People hanging out on the street patio on a Friday afternoon at City Barrel Brewery + Kitchen along Holmes Street in downtown Kansas City. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

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Before 2020, the sidewalk outside Beer Kitchen along Pennsylvania Avenue in Kansas City, Missouri, was just that: a sidewalk. Now, on a Thursday afternoon in May, that same sidewalk and part of the street itself is populated by people enjoying Beer Kitchen’s burgers and local brews. 

It’s a scene that’s become more common throughout Kansas City’s streets and sidewalks because of the pandemic and one that restaurants hope will stay.

The increase in al fresco dining comes after the City Council cut some of the red tape around creating an outdoor dining space on streets, sidewalks, parklets and even parking lots. 

Since May 2020, a Beacon analysis of Kansas City permits for street and sidewalk cafes found that out of the 108 permit applications submitted to create a sidewalk or street cafe, 75 permits were approved. Additionally, data provided to The Beacon from the City Planning and Development Department showed 36 permits were approved for parking lot dining.

Some businesses applied for a combination of all three permits to maximize their outdoor dining capacity. 

For restaurants like Beer Kitchen, using the sidewalk for dining made a difference in a difficult year that included full shutdowns, limiting indoor dining capacity and customers worried about getting COVID-19. 

“It was the difference between us being open and closed,” said James Westphal, a managing partner at Beer Kitchen. “So a place like Beer Kitchen, that has a small footprint and has no outdoor dining, had they not done the permit, we would have stayed closed the entire year last year or possibly closed for good.”

How Kansas City cut red tape to allow more outdoor dining

In May 2020, the City Council passed an ordinance temporarily easing restrictions for permit applications for street cafes, sidewalk cafes, parklets and parking lot dining. 

This included waiving the permit fee, the requirement to get signatures from neighboring businesses and the maintenance agreement. In addition, a bond deposit was not required and the city lifted the limits on parking spaces. 

Maggie Green, public information officer for Kansas City Public Works, which oversees the street, sidewalk and parklet program, said the department worked with the city’s planning department and City Council to lift those restrictions. 

“It was a group effort to just make it easier for businesses to accommodate, keep their doors open and survive, and also have a safer space for people to patronize these businesses during the pandemic,” she said. 

Dalton Toelkes and Emily McEntire have a drink on the outdoor patio at Beer Kitchen, which opened up its outdoor space last summer. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

In addition to street cafes, the city also made it easier for restaurants to serve alcohol at these outdoor spaces. 

Still, businesses had to submit a site plan, a mockup of the outdoor space, proof of insurance and other documents to receive approval. 

Green said the Public Works Department has a permit inspection team that will ensure the outdoor dining spaces are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

In addition, the city still requires businesses with this permit application to maintain a sidewalk clearance space for pedestrians and reflective strips on all sides adjacent to traffic.

The city’s permit data shows about two dozen applications were denied. Some of the reasons cited included missing required documents or applying for the wrong permit. Green said some applications were denied if there was not enough room between the proposed street cafe and the street itself. 

Overall, Green said the program was a success for local businesses.

“We’re absolutely thrilled to be able to work together to provide this for the struggling businesses and absolutely thrilled to hear that it made such a big impact for a lot of the restaurants and businesses that were struggling through this time,” she said.

For Nicolas Mermet, one of the owners of Westport Cafe, the $2,000 pre-pandemic permit cost for his business was a barrier to offering outdoor dining, so he took advantage of the waiver.

Once Westport Cafe posted about its new street dining space on Instagram last summer, it became one of the restaurant’s most popular posts. Mermet said it even drove patrons to make reservations for the new outdoor space. 

“To be able to sit, not 50%, but 75%, it’s a big deal,” he said, referring to capacity restrictions. “It’s a big deal, a table that can turn several times throughout the night. It can make several hundred dollars.”

For businesses with small spaces, outdoor dining was a saving grace

On a cloudy Friday afternoon, owner Joe Giammanco is busy arranging flower beds atop the three sides of wooden fences separating City Barrel Brewery’s street dining area from Holmes Street in downtown Kansas City’s Crossroads District. On one side are four picnic tables, on the other are large barrels for patrons to rest their fizzy beer glasses. 

Giammanco remembers when City Barrel first opened its outdoor dining space. It was a hit. Long waits. Lots of phone calls. People even sitting outside in the dead of winter. Before the pandemic, eating outside wasn’t an option.

“We probably would not have made it without this,” he said. “Additionally, the amount of foot traffic and stuff that we’ve seen, it also serves as a notification that there’s fun happening here.”

City Barrel was approved for a sidewalk and street cafe after the city eased some of its permit restrictions. Having an outdoor dining space allowed the restaurant to serve more people during the pandemic. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

At City Barrel, adding outdoor dining helped recoup the 10 indoor tables that were removed to follow social distancing guidelines. Being outside also helped people feel safer, as latest research shows lower transmission rates of COVID-19 outdoors compared to indoors.  

“Adding the five additional tables, being able to make people feel comfortable and safe — that was my biggest thing,” Giammanco said.

Giammanco said he shares his street cafe plan with any businesses that ask for advice. 

“If a business can react to it, and show that they can do a sidewalk cafe, it generally shows how much they care about their customers, or what they’re willing to do and adapt and change during this time,” he said. 

What’s the future of outdoor dining in Kansas City?

The city’s easing of outdoor dining permit restrictions will end Aug. 31. Though the initiative was initially a pandemic-era solution to assist local restaurants, those that created outdoor dining spaces — in Kansas City and cities across the country — want them to become permanent fixtures. 

As the Aug. 31 date approaches, Green said the intent is to keep the permits permanent while figuring out what the fees and requirements will look like moving forward.

Green anticipates that outdoor dining will continue to be on the rise in Kansas City, even as people transition into post-pandemic life.  

“I think it would be in the best interest of the restaurants to continue to have outdoor space for patrons that may feel more comfortable eating outside,” Green said. “The city is here to help and work with our restaurant community to make sure that this kind of thing is available into the future.”

Giammanco would extend City Barrel’s street dining all the way down the block if he could. And Mermet at Westport Cafe wants the street cafe to stick around — he couldn’t have afforded the space if it weren’t for the city’s new program. 

“Now that we’ve done it, even if next year, we have to pay the fee, we’ll probably do it again,” he said. 

How to apply for a street, sidewalk or parking lot cafe permit

If you’re a local restaurant or business that is interested in applying for a permit to create an outdoor dining space and take advantage of the city’s easing of restrictions, here’s what you need to know:

When will the easing of restrictions end?

The city will ease some of the permit restrictions for sidewalk cafes, street cafes or parking lot dining spaces until Aug. 31. Businesses have until Aug. 31 to apply for a sidewalk cafe, street cafe or parking lot dining permit under the city’s temporary outdoor dining program.

How do I apply for a sidewalk cafe permit?

  • A sidewalk cafe is located on a public sidewalk that extends the restaurant’s service.
  • To apply, go to CompassKC and apply for the “Sidewalk Cafe” permit.

What requirements are lifted by the city?

  • Permit fee waived
  • Signature requirement waived 
  • Maintenance agreement waived 
  • Bond deposit not required
  • No limit on parking spaces

How do I apply for a street cafe permit?

  • A street cafe is located within areas used for on-street parking that extends the restaurant’s service. 
  • To apply, go to CompassKC and apply for the “Street Cafe” permit.

How do I apply for a parklet dining permit?

  • An outdoor dining facility located in the city right-of-way within a sidewalk, on-street parking areas or any other areas designated by the city as a public space. 
  • To apply, go to CompassKC and apply for the “Street Cafe” permit.

How do I apply for a parking lot dining permit?

  • Outdoor dining located on a restaurant’s private parking lot that extends the restaurant’s service. 
  • To apply, download the city’s Parking Lot Dining Application form and send it to pod@kcmo.org

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Celisa Calacal covers economics and civic engagement issues for The Beacon. Follow her on Twitter @celisa_mia or email her at celisa@thebeacon.media.