Outdoor Dining Just Got Easier: New City of Phoenix Program Fast-Tracks Temporary Restaurant Patios

by Fara Illich
Business Development Featured Food, Restaurants & Dining Fara Illich November 10, 2020

Zen Thai Cafe chef and owner Rachel McAuley (right) was already in the midst of a time-consuming patio permit process when the temporary fast-tracked patio program was rolled out. She was one of the first to apply under the new rules, which eliminates the formal hearing process and associated fees. (Photo: Lauren Potter)

Recounting the losses sustained over the past 10 months, Rachel McAuley’s voice becomes clipped. Tears fill her eyes. The pandemic has taken a toll on small businesses, and for many, it’s personal.

“It’s so emotional for me.” said McAuley, owner and chef at Zen Thai Cafe in Downtown Phoenix. “It has been very tough. We’ll take any help we can get.”

As the first business to apply for a temporary outdoor patio through a new program recently rolled out by the City of Phoenix, McAuley said she hopes to create more visibility for her restaurant, better serve guests looking for open-air dining, all while simultaneously meeting social distancing requirements.

Zen Thai, like so many other small businesses, is operating at a reduced capacity due to coronavirus-related restrictions — during a time when income is already constricted.

Through the program, the City is issuing an “Emergency Declaration Outdoor Dining Administrative Temporary Use Permit” (ATUP) at no fee. In addition to saving businesses approximately $3,500 in plans and permitting fees, the program also saves something potentially more valuable: time.

Instead of going through a use-permit hearing, which is a public hearing process and takes four months or longer, the new temporary permit goes through City staff, and can take as little as three weeks.

“The program is an important tool for recovery and reopening efforts,” said Devney Preuss, president and CEO of Downtown Phoenix Inc. “With temperatures dropping, finally, there’s no better place this time of year for outdoor dining than Phoenix.”

Zen Thai Cafe can now serve food and drinks on the sidewalk along Central Avenue in front the restaurant through a temporary patio permit issued by the City of Phoenix. (Photo: Fara Illich)

So far, 12 Phoenix bars and restaurants have applied for a temporary outdoor patio, according to the City’s planning and development department, and the permit can be used to expand an existing outdoor area or create a new one.

Across the country, cities and states are temporarily loosening regulations, and allowing businesses to expand into streets and parking spots to allow for social distancing.

Phoenix Councilwoman Debra Stark was an early supporter of the program, and saw this as a way to aid struggling restaurants, while simultaneously keeping customers happy.

“For example, I personally don’t want to dine indoors even though I know they’ve put a lot of safety precautions in place,” she said. “There are a lot of people who feel the way I do — especially people that have some kind of compromised immune system, or are over 65. It gives you another level of comfort to be able to dine outside.”

There are two different options for an outdoor patio, depending on whether businesses wish to serve alcohol outside or not. The Arizona Department of Liquor requires an enclosure or fence where alcohol is served.

For downtown businesses looking to apply, there is a detailed guide available, with easy step-by-step instructions, depending on needs.

According to Rachel McAuley, the patio program, in addition to other creative solutions, are needed for long-term relief.

“We need help to keep our businesses running,” she said. “We don’t have good credit, because our business went down the drain for more than 10 months. We need help financially.”