Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to let Chicago’s 1,200 sidewalk cafés stay open year-round even in the dead of winter sailed through a City Council committee Tuesday, but only after aldermen got assurances that it won’t interfere with snow removal.
Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Commissioner Rosa Escareno responded to concerns raised by aldermen during closed-door briefings by promising to establish a “snow threshold at which point all café furniture — tables, chairs and railings or barriers — must be removed.”
Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), owner of Ann Sather’s Restaurants, said he can “see both sides” of the issue as an alderman and a longtime sidewalk café operator himself.
On the one hand, Tunney noted that a St. Patrick’s Day that landed on a Saturday a few years ago when temperatures soared into the 80’s allowed restaurants to rake in more money in one day than January, February and March combined.
Year-round sidewalk cafés would only have padded those totals, he said.
“That shows how viable it can be and how desperate it is” in the restaurant business during cold winter months, Tunney said.
But Tunney also acknowledged that there would be growing pains to allowing Chicagoans to dine al fresco year-round when the weather can change on a dime and outdoor street furniture needs to be moved out of the way quickly.
“Even on a summer day we get complaints about the six-foot rule, strollers and the people with disabilities if they can’t get around and the zig-zag approach on some of our retail streets. Some [sidewalk cafes] are curb-side. Some are building-side. I can imagine snow being an increased impediment,” Tunney said.
“The way the snow trucks come down the street, if my café is curb-side, I could see some significant damage done there. We’ve got more work to do in terms of the implementation . . . You gotta get these out of the way. It’ll be interesting to see the enforcement.”
Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia and several of his members were all for the idea of year-round licenses for sidewalk cafes currently prohibited from operating during December, January and February.
Toia called it a “pragmatic reform” that would benefit more than 1,000 businesses with sidewalk cafés “by giving them an opportunity to take full advantage of Chicago’s warm weather, no matter what time of year.”
Jessica Wobbekind, executive director of the Logan Square Chamber of Commerce, said year-round sidewalk cafés could have aesthetic side benefits.
“Sidewalk cafes installed year-round will help to keep the streetscape vibrant and activated. There is an opportunity for seasonal plantings and decorations, keeping our sidewalks bright and visually-inspired throughout our often dull winter season,” she said.
“In addition, it will keep more eyes on the street and push the businesses to continue to maintain the areas outside of their businesses instead of neglecting them throughout the winter, as we often see.”
The License Committee also approved Emanuel’s plan to impose 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,” Chris Wheat, the mayor’s chief of policy, has said.