Suburbs are helping restaurants stay afloat with steps usually seen in more urban settings: allowing eateries to carve out patios on sidewalks and even streets to increase seating capacity.
"The intent was trying to help businesses that were shut down," said Dan Wietecha, Hastings city administrator. "It was a matter of trying to allow them opportunities for additional customers."
The impromptu patios, which have popped up from Shakopee to Stillwater, not only are helping the establishments survive tough times, they've fostered a street-cafe vibe, according to servers and patrons. Some cities are even blocking off portions of streets to cars, typically a suburban no-no.
Residents have complained that the outdoor patios result in fewer parking spots and noise after dark, but city officials say the positives mostly outweigh the downsides.
And many said that the cities' quick moves to greenlight the patio spaces demonstrate that officials will go the extra mile to help their business survive the pandemic.
At Brian's Bar and Grill in downtown Stillwater, manager Nick Dodge said he's grateful to have the extra outdoor tables, which doubled the restaurant's seating capacity since the pandemic hit.
"It's the only way we were able to create revenue and compete with restaurants that do have outdoor seating," he said.
The patio at Boathouse Brothers Brewing Co. in Prior Lake takes up five Main Street parking spots. Diners sit beneath a tent at one of eight tables.
"We were ecstatic that the city was going to let us do it," said Boathouse co-owner Kevin Lethert. "It really helped us out greatly, and it's continuing to help us."
Some said they're hoping the new patio areas will stay open after the pandemic is over.
"They should do it all summer long, every summer," said Sherry Beckey as she sat under a large white tent set up on 1st Avenue that's shared by three Shakopee restaurants. "I love it."
But bartender Brian Bollig, at Arnie's Friendly Folks Club in Shakopee, offered a reality check. He said he was grateful for the city's help but said business remains slow during the week.
"It's better than nothing," he said of Arnie's newly tented patio. "It isn't as busy as it has been."
'Energy in the air'
The new patios seem to have proliferated in cities with strong downtowns, where businesses sit close to the street and adjacent parking spots.
Officials in several cities said they began planning during the spring to let businesses add outdoor areas. Many patios debuted in early June, when Gov. Tim Walz first permitted such outdoor spaces to be used. Some are allowed through Labor Day, and others can go through Nov. 1.
In Hastings, about 10 downtown restaurants now have patios. Most are using parking spaces in the street, but a handful also expanded into their parking lots.
Wietecha said restaurants have been enthusiastic but added there's "certainly been inconveniences for some," including a loss of parking downtown.
Hastings began issuing permits for sidewalk cafes several years ago. This spring, city officials were approached by downtown restaurant owners asking if they could do more outside.
Initially, only establishments with existing outdoor spaces were allowed to expand. Since then the city has gone further, closing one block of 2nd Street to cars on weekends and allowing the cafes to move into street parking spaces. The city brought in extra benches and hung banners to make the area more appealing.
Restaurants had to apply for patio space and confirm that their insurance covered the outdoor spaces, Wietecha said.
At Spiral Brewery in Hastings, server Victoria Zeyen said the patio "lets the whole town see each other a little bit, from a distance." The brewery got a grant from the city that helped pay for traffic cones, fencing and other materials to create safe pedestrian walkways.
The blocked-off street, myriad patios and occasional musical performances create an atmosphere of excitement, general manager Heidi Ritt said. "You can feel the energy in the air," she said.
Sharing a tent
In downtown Shakopee, one block of 1st Avenue is cordoned off so cars can't drive through. A large white tent spans the area in front of three restaurants, with each getting a section of the tent. Live music plays some nights.
Mayor Bill Mars said the tent idea came from restaurant owners and city officials putting their heads together. It gets everyone outside, making them feel a bit safer from COVID-19.
"I believe a lot of cities are embracing this," he said, adding that Shakopee seemed to be an early adopter. "It's helping [the restaurants] out greatly."
Some retail shops also are pushing outdoors, setting up racks of clothing or other items outside their doors. City officials are considering making the expansion areas permanent, Mars said.
"All the science shows that it's better to be outside," said Justin Wiggins as he had a drink and played cards with friends in the tent area reserved for Turtle's Bar & Grill.
Wiggins said the first few days of the Shakopee tent were "unreal" because they were so busy. "Waitresses were loving it," he said.
At Lakers Tavern and Pizza in Prior Lake, owner Tom Zimmeth said the outdoor seating brings in customers, though he noted that pleasant days have a lot to do with it, too.
"We've gotten great response when the weather's nice," he said.
Over half of Prior Lake's 11 dine-in restaurants created patios after submitting plans to the city, though some have since closed or reduced seating to focus on indoor service. Four still have expanded patio areas.
Mayor Kirt Briggs said relationships among the city, the police chief and restaurants are stronger since they've been working together on the patios.
Restaurants "saw that the city was right there, quickly and proactively," he said. "We want to do everything we can to ensure restaurants survive this tough economic time."