San Fernando Mall Merchants Hope Al Fresco Dining Can Generate More Business For All

With the coronavirus outbreak dragging through the summer, members of the San Fernando Mall Merchants Association approached the city seeking ways to help boost their businesses.

A pilot plan started last weekend that closes down a portion of the mall to cars to make way to safely place tables, chairs, umbrellas in the street area to create Al Fresco dining and allows for additional space for businesses to sell their merchandise.  

Generating more foot traffic and business into San Fernando’s mall has been an ongoing challenge which has been exasperated by  this pandemic. It’s been especially hard for small restaurants who don’t have the outdoor space  to accommodate outside dining.  

Beginning last weekend, officials will close San Fernando Road, between Brand Boulevard and Maclay Avenue, to motor traffic beginning at 4 p.m. on Saturday, and not reopen the street to vehicles until 6 a.m. on Monday.

Approximately 25-30 mall stores and restaurants will be able to set up and maintain al fresco dining, outdoor merchandise displays and offer various salon services on Saturday afternoon and evening, and all day on Sunday.

Christina Bernal, store manager of Throwback Junction vintage clothing store and president of the city’s Mall Merchant Association, said the program agreed upon by the association and San Fernando officials is an attempt to help lessen the disastrous economic impact the pandemic has had on local small businesses this year, especially for restaurants that have been forced to close or been restricted solely to takeout menus. 

“Our restaurants are crucial here,” Bernal said. “We don’t have many here in the City of San Fernando, and we need all that we can get, we can’t afford to lose any. We need to work with all businesses here now — it’s difficult for everybody. But we’re doing this specifically for the restaurants because you can still walk inside a retail store to stop and shop, but you can’t [dine] in restaurants.”

The overall attendance last weekend was light, in part due to the daytime heat and the fact the City’s final approval to close off the streets didn’t come until Wednesday, July 29, giving the merchants limited time to prepare. But Bernal said she was gratified to see the food companies Krazy Korner, Truman House, Buenazo, and Tres Hermanos serving a steady stream of customers.

“(The first weekend) was a success because I saw all their tables full,” Bernal said. “Every single table that Truman House put out was full. Every table that Buenazo’s put out was full. Every table that Krazy Korner put out was full. So to me, showing that they were able to at least make money those couple of nights, that was a great feeling.”

Sandra Adame, Krazy Korner owner, said that the response from people to eating outside has been good.

“A lot of them like it, especially when the sun goes down,” she said.

Her restaurant employees try to leave by 9 p.m. so there’s not a lot of business when the sun goes down. However, she said, that other nearby restaurants have largely benefited by this.

“I saw The Tavern, and they were very busy and I like that because we all have a lot of bills to pay. With the pandemic, it’s very sad to see a lot of people struggling to pay high rent and other restaurants that have closed,” Adame said.

City Manager Nick Kimball stressed that the program is not only for the restaurants located there.

“It’s not just for outdoor dining, but also for outdoor services,” Kimball said. “The new [LA county] health orders allow a number of different proprietors to offer services outdoors; hair salons, fitness equipment, retailers and restaurants can all provide service outside. Any of the retailers along that corridor can put a couple of chairs outside and do something…any outdoor service. And the idea is retailers are still open.”

Kimball said the weekend program is tentatively scheduled to run at least six weeks “and then we re-evaluate from there.” Like Bernal, Kimball did not want to read much into the initial turnout from the first weekend.

“This weekend was pretty hot, so it wasn’t very conducive for anyone to be walking around outside,” he said. “But I think there was some positive feedback. For some merchants this was the first time; some have been closed on Sundays, or haven’t been open later in the evenings. A few, when they saw people in the area, ended up staying open a little later for customers.

“It started slow, but it may catch on. Vendors will need to feel their way on what works and what doesn’t like the City will. Hopefully, as this progresses, the merchants will figure out how to take advantage of having people down there, and draw some business.”

While an increase of customers would be welcomed, Kimball said, no one wants to see the streets clogged with thousands of people with the coronavirus pandemic still raging throughout Southern California.

“We’re balancing the COVID aspect; we don’t want very large gatherings of people, so there was no amplified sound or things like that,” he said. “We wanted to make sure it was just for dining and services. We didn’t want to make it an ‘event’ because we don’t necessarily want large gatherings of people. It’s more for customers, giving them a little more room and time to shop for the next few weeks.

“It’s new territory for all of us. If certain things work, we’ll look at making adjustments. And if things don’t work, we’ll look at making adjustments as we go. The idea is do the next couple of months and see if it can benefit the merchants. We’re trying to offer some additional avenues for small businesses to make some money right now.”

Bernal said the association is considering additional ways to help.

“I can go back to the board and see if we can create a small budget for maybe some umbrellas [to create shade]; that was something we had talked about. We’ll see,” she said. “Money is tight for everybody; we don’t want the restaurants to pull out anymore money than they already have. We’re gonna think outside of the box, think about what else can we do.”