Just by looking at the numerous patio spaces that have been built around the region and the many street closures here and there, you can tell restaurant patio culture has grown over the past three years in the downtown cores of Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo.
Spurred by the economic cataclysm of forced closures of indoor dining rooms during the pandemic, outdoor restaurant seating became one way a food operation could try to survive. And that outdoor seating continues to be popular with customers.
Today, the infrastructure for setting up a patio on city sidewalks outside a restaurant has been refined, and the result has seen them embraced by customers wishing to dine al fresco, whether or not they are still anxious about sitting indoors with other people.
In Waterloo, the core has seen restaurant patios and side-street closures grow in number, according to Tracy Van Kalsbeek, executive director of Uptown Waterloo’s Business Improvement Area (BIA).
“Starting with COVID-19, the number of patios in Uptown has exploded,” says Van Kalsbeek. “This year, we’re sitting at 50 patios. We were at 48 or 49 last year. It’s a program we’ve continued to promote with the businesses.”
Even Words Worth Books in Uptown, which is not exactly known for its bistro dining, has a patio with two bistro tables this year.
According to the book store, it’s a way to connect and work with their next-door neighbours, Just Love Pie, through contests and cross-promotions. An example of a new outdoor community culture being embraced, says Van Kalsbeek.
She adds the BIA helps businesses with funding for furniture and planters and other décor and infrastructure, and works with various city departments to move the bureaucratic process along.
“Patios really add vibrancy to a downtown core, so it’s been a really important program for us the past three or four years,” she says. “It’s place-making.”
In the popular vernacular, patios are often said to “pop up,” but in reality that’s not exactly the case. There are the vagaries and Kafkaesque hallways, at least metaphorically, that need to be navigated at city hall. Understandably so.
That includes working with the city on licensing and various permits — including the intricacies of serving alcohol, transportation, garbage collection, using parking lots for patios, but also dealing with neighbouring businesses and property owners who may not want a patio next to them.
The BIA, working with the various departments of the city of Waterloo, has seen small, quaint and exciting patio enclaves appearing during the summer on Princess Street and Dominion Lane, which have been closed to vehicular traffic.
“We advocated for having a key point person at the city, and they have been supportive and willing to work with the businesses to help find solutions,” Van Kalsbeek says.
The aesthetics and energy that comes with patios aside, Van Kalsbeek stresses that coming out of the pandemic some businesses will struggle when it comes to paying back loans taken during the shutdowns — many of which are due at the end of this year. Patios have been added revenue sources for food operations.
As one example, at one point it looked like the city might not let the BIA close Princess Street to traffic, and a business owner in the area was quite concerned, according to Van Kalsbeek.
“They said they needed one more summer of being able to have additional patio seating that would help bring them back to pre-pandemic levels for their business,” she says.
It’s a sobering financial reality compared to the fun, frivolity and cheer for customers sitting on a downtown patio on a warm summer’s day.
Despite the heat, the traffic sometimes roaring by and the fickleness of windy, rainy, buggy weather, patios have become a growing part of our dining culture, at least for a few months each year.
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