When Ryan German, owner of Caffe Gelato in Newark, was considering the “grand opening” of the city after more than a year of terrifying construction on Main Street, he had no intention of landscaping and adding more outdoor seating.
But these days, more people want to eat outside than inside. That’s why German and other restaurant owners on the main street of the university town are following their direction, trying to win back customers who were lost during construction and the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the top of the effort is a special Thursday event when Main Street closes and restaurants expand their seating across the sidewalk to the street to celebrate the completion of the construction project.
“I think people want out,” said German. “It was important to us to have the opportunity for people to dine outside. With the extra space the city supports, we have a lot of really good options for people to dine in Newark.”
From April 2019, the construction workers completely renovated the two-lane, kilometer-long road and fixed structural problems under the road surface. Two parklets – fenced areas with quilts – and several bumps were installed to improve safety on zebra crossings.
The construction has resulted in road closures and barricaded parts of the sidewalk for extended periods of time in the past 15 months. Whether it was more difficult to navigate downtown and find parking space or whether it was just the perception, Newark restaurants saw a decline in business.
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BACKGROUND: How Newark’s Main Street transformed from classic American downtown to the university town’s food court
Then came the pandemic that drove the University of Delaware students and limited eateries out for takeout and delivery for much of March, April, and May.
“I think we were all ready for a really strong spring 2020,” said German. “We all thought this road project was going to be completed at the same time that all of these busy events were happening. I think we were all very excited about it.
“Then we all knew we had to change gear a bit.”
As one of several steps in the gradual reopening in Delaware, restaurants were allowed to request expanded outdoor seating beginning in late May. Although the coronavirus and its spread are still under investigation, most scientists agree that it is safer to collect outside than inside.
Deutsch is taking advantage of the state’s decision by adding more tables in the new parklet near Caffe Gelato and on the sidewalk near the restaurant. Many other restaurants, including Klondike Kate’s, Taverna, and Pachamama Rotisserie Chicken, have also expanded the outdoor seating.
“It’ll make it more attractive to people who walk by,” said Javier Acuna, owner of the Santa Fe Mexican Grill and Pachamama Rotisserie Chicken, when speaking about alfresco dining last month. “That creates visibility and visibility for companies. It will be crucial.”
The event takes place on Thursday from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Free parking is available in Newark Municipal Car parks 1, 4, 6, and 7. the UD Trabant Garage; and the lots behind Bing’s Bakery, Taverna, Pomeroy Station, and Burger King. Main Street is closed to traffic from Chapel Street to South College Avenue.
Cities across the country have started closing downtown streets – often for special occasions, but in some cases permanently – to encourage physical distancing and help businesses affected by the pandemic.
Newark made a change to the city code earlier this month to allow restaurants to simplify the “pedestrian” concept. The change allows the city administrator to approve more outdoor seating and noise protection for outside music and leave the option open for other events such as the one on Thursday.
A state bill passed last week would extend changes made to the restaurant industry by Governor John Carney, including expanded outdoor seating and take-away liquor, through March 31. Otherwise, the emergency order must remain in effect every 30 days for the provisions.
“We need everything we can get in Newark now,” said Gianmarco Martuscelli, who owns Klondike Kate’s, as well as the Chesapeake Inn and La Casa Pasta. “We expect things to get better in September after a few more months, but we really don’t know.”
In the meantime, the restaurant owners try to accommodate the guests even though they are comfortable. For Sasha Aber, the owner of the HomeGrown Cafe, it means keeping her take-out service available while following phase two of state protocols in the restaurant.
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For months there was construction on the front of HomeGrown. Now the parking spaces in front of the house are deliberately left free for the flow of customers to take away.
“It looks so good not to look for orange-and-white cones,” said But.
Contact Brandon Holveck at [email protected] Follow @holveck_brandon on Twitter.