ALBANY PARK — Some Albany Park restaurant owners say the city’s outdoor dining expansion has hurt their already-struggling businesses due to a lack of patio space in the neighborhood.
Last month, the city released guidelines for Phase 3 of reopening to allow outdoor dining at restaurants. The city has also closed major streets in multiple neighborhoods as part of a pilot program to allow restaurants more space to spread out tables.
But almost no Albany Park eateries meet the city’s requirements to reopen safely. Sidewalk space is sparse and the streets are not being closed for local businesses to operate.
So while the city is trying to make it easier for restaurants to operate and recover from the pandemic, the regulations are actually making things more difficult for some Albany Park restaurant owners and forcing them to push for alternatives.
“Businesses like ours were doing fine when everyone in the city was limited to takeout and delivery. But we’re being hurt now because we’re losing out to businesses who can open patios for in-person dining,” said Nemanja Golubovic, general manager at Kale My Name. “It’s not a fair playing field right now.”
The city rules allow outdoor dining at restaurants on patios, rooftops and rooms with retractable roofs and indoors but within 8 feet of a wall where 50 percent or more of it is taken up by open windows, doors or panels.
Kale My Name, 3300 W. Montrose Ave., doesn’t have the windows necessary for in-person dining. Instead, its owners are trying to set up two patios: one next to the business on Spaulding Avenue and another behind the restaurant.
Kale has enjoyed steady delivery and takeout businesses since its opening in April but is now at a disadvantage due to the new guidelines. Golubovic worries by the time the patios are done being built and approved, the city already will be ready to move to Phase 4, which city officials have said could be as soon as July.
Rick Weber, owner of Bokeh at 4716 N. Kedzie Ave., agrees with Golubovic.
Bokeh was designed as an intimate cocktail bar and restaurant for date nights. Its 29-seat layout is an “absolute nightmare” for social distancing, Weber said.
A sidewalk cafe isn’t feasible along that stretch of Kedzie due to narrow sidewalks and busy car traffic. Weber turned to selling family meals and to-go cocktail kits during the pandemic.
As the weather has gotten nicer, Weber also opened Bokeh’s Summer Fun Time Stand, where he sells gourmet hot dogs and ice cream.
“But summer ends eventually. I can’t have a hot dog stand operating out here in December,” Weber said. “But even if Phase 4 happened tomorrow, I’m not sure how comfortable I’d feel opening.”
Marilee Rutherford, owner of Twisted Hippo brewery and restaurant at 2925 W. Montrose Ave., has a large dining area she can barely use. Because of that, Twisted Hippo is limiting customers to one hour of sitting at its tables to accommodate as many people as possible to eat at the brewery.
“We have large, big garage doors in front of our brewery, which allows us to have a whopping three tables right now,” Rutherford said.
Twisted Hippo’s three tables were filled all Friday night until the business closed. But cooler-than-average June temperatures over the weekend kept people away, Rutherford said.
“But by Saturday we had fewer people because people realized it was going to be 50 degrees all weekend,” she said. “I worry about what we are going to be doing when it drops down to 30 degrees in the fall and we still don’t have a vaccine.”
Noon O Kabab is among the few restaurants in the area that can safely reopen. The business has been in Albany Park since 1997 but moved to 4701 N. Kedzie Ave. in 2015 and completed renovations to expand its dining room in January 2019.
When designing the layout for Noon’s current location, owner Mir Naghavi wanted the ability to open large windows during the warmer months to offer an open air dining experience even if it was raining outside.
Naghavi’s design fits almost perfectly into the city’s dine-in guidelines and allows him to have 21 tables for in-person dining. But he sympathizes with fellow restaurant owners who don’t have that option.
“Maybe the city could put two or three tables firmly installed in the neighborhood for people on street corners,” Naghavi said. “You don’t want to congest too many people in one area, but for businesses having trouble setting up sidewalk cafes it would be beautiful if the city could set up shared tables for them.”
While streets in other neighborhoods are periodically closing for diners, Albany Park community leaders are trying to brainstorm a fix for their more compact area.
During a Zoom call last week, the North River Commission solicited feedback from neighbors on reopening Albany Park. Neighbors repeatedly asked if sections of side streets and empty parking lots could be used to create socially distanced picnic areas where sanitized tables could be shared by area businesses that cannot meet seating requirements.
Alexa Schutz, the commission’s economic development coordinator, said the group members are still in talks about bringing shared dining to the neighborhood.
Tatum Drewes, co-owner of Khepri Cafe at 4650 N. Kedzie Ave., favors shared outdoor dining areas. Her cafe opened just before the virus hit Chicago and she closed during the shutdown. She just started serving customers again Sunday.
“A shared picnic area is a brilliant idea. We only have space for two tables in Phase 3, and that is very limiting,” Drewes said. “But some businesses just down the block have zero seating availability and this could help them, too.”
Rutherford, of Twisted Hippo, said she also supports the idea. She suggested closing off a section of neighboring Richmond Street, which could provide needed space for her business and Montrose Saloon across the street.
“We could just have free seating access there in the middle of the street benefitting both of our businesses,” Rutherford said. “Other businesses could benefit from this, too. I think it would be cool.”
Weber, of Bokeh, said he fully supports the guidelines in place to slow the spread of the virus. But with his restaurant still unable to operate under the loosened restrictions, Bokeh said city, state and federal government need to continue helping small businesses like his as the pandemic continues.
“I can’t take out $50,000 worth of loans to get through this. It’s a very low-margin industry to begin with,” Weber said. “I have a family, mortgage and credit cards. I didn’t invest six figures to open up a hot dog stand.”
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