When COVID was driving many people to stay indoors, restaurants headed in the other direction. While many aspects of our lives have gone back to the way they were pre-pandemic, outdoor dining appears to be here to stay.
At the helm of this push to maintain — and in some cases increase — parklets at local eateries is Jay Spencer, owner of the popular French Press Bakery & Cafe.
In April, Spencer received unanimous Select Board approval to offer year-round outdoor seating. The plan will add 22 outdoor seats and six additional tables within a roofed, heated structure, expanding and improving the temporary seasonal outdoor seating at 74 Chapel St.
The business recently surpassed its $20,000 fundraising goal for the parklet, qualifying it for 2-to-1 matching funds through the Biz-M-Power grant program that supports small businesses in the Commonwealth. As part of the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corp., the program requires small businesses to seek community buy-in in order to qualify for grant funding.
The Select Board’s green light for the project is one of a series of approvals required for the expansion project. Spencer presented several plans to Needham officials before gaining approval for its latest iteration. He said that while Needham officials have strongly supported temporary outdoor seating for restaurants during the pandemic, the language of the zoning bylaws presents challenges for making such seating permanent.
“[The codes] have been outdated and kind of follow a different nomenclature,” Spencer said. “People really didn’t understand what we were wanting to do. You have got to put some renderings together, you have to show them what it looks like.”
Amy Haelsen, Needham’s economic development manager, said several town officials met with Spencer to provide guidance on the zoning provisions and to shepherd him through the permitting process. Both town officials and local restaurant owners have learned from the pandemic that outdoor seating can be an important tool in creating a sense of vibrancy downtown, she said.
“Seeing more people outside, enjoying a meal al fresco, creates a sense of place where people want to be because there are other people around,” said Haelsen. “Aesthetically appealing outdoor dining space helps attract more people to an area and benefits the neighboring businesses, as well, with increased foot traffic.”
Needham residents also seem to strongly support keeping outdoor dining options. At a 2021 Town Meeting, 194 out of 233 members voted to support permanent outdoor dining. In the past two years, several local restaurants have received approval for permanent outdoor seating, and Haelsen anticipates more plans will be approved in the coming months.
Greg Reibman, president of the Charles River Regional Chamber, said Needham was one of the most proactive communities in the region when it came to allowing outdoor seating during the pandemic. However, he believes businesses such as French Press may still experience significant delays in navigating red tape in the current approval process.
“The Select Board has been very supportive in helping businesses,” said Reibman. ”But there still has been a lot of bureaucracy for businesses.”
The Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission still must approve the French Press project, but Spencer is hopeful that construction of the outdoor seating space will begin sometime next month.
Needham resident Craig Idlebrook is an editor, reporter and essayist.