Patio dining is always popular in Chicago during the spring and summer, regardless of how many people lawmakers allow inside dining rooms. However, last year street dining became critical for survival. Street dining is poised to return in mid-May and Chicago restaurants will have two new grant programs available — one from the city and another from Choose Chicago (the city’s tourism arm) to aid in paying for outdoor dining spaces.
A new Choose Chicago grant program targets south and west side restaurants with the hopes of giving owners money for the design and construction of outdoor dining areas using public spaces. The grants, “up to $250,000 per applicant,” can be used for plastic safety barriers, decorative elements, and more. The program’s called Chicago Alfresco. Chambers, special service area groups (SSAs), and others will be eligible for these grants which benefit restaurants. Choose Chicago is asking those groups and local not-for-profit groups to email them with interest. Though the grants help restaurants, restaurant operators aren’t eligible for the grants.
Money is central to many restaurant owners complaints when it comes to adjusting to pandemic rules. For example, the owners at Chilam Balam in Lakeview quickly moved their dining room’s tables and chairs outside so it could take advantage of the city’s shared street program that closed roads to automobile traffic so restaurants could serve customers. Chilam Balam’s owner Soraya Rendon says she didn’t have the money to buy patio furniture and had to make do, even if that meant sacrificing her indoor table and chairs to Chicago’s unpredictable weather.
There is good news for Rendon as the city is preparing a second grant program — using federal funds that haven’t yet been allocated — so restaurants could purchase of patio furniture and PPE. Block Club Chicago reports that the City Council is considering a program (separate from the Choose Chicago program) that would offer $5,000 to 400 restaurants. Application details aren’t yet available.
The aid from the city is past due, says Rendon. After facing the challenges of serving customers safely during the pandemic, Rendon was hoping 2021 would be easier. She contacted the city in January to secure her patio permit thinking the process would be smooth, with licenses automatically carrying over from the previous year. The city told her that she needed to reapply and start over.
“It’s frustrating because everybody else got their renewal right way,” Rendon says.
Rendon and her fellow restauranteurs along Broadway in Lakeview made up the city’s pilot street dining program. The program would expand to neighborhoods including Gold Coast, River North, and West Loop, as the city called the “Dining Out” program a lifeline as restaurant struggled for survival.
Though the city hoped to bring the program to the South and West sides, neighborhoods like Little Village, Pilsen, and Chatham opted out. Some residents in those areas worried that closing street traffic to cars would hurt retail business. For 2021, the city is banking that with a year under its built, it can bring the street dining program to more neighborhoods. Block Club reports the city is looking to close streets in eight to 12 areas.
For Lakeview’s part, Dine Out On Broadway is returning on May 14. The city and chamber of commerce will close down streets two weekends on a month through September. Details are still being worked out.