellas in the stands, calling employees and it’s absolutely crazy. It’s not just flipping the switch. Some people who have worked here 20 years, we have to retrain.”

Westmont Mayor Ron Gunter said the 35 mayors of DuPage County had been pushing Pritzker to view DuPage County differently from Chicago and get restaurants opened up, and the mayors previously had been looking for guidelines for outdoor eating in expectation of restaurants reopening at limited capacity in Phase 4.

“Restaurants were asking us, when we open, we might only be at 50% capacity. They were asking how do we extend our service and had already been looking at outdoor seating,” Gunter said. “We were in the process of looking into that. Once he made the announcement Wednesday, we went into overdrive.”

Larry Forssberg, Westmont’s economic development director, said some of the village’s 100 restaurants have existing outdoor space and parking lots adjacent for outdoor dining, while others have very little outside their four walls. The latter are ones that the village is helping in advance of May 29.

“We’re basically instructing staff coming up with guidelines, be very general, very flexible, don’t charge anything for permits, work as fast as you can,” Gunter said. “We’re going to be extremely cooperative for these restaurants to get up and running. We’ve created a stimulus grant program for small businesses that we haven’t earmarked for anything. The board may use some of that money to help restaurants with seating outside.”

Joe Christiano, owner of Davanti Enoteca in Western Springs, said he was excited and surprised at Pritzker’s pivot to allow outdoor dining, but stressed that the “real prize” will be when he can open his restaurant’s dining room.

“Even though we have outdoor dining, with the weather in Chicago it could be storming for three to four hours and then you have to bring in your staff to guarantee the five shifts. It could be 100 degrees one day and 60 the next,” Christiano said. “Plus with the 6-feet rules, if your patio is not big enough, there’s not many seats. It will help out a little.”

Christiano said his restaurant has about 14 outdoor tables, and he’ll be down half that with the restrictions. He’s been doing curbside pickup and delivery during the shutdown, with sales running at 30% of normal sales.

“Other than cleaning the patio and painting the furniture, all of our restaurants are ready to go,” Christiano said. “Once we get the green light, it’s the flick of a switch.”

Palmer, who estimated that business has been down 90% during the stay-at-home order, said June is a critical time for his business to make money. He guesses that, weather permitting, he’ll have an hour-plus wait time for tables, which is typical for Palmer Place on a nice summer day. With the shortage of tables, Palmer might have to impose a time limit to turn tables over for the customers who will be waiting.

“We had to reinvent with carryout and now we have to reinvent again,” Palmer said.

Gunter said willingness to start dining outdoors likely will fall along multiple fault lines.

“My guess is I really believe one-third of our population will immediately go in and have been waiting for this, one-third will never until there’s a [coronavirus] vaccine, and one-third will wait and see,” Gunter said. “If it makes our downtown look lively, makes us feel back to normal, it’s a good thing.”

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