It’s tough to imagine outdoor dining in the dead of winter after the coldest start to a Chicago April in 137 years. But it’ll soon be a bureaucratic possibility, if not a meteorological one.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to let Chicago’s 700 sidewalk cafes stay open year-round if Mother Nature cooperates, instead of just nine months out of the year.
The year-round sidewalk café license is just one of a host of mayoral reforms to be unveiled Friday aimed at improving a small business climate that has already benefited from the consolidation of business licenses.
“The point … is not try to throw a lot of patios out in January. It’s to give businesses flexibility in terms of what we’re hearing from them,” said Chris Wheat, the mayor’s chief of policy.
Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia has been lobbying for a year-round sidewalk café license since February 2017, when temperatures soared into the 80s.
Restaurants like Gibsons on Rush were ready to open their sidewalk cafes, only to be told they would be ticketed if they opened before March 1.
“Chicago’s weather can be very unpredictable. But if we get warm days like we did in February of ’17, we would like restaurants to be able to take advantage of this,” Toia said.
“Millenials grew up with the Food Network and the Travel Channel. It’s all about an experience,” he said. “If you’re going after that millennial crowd, those restaurateurs might look at this because this is an experience. You might have more places in River North looking at it than the Gold Coast. Maybe in Logan Square or in Avondale.”
City Hall will also allow “enclosures” similar to the heated tents put up for evening weddings.
“You’re gonna have to get permits. You’re gonna have to do everything right. Restaurants will have to decide whether it’s cost-effective to do that or not,” Toia said.
Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) said he’s never heard a single complaint about the nine-month outdoor cafe season being “too short.”
Reilly said he’s not opposed to extending the al fresco season. But he has concerns.
“During those three additional winter months when a cafe could be used, the outdoor furniture could end up just sitting unused, cluttering up storefronts & complicating sidewalk snow removal,” Reilly wrote in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times.
City Hall is also opening the door to what it calls “pop-up permitting.” That will allow aspiring chefs and new retailers to test their concepts in vacant restaurants and storefronts.
Toia calls it “really good for the industry.”
“Young chefs are coming to Chicago because it’s still more cost-effective than to go to San Francisco, New York or even New Orleans. They want to see will their cuisine take off here,” Toia said.
“Say I’m a young chef who doesn’t really have the capital. If I do a pop-up, then I might get investors because they’ll say, `Wow, this is gonna work.’ ”
The mayor’s plan calls for a new, “start-up license fee” of $125 — half the cost of a two-year, limited business license — to make it easier to start a brand new business.
“The most difficult time for small business is getting off the ground. We see this as a measure the city can take to reduce the cost and burden on these new and upstart entrepreneurs while they’re getting their feet under themselves,” Wheat said.
Yet another idea is to start the bureaucratic equivalent of a 24-second clock.
But instead of counting down like the basketball version, the city’s “business issuance clock” will count up — from the time an applicant pays a licensing fee until the time the license is issued.
In response to an outcry from aldermen, Emanuel also wants to institute night and weekend license inspection hours that coincide with when restaurants and nightclubs are open.
The plan also calls for creating “standard checklists” so business owners know what to expect; eliminating what the City Hall calls “antiquated regulation” and using technology to immediately deliver license inspection results.
“We still have an obligation to protect the health and safety of all Chicago residents. But at the same time, we want to make sure we’re not becoming a hindrance and putting up artificial barriers” to business, Wheat said.