Photo by Jason Schaff

Clockwise from left, Jaylin Gomez, Jeidi Olmos and Joseph Landa finish dining outside at U Crave Cafe and Grill in San Fernando.

Hemmed in by COVID-19 rules that limit inside capacity to only 60 percent, restaurants are looking at adding more sidewalk dining to increase seating.

It seems to be the only option restaurants have to eke out additional revenue these days.

Recognizing that, area cities are willing to help.

The move outside helps restaurants inch closer to returning to the customer volume they experienced before the pandemic hit, but things are still far from normal.

On June 15, the San Fernando City Council ratified an order allowing sidewalk dining throughout the city. This pilot program, which lasts through Dec. 31, would allow restaurants in all commercial zones throughout the city to obtain an “encroachment permit” for sidewalk dining as long as a minimum of five feet of clear path of travel is maintained on public sidewalks. A restaurant owner would need to submit a site diagram showing where tables would be placed and produce a certificate of general liability insurance.

A permit fee will be waived.

Up to now, outdoor dining has been allowed in only a few specific areas of the city.

“We’re getting the word out right now,” said Mall Merchants Association President Christina Bernal about the new dining initiative, which is supported by her group.

“We’re hoping to further the pilot program and make it something that happens all the time,” she said.

Elsewhere in the area, the city of Los Angeles has instituted its L.A. Al Fresco program to help more restaurants push more dining outside. It allows parking lots and sidewalks to be used as outdoor dining areas. Similarly, in Santa Clarita, restaurants in commercial centers can expand outdoor dining onto private sidewalks and private parking spaces.

Long Beach, Pasadena and Palm Springs have adopted similar measures.

More outdoor dining allows restaurants to expand their capacity which has been constrained by pandemic regulations. It is hoped that some diners who are hesitant to go out to eat right now will be more comfortable in doing so if they know they can eat outside, business owners said.

But even with these programs, restaurants still won’t get to their pre-pandemic levels of business, at least not for awhile, owners fear. That won’t come until there is relaxation of social distancing guidelines which limits overall seating and the majority of people feel more comfortable with sitting at a restaurant.

It all depends on a restaurant’s location, too.

Outdoor dining has been good for U Crave Café and Grill on Maclay Avenue in San Fernando, manager Jada Velazquez said. The restaurant, which opened last November, is in an area of the city where outdoor dining was allowed even before the pandemic. The restaurant owner applied for an outdoor dining permit at the beginning of this year and now can fit 20 tables outside in front of the restaurant and along its side, Velazquez said. The outside area almost doubles the capacity of the restaurant, she said.

“More people are sitting outside so they don’t get too close to other people,” Velazquez said, noting that business is picking up since they reopened their in-restaurant dining two weeks ago.

But Dan Zebrowski, co-owner of Newhall Press Room wine bistro and restaurant in Santa Clarita, said despite having outside seating, business is down about half for him during the week. On Fridays, customer traffic is about 60 percent of what it was pre-pandemic, he said. Zebrowski has had both inside and outside seating areas since the business opened three years ago.

“People are a little more hesitant to go out,” he said. “They don’t want to put themselves at any unnecessary risk.

“You also have a bunch of people who don’t have a job,” he added.

Due to social distancing regulations, Zebrowski said he had to take out 33 seats from the inside of his restaurant and eight seats from his original outside area, making his capacity half of what it used to be.

“We’re trying to keep ourselves afloat until this passes,” Zebrowski said as he painstakingly tries to figure out if he can squeeze any more seating outside. “We’re trying to do everything we can to have the right environment for people but it is twice the work for half the business.”

Timothy T. Hou, San Fernando’s deputy city manager/director of community development, told the council that his city’s pilot program for outside dining would be evaluated in the next several months by city staff to determine whether it should be made permanent. Much will depend on how much interest restaurants show in participating in the program, he said.

At its June 15 meeting, the council also asked staff to do further research on business community interest in closing certain city streets at the mall during specific times to increase foot traffic in the area to not only boost restaurant dining but also retail sales.

 Several businesses presented a letter to the council saying they opposed the closure of streets, but the council instructed staff to see if a compromise could be reached between businesses wanting street closures and those who don’t.

“It’s about seeing the big picture,” Bernal said, concerning reinvigorating business in the city. She thinks closing the streets at certain times to increase foot traffic could help.