LAKEVIEW — Soraya Rendon’s Mexican tapas restaurant can only seat 10 people indoors because of coronavirus safety restrictions. Like many other restaurants throughout the city, she wants to expand outdoors to serve more diners.
But more than a month after she applied for an outdoor dining city permit, Rendon, owner of Chilam Balam at 3023 N. Broadway, still hasn’t been approved. And patio season is waning.
“Winter will be here soon enough, so by the time I even get my permit, I’d get only two months of income from it,” Rendon said.
Outdoor dining has been a much-needed boon for many restaurants unable to serve customers inside for months. But businesses still waiting on permits to participate in outdoor service programs say the city needs to speed things up if it wants small businesses to survive.
Chilam Balam — an intimate restaurant tucked into the property’s basement — has no outdoor seating. But the landlord of the CVS store just north of Rendon’s eatery gave her permission to use its sidewalk space to set up a patio, she said.
However, the Chicago Fire Department raised safety concerns about an alley that separates her storefront from the CVS sidewalk, so the city is still working with Rendon to find a solution.
Being able to set up outdoor patio space would help “tremendously” and ensure Rendon makes rent, she said.
“The business is suffering a lot,” Rendon said. “I just need my permits and I will take care of the rest by working harder.”
Maureen Martino, executive director of the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce, said business leaders are talking to city officials about the outdoor permits so businesses without patio space can find relief.
“It’s putting a Band-Aid on a big wound, but having some outdoor options gives these businesses some life to continue,” Martino said.
Isaac Reichman, spokesman for the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, said the city has approved 118 permits, allowing many businesses to benefit from expanded outdoor dining since the program launched.
The permits are reviewed by the business, transportation and cultural affairs and special events departments, according to Reichman.
We “evaluate each application to determine feasibility and work with applicants to ensure that outdoor permits do not lead to public safety, health or nuisance issues,” Reichman said. “This program has delivered critical outdoor options quickly, safely and at a scale larger than many other cities.”
Mark Kwiatkowski, owner of Replay in Lincoln Park, has applied for various permits since applications opened and he’s still waiting for something to be approved.
Kwiatkowski just had to close the doors of the arcade bar for a second time when the city reimposed restrictions for indoor bars due to a surge in coronavirus cases among young adults.
“I just got the staff back on and then furloughed them again,” Kwiatkowski said. “Some of them had trouble getting unemployment the first time, and now they have to get back on.”
Kwiatkowski said he’s applied for every outdoor permit he could find, starting with a sidewalk cafe permit. He preemptively paid someone in the northwest suburbs to build 10 picnic tables to be set up outside as soon as he got approval.
But because Replay doesn’t have a food license, Kwiatkowski’s permit request was denied.
Next, he planned to set up the picnic tables in the parking lot about 100 feet north at the end of his block. It’s a shared lot, but Replay rents 30 of the spaces, Kwiatkowski said.
“The city deemed the parking lot was too far from the licensed premises,” Kwiatkowski said. “So then I started grasping for straws.”
Kwiatkowski’s next request was to clean up the loading dock behind Replay, which is next to more parking spaces below the CTA tracks that the bar rents.
It would cost some money, but Replay could convert the loading dock into a back patio area if permits are approved, Kwiatkowski said.
But his ideal alternative would be a temporary traffic closure of Wolfram Street, east from Sheffield Avenue to the CTA tracks.
This would allow Replay and other nearby businesses to set up tables and expand their service into the streets — similar to other outdoor dining events throughout Lakeview.
Reichman said the city is still working with Replay to find viable outdoor seating options.
“I hope we get this permit, because it would really give us a leg to stand on,” Kwiatkowski said. “I would have to work hard, but I think we could get back to breaking even this year.”
Read all of Block Club’s coverage on outdoor dining here.
Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.
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