This Long Beach architectural firm is building out sidewalk spaces to prep restaurants for a post-COVID world

As Long Beach city and business leaders ramp up efforts to help restaurants utilize public areas for additional dining space, Long Beach architectural firm Studio One Eleven—the outfit behind such high profile projects as the City Place makeover and the Shoreline Gateway tower—has decided to test a model for what they’re calling “Reopening Main Street.”

To that end, Alan Pullman, Studio One Eleven principal, announced the firm will use the sidewalk and parklet space in front of The Pie Bar and Romeo Chocolates on Pine Avenue to examine how social distancing will affect food spaces.

“Sidewalks are critical for the food business,” Pullman said. “But this has to be measured with the social anxiety people are feeling about going out among other people. So, we figured we might as well be three steps ahead and test the waters of how our new social space for food businesses can work.”

The build-out, which will begin Friday, May 15, will include what may soon become typical: sanitizer stations for waiting customers who have been directed where to stand. Parking spots converted to dining spaces and a patio configured for distancing without sacrificing design—a balance many restaurants have given up on if the loud, red masking tape X’d on seats and tables are any indication.

“The pain of these businesses have been heard by our office loud and clear, every day,” Pullman said. “And in our eyes, we need to start implementing ideas now so when the formal mandate is lifted, we aren’t still trying to figure out what works best and what doesn’t.”

One way to help restaurants in the future? Go alfresco by opening roads and lots to diners

Taking these new steps seems necessary to face the harsh realities ahead for the local hospitality industry, particularly restaurants. Though deliveries have managed to work for some, most restauranteurs are anxious to once again welcome patrons to dine inside their spaces. That said, it appears likely the dine-in option will come with limitations with restaurants being allowed to operate at half-capacity, at best—some states have dropped capacity rates to 25%.

If one thinks that 50% occupancy simply means 50% of the profits, understand that even during the best of times, restaurants run on small to razor-thin margins. Running at half-capacity, in many cases, simply doesn’t add up—making the reimagining of public space even more critical.

“Outside of reimagining and utilizing the public space, this concept is important for the economic recovery of the culinary industry,” said Kraig Kojian of the Downtown Long Beach Alliance. “For too many years, the food and beverage establishments have struggled with additional regulations and an exploding cost of doing business, resulting in shrinking margins. The ability to use the public space would need to be cost-effective to offer greater relief and benefit the welfare of one of Long Beach’s major economic drivers.”

Pullman said The Pie Bar and Romeo Chocolates were chosen because they make good test cases given that they have the permanent infrastructure of parklets while also having enough space to experiment with what he calls flex zones, areas that provide temporary infrastructure similar to a parklet, “but in a lighter, quicker, more cost-effective manner.”

Pop-up dining areas within these flex zones expand the capacity of a restaurant, presenting diners with open-air seating pre-set for social distancing. Pullman said flex zones can be created by repurposing existing streetside parking spots, surrounded by impact-resistant planters.

The melding of two contradictory aims—a need for increased drive-up, curbside pick-up options mixed with more open streets catering to pedestrians—seems complex, but Pullman notes that complexity will be our new reality. Social anxiety paired with isolation depression will eventually meet; people will need to get out and socialize, even at a time when it may feel dangerous or irresponsible to do so.

“That’s why it is so important to have this model refined before we begin to reopen,” Pullman said.

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Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 19 nominations and two additional wins for Best Political Commentary for his work at KCET and Best Blog for Longbeachize, a section of the Long Beach Post. In 2019, he was awarded the Food/Culture Critic of the Year across any platform at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards. Brian currently serves as a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post.