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Updated: June 21, 2021

Worcester looking to roll out permanent outdoor dining program this spring

photo/GRANT WELKER Volturno Pizza Napoletana on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester took advantage of the new outdoor dining options early in the pandemic.

Worcester’s restaurant scene may soon be able to take permanent advantage of the expanded capacity and increased amenity offered by outdoor dining, as the pandemic-induced provision will continue beyond the lifting of the Massachusetts’ state of emergency on June 15.

The Worcester License Commission voted on April 1 to extend the outdoor dining permits until at least the end of this year, after more than 100 restaurants took advantage in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, the City of Worcester is developing a permanent plan to put a similar program in place, with the hopes of rolling it out next spring, said Steve Rolle, assistant chief development officer. Some restaurants were hesitant to invest heavily in bigger renovations due to the temporary nature of the program.

“We’ll see restaurants willing to make some additional investments when they know they’ll have the ability to do it season after season,” Rolle said. 

The Parkway Diner on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester created its own outdoor seating area in the first few months after restaurants were allowed to reopen in June 2020.

When restaurants began reopening under strict social distancing guidelines in June 2020, the City of Worcester established the Temporary Outdoor Dining Program to streamline the application and acceptance process for licensing to create dining spaces on sidewalks, parking lots, and green spaces.

“This is a new era of dining in Worcester,” said Oriola Koci, owner of Altea’s Eatery on Park Avenue. “This is a wake-up call for my industry to utilize the space outside.”

While the temporary outdoor dining provision was largely put in place to give restaurants a safe and socially distanced place to serve customers, with capacity restrictions lifted in May, a result of the added outdoor option is restaurants now have more seats for guests and can offer an amenity patrons seek in nicer weather.

Creating a walkable city

Looking toward the future of the program, Rolle hopes the City will get creative in reimagining outdoor dining. In October, Worcester ran a pilot program in the Canal District for a Streatery, which would extend outdoor dining into on-street parking spaces, as has been popularized in other cities like Boston.

Rolle said the permanent program would not be identical to the temporary one, with greater limits on the amount of space outdoor dining could occupy, and safeguards against noise and parking nuisances.

The Mass. legislature in June considered changes to laws for outdoor dining, although the state of emergency was lifted before a consensus was reached.

Koci took advantage of the temporary worcester program last summer to install six new tables on the sidewalk outside her Altea’s. She said even as the restaurant reopens its full indoor capacity, diners are still eager to sit outside.

“There’s definitely a lot more foot traffic,” said Koci, referring to the corner of Route 9 and Park Avenue with El Basha Bar & Grille, Sake Bomb Bistro, and Sparkle florist. “It’s brought in a lot more visibility to that section.”

Enhanced street walkability is a huge factor in building Worcester’s tourism market, said Monique Messier, executive director of tourism agency Discover Central Massachusetts.

“Walkability is the way of how this city is going, and outdoor dining is a staple of that,” Messier said.

The outdoor dining program eased restrictions on size, making it a more accessible option. While normal conditions restrict outdoor dining in public spaces to 12 seats, the new provision approved up to 50 seats or larger.

“The City is proving how resilient it is by seeing the need to support outdoor dining and by making it a reality for the local restaurants,” said Messier.

Going back inside

While Messier and Koci see a continuing desire for outdoor dining, Worcester Restaurant Group President Caitlyn Carolan said demand for outdoor dining at her three restaurants has steadily decreased since the vaccine rolled out. 

Monique Messier, executive director at Discover Central Mass.

“We’re very sensitive to the public,” Carolan said. “At this point, the public seems to be overwhelmingly excited to be returning back to normal.”

Carolan installed tents at both the Sole Proprietor and One Eleven Chop House when indoor capacity was limited to 50%. She removed the Chop House tent on June 8, and anticipated taking down the Sole Proprietor’s the next week.

While she emphasized the importance of the program during the pandemic, she said creating outdoor dining can involve some investing and adaptability. The Sole Proprietor’s tents took up 10 parking spots and required electrical rewiring to run point-of-sale systems outside.

“When you build a restaurant specifically to have an outdoor space, you consider the functionality of how you’re going to move around a restaurant,” said Carolan, whose third restaurant, VIA Italian Table, has had an outdoor patio since 2007. “It is really challenging to manage an outdoor space. Even at VIA, we’ve been open 14 years, and each season we’re constantly altering our best practices for operating our outdoor spaces.”

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