For some Menlo Park restaurants that lacked outdoor eating areas when the pandemic struck, help may be on the way.
The Menlo Park City Council on Tuesday night voted unanimously to create a new grant program to help restaurants install outdoor eating areas. The program set aside $100,000, to give a maximum of $10,000 to up to 10 restaurants throughout the city. Restaurants do not need to have a full kitchen to be eligible, and will be favored if they have not received any aid previously.
For restaurants like The Refuge, which is located off of Santa Cruz Avenue and doesn't have a permanent outdoor eating area, having outdoor dining is a critical piece of being able to compete with other businesses, owners Matt Levin and Melanie Roth explained to the City Council.
"If we were able to build a permanent street parklet, our business would be able to properly compete with Santa Cruz Avenue businesses that already received assistance for permanent parklets," Roth said.
Several years ago, the city worked with several businesses to help them set up outdoor dining "parklets" in street parking areas along Santa Cruz Avenue, based on a matching system where both the city and the restaurant invested in the construction.
SAMCEDA, the San Mateo County Economic Development Association, will be administering the new program, along with the San Mateo Credit Union Community Fund.
Don Cecil, representing SAMCEDA, commended the council for considering the program and emphasized the urgency of helping struggling restaurants.
"I would say that the clock is ticking," he said. "Restaurants are hanging on by their fingernails. You have mostly family-owned, immigrant-owned, minority-owned and women-owned businesses, run by families, who put everything on the line to survive the pandemic."
He added that it will likely be well into, if not near the end of 2021 when customers are likely to feel comfortable sitting inside restaurants again.
Council members discussed several options leading up to the vote, including whether to mandate that restaurants in each of the city's five districts receive an equal amount of funding, and whether to set a maximum of $20,000 per business instead. They decided against strict district-level requirements because the city's restaurants are not evenly divided among the city's five districts and there may be more businesses in need downtown than in another neighborhood, for instance.
Councilwoman Betsy Nash expressed concern that the program funds would be quickly depleted and more businesses would seek support, leading to additional grant cycles funded by the city. "To start anticipating now that we can come back...I'm not comfortable with that," she said.
Councilwoman Catherine Carlton pushed back, arguing that programs like supporting downtown restaurants are part of why the city saves money to use in economic downturns. "This is signaling support for businesses, people, and quality of life to keep great restaurants and cafes available in Menlo Park," she said.
The council's decision to reduce the maximum of $20,000 to $10,000 per business was mixed and may be renegotiated.
Vice Mayor Drew Combs favored the same model for the current program and reducing the amount to $10,000. He added that he wanted the program to benefit more businesses, too.
"From my perspective, it should be an effort to partner with businesses, not a grant," he said.
Carlton and Councilman Ray Mueller expressed concerns that $10,000 wouldn't be enough to cover the costs, and could deter applicants from seeking the grants.
The council asked for an update in about a month to see how the program was going, and expressed openness to reconsidering a maximum amount of $20,000 if restaurants didn't apply for support at the $10,000 amount.
To be eligible, restaurants should be independent with no more than five locations in San Mateo County, in compliance with local regulations and operating before the pandemic began.
"By providing (restaurants) support to maintain themselves, it keeps our economic ecosystem afloat in this city," Mueller said.