ALBANY PARK — Summer is almost over and struggling Albany Park restaurants could miss out on the entire expanded outdoor dining season because no one’s been able to figure out how to make it work in the neighborhood.
North Side neighborhoods such as Lincoln Park, Lakeview and Uptown have successfully implemented outdoor dining as a way to safely serve more customers and help make up for the losses in the Spring. The city has accommodated them by closing off major streets, enabling restaurants to expand into the streets for service.
But expanding into the streets hasn’t been an option in Albany Park, where many restaurants sit along the congested Lawrence and Kedzie avenues. Business owners, residents and neighborhood leaders have proposed other ideas, including creating picnic areas out of closed side streets and empty parking lots.
Ultimately, they couldn’t agree on how to make it all work.
“The logistics of the neighborhood have really limited us,” said John Friedmann, president of the North River Commission. “We heard from restaurants their customers wouldn’t feel comfortable sitting right next to heavy car traffic on Kedzie or Lawrence. And the sidewalks in that area are also pretty narrow, so it’s hard to have space for patios.”
Unable to fashion a neighborhood-wide solution, business owners have pitched various alternatives to create some option of outdoor dining for themselves.
Earlier this summer, the owners of Angelo’s Wine Bar, 3026 W. Montrose Ave., floated the idea of closing off the segment of North Whipple Street, a one way street, just next to the restaurant for outdoor dining. However, neighbors had concerns with losing parking and crowd control, said Scott Graham, Angelo’s managing partner.
“It’s unfortunate it didn’t happen but we totally understand the neighbors’ concerns,” Graham said. “Albany Park doesn’t have a restaurant row or easily blocked off streets. It’s hard to set up detours for any potential outdoor dining spaces.”
Instead, Angelo’s expanded its patio into the rear parking lot. But even with that the restaurant’s revenue is down 35 percent compared to last year, he said.
“This global pandemic has been like a nuclear bomb to the hospitality industry,” Graham said. “You have to remain optimistic and plan for the future but across the industry we don’t know if in two months we’ll be at stage 5 or if we’ll be back in a lockdown again.”
Twisted Hippo at 2925 W. Montrose Ave. also looked at closing off North Richmond Street, another one way street, next to the brewery but neighbors raised similar concerns.
“There are no good outlets when you get south of Montrose because there is no alley to serve as a detour. We didn’t have neighborhood support because of that,” said Marilee Rutherford, Twisted Hippo’s owner.
The brewery has a few diagonal parking spaces next to the Brewery on Richmond it’s still considering building a patio on but the feasibility of that is still being worked out, she said.
The problem is the brewery hasn’t seen an uptick in sales to warrant the additional cost of setting up a new patio. But the plan is something Rutherford is keeping in mind for the future, she said.
Many businesses in Albany Park are owned by immigrants and it isn’t fair the neighborhood largely is missing out on outdoor dining because of the peculiarities of its street layout, said Ald. Rossana Rodriguez (33rd).
Her office has been helping Albany Park restaurants with outdoor patio and sidewalk applications, which have been on the rise.
“But having more patios isn’t enough to help long term. This is Chicago, it gets cold as hell,” she said.
To that end, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Tuesday a Winter Design Challenge asking Chicagoans to envision how there can be outdoor dining this winter to help restaurants continue to serve as many diners as possible.
But even that won’t necessarily provide a workable solution said Nemanja Golubovic, general manager at Kale My Name at 3300 W. Montrose Ave.
“The ideas for expanding outdoor dining in the winter are endless. The problem is money — any ideas they come up with will cost money and our business is already struggling,” Golubovic said.
“We’re very creative people and I have so many ideas about how we can improve our patio for winter. But we’re a new business that’s been suffering and we can’t afford to do them yet,” he said.
Kale opened in April and has completed their patio in July with the help of their landlords using a tiny budget.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez’ office is brainstorming with the NRC on what that additional aid could look like as the outdoor dining season comes to a close.
“We were treading water back in March to see how dining and then the patio season would work during a pandemic. Now we know what can and can’t be done and we’re planning for the next season,” Friedmann said.
That outdoor dining hasn’t been able to work for much of Albany Park has been frustrating for many owners.
“I see Andersonville and Lakeview and they have multiple streets closed down either part time or full time. Even Roscoe Village has had its streets closed,” said Tatum Drewes, co-owner of Khepri Cafe at 4650 N. Kedzie Ave. “Just giving us the same opportunity would have been nice. We’re missing out on some really essential months.”
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