City still working to help restaurants survive
(Somerville Wire) – Somerville’s dynamic restaurant industry is one of the pillars of the local economy. To keep it from collapsing during the unique challenges of the past two years, city leaders altered some licensing rules to make it a little easier for restaurateurs.
“During the pandemic, we waived all fees, because the restaurant industry was crushed,” said Joe Lynch, chairman of the Somerville Licensing Commission. That includes liquor license fees, food service fees, and outdoor dining permit fees.
The total cost to the city was $550,000 for each of the past two years, Lynch said. This year they have resumed charging some fees, “but nowhere near the full amount,” he said.
“Our restaurateurs are very appreciative of the approach that not only the Licensing Commission but the city took, in terms of waiving those fees this year. Some of them are just getting back on their feet,” said Lynch.
Another major support to the restaurant industry has been the expansion of outdoor dining. In 2020, the state Legislature voted to allow municipalities to permit dining on the public streets. This new option helped restaurants make up for the loss of indoor seating due to social distancing rules that limited the number of tables inside the establishment.
In Somerville, there were relatively few outdoor dining options before the pandemic. Sidewalk permits were sometimes granted, but most restaurants did not have enough sidewalk space to comply with safety and accessibility standards, or at most they could fit a handful of tables in front of their storefront. A few dozen restaurants owned or rented enough private space for a real outdoor patio. Most of those were at Assembly Row, a private development owned by Federal Realty Investment Trust.
The pandemic gave restaurants a new way to expand. In order to meet the significantly increased demand for outdoor dining permits, the city also changed its permitting process.
“Pre-pandemic, all outdoor seating on the public way was controlled by the City Council, so it didn’t come to the Licensing Commission,” Lynch explained. “Then when we took it on an emergency basis in 2020, I streamlined a lot of the processes. And I don’t criticize the Council, it’s just that over the years, a lot of the process was so cumbersome and clunky, that we streamlined the whole process during 2020 and 2021, and it works much more efficiently.”
The City Council voted in early 2021 to permanently cede their authority to the Licensing Commission. “It used to be two different government agencies that you had to go through to get anything, and now it’s one-stop shopping,” Lynch said.
While restaurant owners only need to talk to one agency, the Licensing Commission consults with the Fire Department, Inspectional Services, Engineering, the Health Department, Public Works, and Traffic and Parking to make sure outdoor dining is safe and doesn’t interfere with other systems and services. “Construction takes precedence—keeping the roads safe, keeping the gas mains safe—over the outdoor dining on the public way,” Lynch said.
So far in 2022, the Licensing Commission has approved 27 applications for outdoor dining on public streets and sidewalks. Lynch said last week that he expects about 25 additional applications to be received soon. In addition, approximately 27 private patio licenses were automatically renewed in January, he said. Outdoor dining will continue through Nov 30 this year.
The city is also offering an Outdoor Dining Assistance program, which provides businesses with forgivable loans up to $10,000 to be used for the design, construction, and implementation of outdoor dining spaces. The program also offers professional design assistance to businesses that are setting up new outdoor spaces.
Any Somerville-based brick-and-mortar restaurant that has been in business since before Oct. 1, 2021 is eligible to apply for the forgivable loan reimbursement if they have an outdoor dining license for 2022. The deadline to apply for assistance is Sept. 1.
The assistance program was greatly expanded this year, thanks to funding from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, which was granted to municipalities to be used for pandemic adaptations and post-pandemic recovery.
Across Massachusetts, especially in urban areas, outdoor dining has been “wildly successful” over the past two years, Lynch said. And he’s all for making it a permanent feature in Somerville. “It gives these establishments more room for seasonal seating, with a less expensive alternative than trying to find a bigger restaurant to seat more people,” he said.
The Licensing Commission started accepting applications in mid-March. Lynch said there have been fewer applications than he expected so far this year. “In 2020 and 2021, at its peak, we had probably about 80-85 who took advantage of outdoor dining on the public way. This year, I don’t expect any more than 65, maybe even less than that.”
Lynch said people are increasingly more comfortable dining indoors this year, especially during the summer, when “people want to be inside in the air conditioning, rather than baking outside on the hot tarmac.”
Overall, Somerville restaurants fared better in the past two years than Lynch had expected.
“My worst fears were not realized,” he said. “I think a lot of that has to do with the restaurateurs themselves, and the innovative ways that they reacted to it, and how easily some of them could pivot towards takeout, pickup, and delivery. The ones that really suffered, and had to do a lot of scrambling, were the more upscale, sit-down dining places.”
The city did everything they could to help them, he said: allowing extended hours, more outdoor dining, getting rid of fees, and an easier application process. But he gave most of the credit to the industry.
“The success and the survival of that entertainment industry lies squarely with the owners, operators, and the employees of those businesses. I could not imagine how any of them were going to get out from underneath the crushing financial blow that they took in 2020 and into ’21,” Lynch said. “But bravo for them. Most of them are well on their way to recovery.”
Photo credit: Outdoor dining construction at Redbones, May 2022. Photo by Jason Pramas. Copyright 2022 Jason Pramas.
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Linda Pinkow is a reporter for the Somerville Wire. She is also a development consultant for the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.