As the Open Streets Los Altos program enters its seventh week, downtown restaurants have settled into a routine of setting up tables outdoors.
Every Thursday through Sunday, most of Main and State streets downtown have been blocked off to vehicular traffic, allowing pedestrians more space to stroll and restaurants room to place tables and chairs outdoors.
For many restaurants, the city’s program has been a godsend.
“If they didn’t have it, we wouldn’t be able to survive,” said Vickie Breslin, owner of The Post. “We would have to close up shop.”
A sit-down restaurant on the corner of Main and First streets, The Post would be able to pivot and conduct business centered on takeout only, but it would not survive long with the overhead, according to Breslin. With outdoor dining, she saw her best revenue yet the July 16-19 weekend since the stay-at-home orders began. The numbers, she added, were close to that of a nonpandemic summertime – when regulars might be taking vacations.
A few blocks down on Main Street, LuLu’s Mexican Food also had to shift from dine-in and takeout service to takeout only. The first several weeks were hard, said Roxanne Mein, director of catering.
“But then we did see the uptick in business after the first month-and-a-half, because the community started to rally together,” Mein said.
For the first two weeks of Open Streets, the entire block on Main Street between Third and State streets was closed, allowing Mein to place five tables outside in addition to existing patio seating. But after two weeks, the city added space for parking to help retailers, she noted. That reduced the number of tables to two. Still, the program has given Mein a “small increase” in sales.
“Obviously, we’d love more space, but we’re happy to have whatever we can,” she said. “I think people enjoy the ambience of sitting down – people-watching, just hanging out outside.”
LuLu’s has five locations in the Bay Area – from Campbell to San Carlos – but Mein said Los Altos’ community and outreach from the city and Chamber of Commerce have gone above and beyond.
“I think Los Altos has really stood out to be our ally,” she said. “It’s been really heartwarming to see.”
Every Monday, the city hosts a webinar with downtown businesses to debrief on the previous weekend’s highs and lows from the Open Streets program. Every call is the same, according to Khatchig Jingirian, president of Smythe & Cross Fine Jewelry on Main Street.
“The retailers say, ‘No, it’s affecting business negatively,’” Jingirian said. “The restaurants say, ‘No, it’s great.’”
Retailers, Jingirian said, continue to be unhappy with the lack of parking due to the closed streets. People might come downtown to eat at restaurants, but that doesn’t mean they also will walk over to shop at retail stores. Jingirian said six weeks in, he sees more foot traffic during the week – when streets are open to vehicular traffic – than during weekends because customers’ shopping patterns are not interrupted.
“We said it five weeks ago,” he said. “Everybody said, ‘No, no, no, it’s OK.’ I was hoping to be proven wrong.”
Anthony Carnesecca, the city’s economic development coordinator, said he’s been buoyed by seeing collaboration between restaurants and retailers, such as Cooks’ Junction and Rustic House, and Maria’s Antiques and The Post. Retailers are also staying open later to match restaurants’ peak dining hours.
Still, Carnesecca said, “getting people to come into retail establishments is a little more difficult in the midst of a pandemic.”
The city’s strategy for Open Streets is for it to be a “living design,” able to change from week-to-week. Carnesecca said the city plans to conduct a survey of downtown business owners on the entire month of July, measuring foot traffic and sales receipts. Some changes made so far include reopening Main Street from Third Street to Veterans Community Plaza and State Street from First to Second streets, and installing parklets for restaurants on those blocks.
Carnesecca doesn’t anticipate more changes in the near future. He is not sure of plans beyond the scheduled end of the Open Streets program at the end of September because of the uncertainty of the pandemic’s direction.
Virus still a threat
The first few weeks outdoor dining was allowed, Breslin was constantly reminding patrons to keep their masks on unless they are eating.
“I felt like I was policing,” she said.
The last couple of weeks have been better, Breslin reported, as people become better acquainted with society’s new normal. She has placed two signs at each table: the first reminding people of the mask policy, and the second a QR code that goes to the restaurant’s menu. Ordering food has become paperless and touchless, and changing the menu has become much easier for Breslin.
But COVID-19 and governments’ decisions around the pandemic still loom large over every decision Breslin and other business owners make. The county or state could roll back allowing outdoor dining. What happens Sept. 28 is unknown, and Breslin is already wondering what she will do in the colder weather when outdoor dining might be untenable. The virus determines the future.
It already has upended one downtown restaurant. Lars Smith, chef and co-owner of State of Mind Public House and Pizzeria, spoke glowingly about the Open Streets program July 22, wishing it were seven days a week.
“It’s a really wonderful thing to bring a little bit of normalcy,” Smith said. “Getting people out and about. We can still be a community and support the community while social distancing and being responsible. Closing streets does bring back community and neighborhood.”
Smith worked hard to shift his business from a sit-down restaurant to one centered on takeout and delivery. He has been brought to tears by the response from regulars who have purchased food and wine just to support the restaurant. He was confident he could sustain business through it all. He might yet be able to.
But less than 24 hours later, one of Smith’s employees tested positive for COVID-19, forcing State of Mind to close temporarily.
“We are still feeling upbeat,” Smith said in a text message to the Town Crier, “and this is just a speed bump.”