LA Restaurants May End Outdoor Dining If Permit Fees Are Raised. Here’s What Happened To Two Eateries In Santa Monica And Long Beach
Outdoor dining in Los Angeles during the pandemic led to a reimagining of our urban landscape. Spaces were transformed to offer an extension of a restaurant's identity in the hope of keeping customers. But now much of that could be in jeopardy.
When the pandemic hit, restaurants faced financial disaster. The city responded by introducing the temporary al fresco program in May 2020, which allowed restaurants to quickly create outdoor dining areas in parking lots and street parking spaces, without the usual paperwork, costs and delay.
Those outdoor areas were popular with customers and in many cases saved the restaurants from going out of business.
A new proposed ordinance in L.A. would require restaurants that want to keep serving outdoors to officially re-apply for those permits, inspections, and approvals, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars. It puts many cash-strapped restaurants, already battered from the pandemic, in an impossible situation — foot the bill or cease to exist.
During a public hearing two weeks ago, many restaurateurs voiced their concerns. A decision by the City Planning Commission will be made in the next weeks after a staff report offers recommendations.
The scenario has already played out in cities across the Southland, as local governments ended their emergency pandemic assistance and returned to business as usual.
What happened to two restaurants, one in Santa Monica and one in Long Beach, provides a model of what lies in store for L.A. restaurants if the ordinance passes.
In Santa Monica, Main Street comes to life
Brian Bornemann and Leena Culhane are the owners of Crudo e Nudo, a sustainable seafood restaurant and wine shop on Main Street, near Ocean Park, just minutes from the shore.
That area of Santa Monica transformed during the pandemic, morphing from a sleepy corridor to a happening spot that came to life as restaurants opened outdoor dining spaces, spurred by simple, quick permitting and low fees.
Main Street was included in Eater LA’s August 2022 article Coolest Places to Eat in LA.
But since the expensive new changes in city ordinance, the area is now a dwindling light of what it once was, with several restaurants having dismantled their outdoor seating.
Costly fees and complex red tape
Bornemann and Culhane opened their restaurant in the spring of 2021. It immediately created a serious buzz. After a successful run as a pop-up, they created an outdoor space that contained superb lighting for their highly Instagram-able dishes like tuna tartare toast and plump prawns a la plancha. They built a solid following among both locals and visitors.
“And then in September 2022, we got a notice that they were going to try to institute these new fees,” says Culhane.
You can let officials know your views on the proposed new al fresco dining ordinance for the city of Los Angeles by emailing the Department of City Planning at email@example.com. A decision by the City Planning Commission will be made in the next few weeks after a staff report offers recommendations.
“Despite there being a whole plan-check process for the original temporary parklet program, they just created enough new rules and restrictions that force you to go through the whole process again,” says Bornemann.
The couple says that in addition to paying rent and other normal fees such as fire safety inspections, they would be responsible for paying close to $60,000 for the new al fresco program.
Bornemann and Culhane say they have no choice but to keep their parklet open, as they have only a small amount of inside seating.
For Bornemann, the parklet “wasn’t a bonus. It was just a consolation prize for not being able to, for public health reasons, use your own dining.” He says the city had to do something — and they did the bare minimum.
Ironically, in many cases, these new eateries thrived and became sought after during a period of time when many felt uncertain and looked for safe spaces to enjoy sustenance after being locked down at home.
The pair decided to mobilize and recruit their neighbors, regularly attending city council meetings, and pushed to extend the deadline to February 2023.
Part of the ire that's felt by the Crudo e Nudo team are things like wastewater capital facility fees, which, according to the city of Santa Monica, are invested in infrastructure to allow for the safe collection and disposal of wastewater.
With a one-time fee of $1,450 a seat, a medium-sized restaurant that seats between 40 and 50 people would be required to shell out an extra $40,000 - $50,000 — enough to put a restaurant out of business.
Bornemann sees this fee as particularly unfair. “We don’t own these parklets,” he says. “We pay rent on city land. We’re paying all of these fees, and they are charging tenants, not landlords."
The Crudo e Nudo team has enlisted public support, via the restaurant’s Instagram with a post detailing the situation, including the emails of the mayor and city council, encouraging folks to voice their opinions.
“They're the government, and we're a small, independent restaurant. So without people noticing, we don't have much chance of survival,” says Bornemann.
The city of Santa Monica said in an email to LAist that the fee is levied only if a restaurant increases its seating, and that it offers a monthly installment plan to pay the fees over a three-year period.
Meanwhile, other restaurants nearby have made the difficult choice to take down their outdoor dining setups. Even Pasjoli, which earned a Michelin star in 2021, has done away with theirs.
It’s a glaring reminder of how these small and independent restaurants, with their razor-thin cost margins, are struggling to keep their doors open even with critical praise.
“A lot of people still don't feel comfortable eating inside, and places like us who don't have a patio, who took a space and tried to get as creative as possible…. are fine paying rent on it, but not fine with the city just charging arbitrary fees. So we're just between a rock and a hard place.”
Long Beach finds a way
In August 2020, in the still early stages of the pandemic, the artisanal panadería Gusto Bread opened its doors in Long Beach. It was owned and operated by partners Ana Salatino and Arturo Enciso, who had built a steady following after selling their loaves of naturally leavened sourdough bread and pan dulce out of their home.
Despite its size, the small bakery on 4th street, near the Retro Row area of East Long Beach, can draw large crowds. It’s not uncommon to see a line of people standing outside on weekends, all looking to get a taste of the heavenly soft sourdough conchas and warm cups of cafe de olla.
Back in 2020, the city of Long Beach worked swiftly to help restaurants accommodate guests with open-air space, through its Open Streets program. Salatino and Enciso were offered a parklet by the city, even before the bakery had opened its doors to the public, and were given 24 hours to decide if they wanted to participate. Overseen by the City of Long Beach Public Works Department, the parklet was made of two street parking spaces, sectioned off with traffic barriers between customer seating and traffic along 4th Street.
Salatino described the initial build-out of the temporary space as feeling very hands-off from the city. The city provided the barriers, but it was up to the businesses to oversee the build-out.
The pair coordinated with a contractor hired by the restaurant next door and built a big parklet shared by both of them. “The city didn’t provide much guidance or concern for accessibility or safety beyond having reflectors,” says Salatino.
The couple knew from other restaurant owners that before the pandemic, it would have typically cost upwards of $20,000 to create a parklet space. So they hoped that when it was time for the parklets to become permanent, the city of Long Beach would waive some of the fees and cut some of the red tape as a form of assistance to businesses that stayed open throughout the pandemic and contributed to stimulating the local economy.
Yet instead, what occurred was very different. When they were told in March 2021 that the Open Streets program would end in June, the couple reached out to the public works department to see how they could make theirs permanent. “We were told it would be the same as a standard permanent parklet project,” says Salatino, “the fact that we had a temporary one set up through their Open Streets program made no difference.”
LAist has reached out to the city of Long Beach for comment, but has yet to hear back.
It wasn’t the news they hoped to hear. Salatino and Enciso had to take a hard look at their situation. As a bakery, they had limited inside seating. But they also knew that getting approval for a permanent parklet, and the cost of its construction, would cost a lot of money.
They decided to go for it. “We saw it as an investment, and would give us the chance to provide a space for people to enjoy coming to our business, sticking around to eat and drink, and have an opportunity to sit with a friend outside,” says Salatino.
So they began drawing up plans for a permanent structure, working with the same design team who designed the bakery's interior so it could match the already established aesthetic.
It took over a year, but it’s now a welcoming space, with concrete and plaster made to look like the bakery's logo, filled with benches, outdoor furniture, and ceramic tiles from Mexico.
While the process with the city didn’t go as smoothly as they had originally hoped, they were able to carry out their plans for the permanent parklet without major contingencies. Ultimately they are happy with the end result.
When asked if they've begun to see a return on their investment for the outdoor space they've created, Salatino says it's too soon to tell. "With our business, it's so unique it's hard to say for sure. I would say that given the investment, it's going to take a while for it to really get that return. I estimate that it's going to take closer to a year."
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