Montclair welcomes state’s extension of outdoor dining permissions
Montclair eating and drinking establishments will be able to offer outdoor service for at least two more years under state legislation signed by the governor this month.
On Aug. 3, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill (S-2364) to extend expanded permissions for restaurants, bars, distilleries and breweries to use fixtures and equipment enabling them to serve customers outdoors in private areas, on sidewalks and in other municipally designated outdoor areas. Initially, the permissions – established because of the COVID-19 pandemic – were set to expire this year on Nov. 30. The new expiration date is Nov. 30, 2024.
The legislation also includes an additional $50 million in the 2023 fiscal year budget for the Main Street Recovery Fund, which has assisted many restaurants and other small businesses.
The measure authorizes continued use of such fixtures as tents, canopies, umbrellas, tables and chairs to facilitate the serving of customers outdoors. Outdoor eating and drinking became a response to the pandemic in February 2021 when the governor signed the initial legislation aimed at allowing food and drink establishments to operate safely even as COVID-19 was taking a toll on the country.
“Supporting the success of our small businesses ultimately means supporting the success of our communities,” Murphy said. “Continuing this successful practice will not only benefit small business owners, but also the many patrons who have come to enjoy the atmosphere and opportunities outdoor dining offers.”
In Montclair, home to a number of beloved restaurants and self-proclaimed “foodies,” the extended permissions are being welcomed.
“I think this is an extremely positive move and sign for our business districts, all over the state, and definitely here in Montclair,” said Jason Gleason, executive director of the Montclair Center Business Improvement District (BID). “We're known for our world-class dining here, so this is a really positive thing for us.”
Montclair has a long history of capitalizing on the outdoor dining experience, Gleason said. Many businesses in the area have extended their premises and serving abilities by using their storefront sidewalks, he said.
After the long period of closures local businesses experienced during the height of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, Gleason said, Montclair Township waived some fees. This, in turn, helped local shops expand outward.
According to Sharon Egan, owner of Egan & Sons and former owner of Halcyon, outdoor dining has positively impacted business. Both businesses, which are located right next door to each other on Walnut Street, now share a parking lot with plenty of outdoor seating.
During the pandemic, Egan said, customers weren’t allowed indoors for a number of months. Both restaurants had to make their outdoor spacing the primary center for business. Even with indoor eating available now, the outdoor option remains popular.
“The customers love it,” Egan said. “We've given up nearly all our parking for it. And at first we thought it's gonna be a problem, but no one seems to care. It's amazing.”
On Aug. 10, while working as a hostess, Egan said 90 percent of her customers were choosing to sit outside. Even last winter, Egan said families would come in their winter coats and eat outdoors by their heaters.
“One time these ladies were outside – it was mostly during the shutdown– and their water glasses froze it was so cold out, and they didn't care, no matter what,” Egan said. "They were homeschooling all day and they had to get out of the house.”
Although Egan & Sons have offered outdoor seating for more than 10 years, Egan believes the desire to eat outdoors brought on by pandemic and new expansion will continue to impact many eateries in Montclair for the foreseeable future.
“We're doing more business now than we ever did,” Egan said. “I think it’s great for everybody.”
When Murphy signed the initial legislation to expand outdoor dining in February 2021, Montclair saw an increase in outdoor seating options. This expansion opens doors for other businesses to take advantage of their outdoor spaces, Gleason added.
“I'm happy to say that most restaurants that I know of, in the business improvement districts, do participate in outdoor seating – that was not the case prior to the pandemic,” Gleason said. “We have seen a lot of positive impacts in that sector, and I think that as businesses, restaurants specifically, come into town, and they see that their neighbors participate in this program, and they get to understand the lay of the land, that people who come to this town to eat dinner and eat lunch, and they love to sit outside, they're going to want to do it, too.”
In February 2021, OpenTable and the James Beard Foundation partnered in asking more than 21,000 diners across the U.S. and Canada about their thoughts on the current state of dining. The study found that outdoor dining is becoming increasingly popular, with 82 percent of diners wanting restaurants to continue to increase outdoor seating.
“The public has this overwhelming desire, during COVID, and then past COVID, to sort of reclaim public spaces for themselves,” Gleason said. “I think there's a great common ground that can make the business happy, the municipality happy and certainly the general public who desires this space to dine and enjoy the restaurant in the public space. There's certain avenues to make everybody happy.”
As the news of the expanded permissions circulates to local businesses, Councilman Peter Yacobellis said Montclair should follow the state’s lead.
“In a town like Montclair, which I consider, and I think many people consider, the dining capital of North Jersey, we need to make sure we keep our restaurant industry alive and doing well,” Yacobellis said. “We have to do everything that we can to support them, and that means following in the state's footsteps.”